UM’s Shelly Berg leads music education in groundbreaking direction


If you go

The University of Miami’s 30th annual Festival Miami runs from Tuesday through Nov. 1, with 25 classical, jazz, blues, Latin and cross-genre concerts. For schedule and ticket information, visit or call 305-284-4940.

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!”)

The course change Berg instituted has its detractors (“I would hope that he would give greater emphasis to the classical program,” says Julian Kreeger, president of the Friends of Chamber Music of Miami). But support seems strong within the teaching staff, 40 percent of whom he has hired.

“Anyone who changes the status quo is always going to step on some toes,” says jazz saxophonist Gary Keller, a UM professor for 32 years. “Shelly is a mover and a shaker. He has big ideas. And what I hear at other schools is that there’s a lot of buzz and excitement about what we’re doing.”

Berg’s most fundamental effort is an experiential-music curriculum for undergraduates that emphasizes listening skills, creativity and improvisation.

“Beethoven made his reputation as an improviser,” he says. “Young pianists in Vienna would get together in a salon and try to cut each other like jazz musicians. With the advent of the recording, we have the opportunity to go back and make things perfect. Then the expectation became that live music should sound like a recording. But the cost of musical perfection was it had to be pursued at the expense of other musical skills.”

The stultifying result, Berg says, was a music-education system based on reproducing what has become a sacred canon.

“There are these two worlds of music, the ‘by ear’ world and the ‘I can only play it and understand it if it’s written down in front of me,’ ” he says.

“At some level you end up with a lot of trained monkeys on one side who can do what they’ve learned but don’t have any understanding of it. And on the other side you have people with these great innate skills, but nobody’s given them the tools to mainstream that into the greatest music they could be playing.”

Nontraditional classes

Frost students hone those skills in classes like the Thursday morning session in classical improvisation, an oxymoron in traditional music education.

“It opens up your ears,” says trumpeter Sam Exline, 19. “It used to be I would just try to match what other people were doing. Now I know exactly what’s going on. I can really hear that and play that.”

Imaginative ability is crucial to creating the next generation of musicians, says Santiago Rodriguez, who heads the keyboard performance department.

“Shelly gives them the rules, but he gives them the latitude to stretch the rules, which is so important,” Rodriguez says. “Otherwise we die, because we become replicas of ourselves.”

Even in jazz, says Blanchard, young musicians have traditionally been drilled into conformity.

“There’s a lot of musicians who go out and recreate the history and say, ‘I’m upholding the tradition,’ ” he says. “But I always said the tradition of jazz is to break with tradition. That’s why I’m charged with making sure kids have knowledge of that, but also empowering them.”

Berg’s own prodigious musical talent — and his ease with all aspects of music — was nurtured from an early age. After startling his parents by playing a jazz tune on the piano at age 4, he was enrolled in a program for gifted children at the Cleveland Institute of Music. He learned theory and Beethoven piano sonatas, but also jammed with his father, an accomplished jazz trumpeter.

Berg worked his way through the University of Houston playing six nights a week in a Mexican-American bar band, learning to play and arrange cumbias, rancheras, and salsa along with country and R&B. “That was as good as going to college,” he says. “I had a nighttime and a daytime education.”

By the time he finished his master’s degree, at 23, he was married with two children and disenchanted with late-night gigs. He took a job at San Jacinto Community College, spending 12 years teaching, coaching Little League and going to dance recitals. He went on to head the jazz program at the University of Southern California and develop a successful performing and recording career in Los Angeles.

“I’ve gotten to do all the things I’d hoped to do, and yet I got love and a family,” Berg says. “And generations of students who cumulatively have enriched me much more than I could ever have enriched them.”

New building

The university is building a new home for Berg’s groundbreaking endeavor. Designed by I.M. Pei protégé Yann Weymouth, it’s slated to open in the spring of 2015, and will honor Patricia Frost, who, with her husband, Phillip, gave the music school $33 million and a new name 10 years ago.

The building will form a grand entrance to the Frost School and almost double its practice space with 85 high-tech equipped rooms. It’s the first of three projects — a 200-seat recital hall is next — to be built with $20 million Berg has helped raise since 2008.

Fundraising efforts have been bolstered by the high-profile artists and events Berg has brought to the school, many through his L.A. connections. The most prominent example is the Mancini Institute, originally a summer program in Los Angeles that Berg persuaded the Mancini family to move to UM.

The institute’s 65 graduate fellows, many from top conservatories, perform and record in professional settings. They form the resident orchestra for the Jazz Roots series at the Adrienne Arsht Center, where last year they did two live concert recordings for PBS. One of them, Jazz and the Philharmonic, which airs in January, features Blanchard, Bobby McFerrin, Chick Corea and legendary producer Phil Ramone. The students had to learn the challenging, multi-genre program in just three days.

“The point is that’s the real world,” Berg says. “The attention it takes to do that on very little rehearsal time is something most school musicians have never had to do.” (The Mancini Orchestra will simultaneously close Festival Miami and open the Jazz Roots series with a Nov. 1 concert featuring Monica Mancini, Jon Secada and Nicole Henry.)

Doors opened

Those experiences are inspiring to Mancini students like Joy Adams, 24, a violinist and cellist with a bluegrass group as well as a classical string ensemble who says she felt discouraged after graduating from the prestigious Eastman School of Music.

“I love music, but it seemed like there were no careers,” Adams says. “I came here and so many doors and paths are open. But you’ve got to create the need for what you do.”

Berg has a keen eye for opportunity. A day after learning that fiddle player Mark O’Connor, renowned for his cross-genre virtuosity, still smarted about a 2007 Miami concert cancellation, the dean offered to present O’Connor at UM – accompanied by Frost students.

“Many would have said tough luck, but [he] said how can we turn this into an opportunity for our kids,” says O’Connor, who performs at Festival Miami Oct. 13.

Now a resident artist at Frost, he has taught bluegrass fiddling, coached classical string players and lectured on his new method for teaching violinists that mirrors Berg’s philosophy.

“We’re kindred spirits,” O’Connor says. “He would also really like to have musicians come out much more versatile … more equipped to handle the potential in the music industry of the 21st century that’s going to include creativity.”

Creatively linking the school to the music industry is the topic one recent afternoon at a session with three graduate students, three faculty members and a guest — Elizabeth Sobol, a soft-spoken classical music powerhouse who spent 30 years managing stars like Itzhak Perlman at IMG Artists and recently became CEO of Universal Music Classics, a group of top classical labels.

“We’re here to brainstorm and set up a mechanism where real action can happen,” Berg tells the group.

“A vision, that’s what’s missing,” says Sobol. “If I could have anything in the world, what would it look like?”

The conversation ranges from the shrinking of classical music audiences to luring young listeners to enlisting students to market a concert series Universal Music Classics is launching with Miami’s YoungArts Foundation in November.

After two hours, Berg is beaming. “This is just the tip of the iceberg,” he says. “I’m really thrilled. This should affect everything we do.”

Read more Jordan Levin stories from the Miami Herald

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