What's Music College Like? Q&A with PRS Artists & Friends who are Berklee Alumni

Posted Aug 19, 2020


September is rapidly approaching and that means universities all across the country are once again preparing for the beginning of the fall semester. This time of year is typically full of excitement and uncertainty for students, but seems a little heavy on the uncertainty this year. Amidst the global Coronavirus pandemic, institutions of all kinds have been struggling to adapt and reconfigure themselves for operation during this “new normal”.

In an effort to safeguard its students and the greater community, Berklee College of Music has made the decision to go fully remote for the fall 2020 semester. As we all know, “the show must go on” in the music business and the same mantra applies in academia.

Reflecting on the fresh challenges awaiting Berklee students this year, we considered just how many of our own PRS employees and artists have passed through the halls at Berklee. We thought it would be interesting to reach out to some of the Berklee alumni in the extended PRS family for insight into their academic experiences.

Here's who we interviewed:

  • Tomo Fujita (Guitar Professor at Berklee, 25+ years)
  • Al Di Meola (Guitarist)
  • Steve Vai (Guitarist, Composer, Producer)
  • Eric Krasno (Guitarist, Soulive and Lettuce)
  • Tyler Larson (music educator and founder of Music Is Win)
  • Sophia Gripari (LA based singer/songwriter and multi instrumentalist)
  • Jeanne Nooney (PRS Public Relations, Sponsorships, & Events)

Learn from our friends and colleagues about their time at Berklee and the current state of the music industry below.


PRS: What was your specific academic concentration while attending Berklee College of Music?

TF: My major was professional music, so I have learned some arranging courses & performance courses together.

Tomo Fujita

AD: My aim was to have each subject relate to the guitar which meant that the guitar was brought to each class, as this was the way the diploma course was designed.

SV: I was mostly interested in composition for percussion and orchestra. I really enjoyed my Writing for Percussion classes with Wes Hensel.

EK: I was a performance major. Studied guitar and music theory, composition and performance.

TL: My Major was called Professional Music, which allowed me to dabble in a variety of classes spread across multiple majors. It did require a “concentration” though, which for me was Guitar Performance.

SG: I was a voice principle and majored in Professional Music with concentrations in songwriting and music production.

JN: I went to Berklee College of Music after spending two years at Shenandoah Conservatory of Music. I had written and performed original music most of my life and I was really drawn to further developing my creative “chops” while improving my abilities as a player.My major at Berklee was Composition and Arranging with a minor in Flute Performance.Yup, flute!I came out of Berklee playing flute and sax with improved skills on my writing vehicles: guitar and keys.

Jeanne Nooney

PRS: Knowing what you know now, would you have chosen an alternate path of study?

TF: I think my choice was fine, but I would have learned a bit more business if I could.

AD: In addition to what I chose, if it were now, I’d choose film scoring.

Al Di Meola

SV: I thought about being a music teacher in high school, but the universe had different plans for me, and I’m very content with them so, no, I wouldn’t change anything.

EK: I think I would have been a Music Production major looking back on it now. The school had amazing resources in that department and those skills have proven to be so useful and applicable in my career as a musician.

TL: If I could retain all the experiences I had and skills I learned through the path I took and just add on a skill, I would choose Music Production & Engineering. The skill of mixing and producing is equally as timeless and useful as playing your instrument, especially the way technology has developed since I graduated in 2011.

SG: I think Berklee is a great place to meet musicians from all corners of the world and explore and learn about a really wide variety of genres of music. Berklee gives you the option to focus on so many different aspects of the music industry while also allowing you to gain really valuable performance experience by playing with so many different musicians. In my case, it was a safe space to explore making different kinds of music before ultimately deciding which stylistic path I wanted to take. For that reason, I think it was a great place to hone your craft. The only thing that ever tempted me to consider other paths of study was location, I always knew that I would have loved to study music in New York or Los Angeles, both of which have really awesome music scenes. I think it definitely would have been beneficial for me to get more first-hand experience in the industry before graduating and I felt a little disconnected from the buzz while in Boston.

JN: What I learned at Berklee has helped me in every band and musical group that I’ve been involved with since. It inadvertently taught me to find the flow in creating, planning, and executing just about anything. It is a process which I rely upon, along with additional Marketing experience, in my role as Public Relations, Sponsorships and Event Coordinator for PRS Guitars.

PRS: What was the most valuable experience you remember having while you were a student?

TF: So many great courses at Berklee but I really enjoyed playing with other students at those Ensembles & always learning something new in private guitar lessons.

AD: Going to school all day. Jamming with other gifted musicians. Going to concerts at night.

SV: I met my future wife while attending Berklee, Pia Vai. She played guitar but switched to bass when we started dating and we made beautiful music together. Also, at the time, the Berklee music library was a treasure. I got to hear music from all sorts of artists that I would not have heard otherwise. Also, the city of Boston is just fantastic. As a student, I might say that the most valuable experience was the co-creative opportunities with other like-minded young musicians, some of whom have become lifelong friends and co-creators.

Steve Vai

EK: I’d say the most valuable part of Berklee was connecting with/learning from the students and staff I met there. Studying guitar with Richie Hart and Tomo Fujita was amazing and maybe the biggest turning point in my career was meeting and playing with the guys from Lettuce. That forever changed my life….To this day, I still play with them and many of the other students I met there.

TL: There were so many. I’ll share a story along with a tangible takeaway. The story is set in a private lesson studio at 1140 Boyleston St. (the Berklee Uchida building) with my instructor, Dave Tronzo. I asked him, in a somewhat whiny way, if I really needed to learn how to sight-read music to be a successful guitar player. He blankly stared at me and said something I pretty much live my life by now. He said, “Tyler–you’re never smarter for NOT knowing something.” Those words are so profound in so many ways, but essentially, they boil down to not being lazy, and that hard work pays off in ways you sometimes can’t imagine at the time. As far as a takeaway from attending a music college, I learned the invaluable skill of how to practice. When you’re forced to either keep up or fail, you learn to practice efficiently and internalize so much more information than you would if you were self-taught or had no negative ramifications for not developing your musicianship and technique at a rapid pace. That skill has been essential to my career in the online music world where speed and quality go hand in hand for success.

SG: One of the most valuable experiences I had while at Berklee was putting together my final show in Boston. I was working with a new group of musicians as I was finally starting to release pop music. Up until this point, my music had been very live arrangement based, more singer/songwriter, acoustic stuff, which was super simple (logistically) to perform. This show was a whole new learning curve and I really learnt a lot about the ins and outs of creating a live pop set. It was all about arranging everyone’s parts along the Ableton live set, setting up and using IEM’s for the first time, figuring out how I was going to incorporate unexpected live elements, for example using the Ableton Push or grabbing the electric guitar from the side and doing a solo (which sadly not enough audience members expect from a woman!). There were so many really interesting lessons that I learned from doing this small show that have helped me hugely since moving to LA and gearing up for bigger sets.

Sophia Gripari
^ Photo: Isabella Grossling

JN: In high school, I had studied with the Principal Flutist of the Trenton Orchestra, then studied under two amazing classical teachers at Shenandoah, so when I got to Berklee, I could sight read music like a champ. What I could not do well was improvise and that is where Berklee’s amazing instructors (and fellow students) stepped in to help break down limitations and provide the tools I needed. All I had to do was ask.

PRS: If you could offer a single piece of advice to the next crop of musicians entering Berklee, what would it be?

TF: Please live in dorms for your first year if you can, so you will make more friends!

AD: Copy your heroes. Study them, your own voice will eventually emerge.

SV: When you show support, encouragement, and appreciation to your fellow student, you are doing the same for yourself. You may not realize this until you authentically and sincerely put it to the test. The catch is, there can be no trace of an agenda or quid-pro-quo in it. You have to sincerely support, encourage, and appreciate them… all of them.

EK: I would say… take advantage of the resources and community at Berklee. Connect, write and play with as many musicians and player as you can. This will probably be your circle and music family for MANY years. Also, don’t be afraid to jump in and play with people that you may think are “better” than you. You ALWAYS will bring something fresh to the table, playing with great players can the best and most fulfilling challenge.

Eric Krasno

TL: You don’t have to know what your career path will be when you get to Berklee. Work ethic and networking are the most important traits you can have, so get ready to make some awesome friends who you’ll connect with like none you’ve ever had before, and don’t expect to get too much sleep–Boston is a fun place.

SG: Take what you will from your classes, some will feel more relevant than others. What’s really important is actively going after your own opportunities. I can only speak for my personal experience as a songwriter and performer at Berklee, but work with as many people as you can at least once. You will find the ones you collaborate best with.

JN: Challenge yourself to get involved and play with as many people as you can.

PRS: Following this extremely difficult year, do you think there will be permanent changes to the music industry after normalcy begins to reassert itself?

TF: For me, I am a strong believer of LIMITATION, which will bring us together, stronger and create new possible ways to do in music industry. Be creative and being alert on new ideas, don’t be afraid on new adventures.

AD: Yes! Smaller shows. Records will unfortunately be completely gone, so one must know the new paradigm for earning money through the internet.

SV: Possibly, but who knows how these changes will flesh out? It seems obvious that many people will discover a new way of utilizing the internet for communication, info and engaging with each other. But regarding concerts, I assume things will return to relative normalcy. Although, like 911, I would also assume that TSA will be a little more of a pain in the ass.

EK: Yes, the new normal will be different than anything we have experienced. Though I’m to exactly sure what that is…. One thing I do know is that we all have to be versatile. Learn as much as you can about every facet of music and music production. Writing, recording AND creating content are part of our everyday life now. We can’t rely on other to do those things for us. The great thing is we have access to more technology than ever before.

TL: I think this pandemic has forced musicians to embrace (or at least dip their toe in) social media and alternative methods of earning a living and collaborating. It’s no longer enough to just be a great musician. You have to be a great musician AND a great videographer, a great communicator, a fast learner, and open-minded. The good news is, there’s plenty of room for new talent online–it’s an infinite landscape. I think while some things will return to normal when a vaccine is developed for COVID-19 (ahem–live shows, which we all miss dearly), the connectivity and self-sufficiency the Internet provides will be stronger than ever. It was already on its way to changing the music business. The virus simply accelerated its arrival. The good news is, anyone has the same means to succeed if they have the drive to do so! I started with one PRS guitar, a 720p camera I borrowed from my sister, and I was living in my parents guest bedroom. Now… I have more PRS guitars! And a better camera! And I don’t live with my parents!

Tyler Larson

SG: In terms of COVID-19, definitely. I obviously hope that we get to go back to going to live shows as soon as it is safe, but this pandemic has really urged people to be as creative as possible, whether it’s how you can put your own spin on a livestream show or how to come up with a music video that’s outside the box and possible to create without in person contact. Those are positive changes that I think could definitely stick around, but who’s to say!

JN: Players are finding new ways to collaborate, share and create income. As we evolve from this pandemic, all of us will be inserting some what we have learned through this difficult time into what’s next. We don’t know what the future holds or what new technology will be developed. Embrace it! Learn, grow, and succeed.