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The music man
Roger Brown riffs on international connections, higher education, and his vision as Berkleeís next president
BY TAMARA WIEDER

ROGER BROWN ISNíT exaggerating when he says his career path has been "nonlinear." The man whoís been at the helm of Berklee College of Music since June, and whoíll be officially sworn in on December 3 as the third president in the schoolís 60-year history, started his professional life as a math teacher in Kenya after graduating from Davidson College. A graduate-school stint at Yale was interrupted by several years of work with refugees in Cambodia and Thailand. Then it was back stateside to finish his Yale degree; a job at Bain & Company, in Boston, followed. Unsatisfied with corporate life, Brown left for Sudan, where he and his wife ran a famine-relief program for Save the Children. After two years, the couple returned to the United States, where they launched Bright Horizons, a multi-million-dollar company providing on-site day care to major corporations. He would stay with the company for 18 years.

But those who think Roger Brownís move to Berklee represents an anomalous leap into the music world need only listen to him talk about his lifelong interest in and love for music to understand why heís so happy to be right where he is.

Q: What have your first five months at Berklee been like?

A: Theyíve been fantastic. Theyíve been intense. I hate to say "drinking from a fire hose," but thatís probably the best description I can think of. Iíve basically done everything I can think of to understand this amazing place, because Berklee is not your fatherís Oldsmobile. Probably the most fascinating thing Iíve done is, I spent the first week of class as a student. Pretending to be a student. I didnít fool anyone. But I went and registered for all my classes, and went through all the tests and auditions and just hung out with students and tried to get a feeling from their perspective what itís like. So that was a real grassroots effort to get to know the college, and to get to know it through the eyes of students, because ultimately thatís what matters. All the rest of us are here to give students the best possible experience. I did keep a journal of that experience, which we posted on the Web.

Q: What do you say to people who might question why somebody with a business background has been put into the role of music-college president?

A: I think of myself as an educator who used business as the vehicle, not a businessperson who used education as a vehicle. I didnít go to Kenya to build a business, and I didnít go to Cambodia or Sudan to build a business. I think Iíve always been someone who wanted to have some impact in the world, and to me, whether youíre doing it as a nonprofit or a college, or starting an organization or joining one, thatís just the vehicle. I see myself as someone whoís had a lot of experience as an educator and a builder of human-services organizations. And I think thatís really what a college is.

Q: Tell me about the role music has played in your life.

A: Itís funny you ask that, because I remember thinking, about two years ago, that my interest in music was just totally irrational and inexplicable. I spend so much time and energy and money, frankly, buying music and listening to music; I just know more than any layperson ought to know about music. And I said something to my daughter about it; I said, "I just donít understand myself, but I just am intrigued and fascinated by music and music-making." So when this thing came about, I thought, well, that explains it. Maybe in some kind of karmic way Iíve been preparing myself for this role. Or maybe a more pragmatic way to look at it is that itís a very strong, passionate interest of mine, and Iíve found a way to integrate it more directly into my life.

Q: Do you come from a musical family?

A: I do. My great-grandfather was a mountain fiddler in the North Carolina mountains. His daughter, my grandmother, was a fantastic pianist, and from [my] youngest age she would accompany me on piano and I would sing, and then I started playing drums and I would play with her, and that was the way we related, by playing music together and playing Scrabble together. My mother was a trombonist in the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra briefly. She claims she wasnít much of a trombonist, and the Atlanta Symphony probably wasnít much of a symphony at the time, but itís just like my mother to have been the trombone player: not a role many young women in the í40s and í50s were likely to play. So Iíve had music in my life. No one ever was a professional; weíve all been dedicated amateurs.

Q: And youíve played in some bands, right?

A: Oh, yeah. Iíve been in bands straight through, from my first band that I started in the fifth grade. I did a little bit of professional jingle work in New York City back in the í80s.

Q: Any jingles weíd recognize?

A: A Toshiba jingle. The "New Jersey and You" ad campaign: New Jerseyís response to the "I Love New York" campaign ó which was a tough sell. What else? Some steak house, some furniture store. The most famous one was the Toshiba one; that was my hit.

Iíve been in Dixieland bands and rock-and-roll bands and a jazz-fusion band; that was sort of when I was doing this most actively, in the late í70s and early í80s. I was in a fusion band that released a couple of records, and we got some airplay in college radio stations.

Q: Are you still in a band now?

A: Oh, yeah. Weíre called Talk Is Cheap. We do R&B and rock and roll and a little bit of jazz. Sort of a party band. Weíre all people with day jobs other than music. We love what we do, and we like each other, and our families are best friends.

Q: Have you played at Berklee?

A: Iíve played only once so far. It was good. Iím hoping that by the time people finally hear me, their response will be, "Heís not as bad as we thought." I feel like if I can set expectations low enough, when they finally hear me, they wonít cringe too much. Iíve gone from being one of the best musicians in every organization Iíve been a part of, to being one of the least talented. But thereís something about music that I think needs to be decoupled from this radical achievement complex we have. Part of what I think is wonderful about the way my grandfather and grandmother used music is they didnít do it to have hit records or to impress anyone; they did it because they enjoyed it and loved it, and I think part of what Berklee needs to be about is not only honoring the students here who are really going to be the next Quincy Jones or the next John Mayer ó you know, we have all these famous alums. Not all of us are going to be that, but we can be the music teachers, we can be the music therapists, we can run the record companies that are going to rebuild the music industry, which is crumbling right before us. Iím hoping that maybe what I will symbolize to students is how even if you donít end up making music your direct profession, you can always have a love for it, and it can play a role in your life.

 

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Issue Date: November 26 - December 2, 2004
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