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The 7 Most Important Lessons I Learned at Berklee

Inspired by two Derek Sivers blog posts, (here and here), this blog post was born.

If you’re going to Berklee or in fact even other music colleges, I hope this helps your musical journey!

1. Know What You Want

Berklee is huge. There are so many classes and almost anything you want. I tell people it’s like going to a buffet. Lots of food and everything looks good. You can take different approaches like what people do at buffets.

             a) Try a little bit of everything
             b) Focus on the stuff you love the most
             c) Take too much of everything

For me, I knew there were a few things that I really wanted to learn. I wanted to study Jazz Composition. I wanted to learn more about Brazilian Jazz. I wanted to learn solo guitar concepts. I wanted to take Harmony geek classes. And I wanted to learn how to improvise. This led me in a certain direction that has helped me after I graduated from Berklee.

Do I regret focusing on a few things? Sometimes. But, the stuff I did learn really got into my system. Things I wish I took: some Bluegrass classes, more slide guitar classes with David Tronzo & Dan Bowden  and microtonal guitar classes with David Fiucynski. But oh well, can’t get everything in 6 semesters! =p

2. Make Friends, Not Network  

There’s a big thing about networking in Berklee. Everyone raves about networking. I agree to some extent but would rather say just make friends. You might not get to know everyone that well, but the ones that you really gel with can become friends that you connect with years later.

When my friend violinist Helen Sherrah-Davies visited me in California, I booked a gig for us to perform together. Another friend, Michael Borgida recommended me for gigs in San Francisco all the way from Boston. When I was in London, I stayed at guitarist Dylan Kay’s home in Surbiton. Prior to relocating back to Malaysia, I referred my friend Eli Harrison to some of my teaching gigs in the San Francisco Bay Area. Friends help each other and the connection is more than just a practical networking relationship. 

3. Find The Best Classes

Ask your friends. Check websites online for information. Ask your favorite teachers. Find the best classes. Berklee is a major investment so make sure you get the best of the best.

4. Design Your Courses

This relates to #1. What I did by knowing what I wanted to study was the opportunity to design semesters that focused on certain larger topics. For example, I had a Brazilian Music semester. I took guitar lessons and labs with Ben Sher, Brazilian Ensemble with Fernando Brandao. For several semesters, I focused on taking all the harmony classes that Steve Rochinski taught and guitar harmony classes by Bret Willmott.

5. Absorb and Be Inspired

I met so many amazing musicians in and outside of Berklee. It was crazy. My favorite saying was one week in Berklee was different than how time moved in the outside world. Because of the sheer intensity of each of the classes, you absorb a lot of new information. Now, multiply that by the number of classes you take and you only start to have an idea of how much you’re learning.

6. Experiment

Be brave and try out stuff that is outside of your comfort zone. If it scares you musically, go for it. School is the best environment for you to learn. Carry this spirit with you after graduation and you will be on the way to a lifetime of creative musical exploration.

For example, some of my most fulfilling musical experiences started by taking new opportunities that were definitely out of my comfort zone. I accepted a gypsy jazz gig when I just relocated to California with group Jazz Mine. From that gig, I got my first Tex-Mex/Indie Rock gig with Tara Linda. Eventually, that led me to my first European tour in her band in 2012, performing in Spain and Germany.

7. Remember What Works

The best private lessons I got continue to form the practice routine I do daily. Remember what worked for you and keep that close to your heart. Not everything will work for you but the ones that do will stay with you for a lifetime.

In the end, realize that this is amazing opportunity. 
Make the best of it and enjoy the ride. Be in the moment and savor it.

Good luck!


The Indie Secret to Making Music
A blog post on how to keep making music throughout a long independent music career

How to be Creative in 7 Steps
7 simple tips to igniting creativity in your music and daily life

The B.O.P of Learning
A 3-step approach for learning music if you have very limited time


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