Shelly Berg walks so fast that most people have to trot to keep up. On a recent Thursday morning, the dean of the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami speeds across the palm-dotted Coral Gables campus and into a classroom filled with more than 50 classical-music students, their horns and violins gleaming against baggy shorts and T-shirts.
Berg has four of them play a short tune, and then he is off on a dizzying sequence of simultaneous improvisation and analysis, singing, gesturing, questioning and challenging the slightly dazed-looking students.
“This changes everything, doesn’t it?,” Berg says, seated at a grand piano and fluidly segueing between variations on the tune. “It’s not really endless, but it feels like it. Who knows what I did? OK, now we’re in D, not G – we’re not in Kansas anymore!”
Indeed. Berg, 58, is taking this class and the music school on a fantastic journey with implications far beyond the campus: to transform the way music is taught, and, eventually, the way it is played and understood.
Since the charismatic and driven dean took charge of UM’s music school in 2007, he has instituted a dizzying series of changes and programs that have put Frost at the forefront of music education. His achievements and priorities will be showcased at the 30th annual Festival Miami, which opens Tuesday with a concert of jazz standards by Gloria Estefan, whose latest album Berg arranged and co-produced.
Famed jazz trumpeter Terrence Blanchard is one of the most illustrious of the many teachers Berg has brought to the school, and serves as artistic director of the Henry Mancini Institute, a graduate program that is one of Berg’s most significant efforts.
The Frost program is “very different from what everyone else is doing,” Blanchard says. “It’s radical in that no one else is doing it, but it’s logical in terms of where music is going.”
For Berg, where music education is — or should — be going is in a more creative, versatile and inclusive direction, more focused on understanding and less on the perfect rendition of centuries-old repertoire. It should produce graduates, he says, who are better versed in how to make a career in a world where traditional jobs with orchestras and opera companies are disappearing as fast as opportunities in new media and crossover genres are springing up.
“We wanted all musicians to be able to hear and understand the music they were playing,” Berg says. “We wanted musicians to have creative skills — composing, arranging, improvising. We wanted them to feel that they were creators of music. We wanted musicians to understand the business of being a musician … the technology of music.”
Variety of work
An accomplished pianist, Berg has played with major jazz artists, composed and arranged for film and television and released eight of his own albums. (He was at the White House on Sept. 16, rehearsing with Estefan, Alejandro Sanz and other Latin stars, when their Hispanic Heritage concert was abruptly canceled by the Navy Yard shooting. “So we’re sitting there in the East Room, kind of down, and suddenly we hear this voice saying, ‘Guys, I’m really sorry about what happened,’ and it was the president!”)