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.”
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.