During our chat with Kyle Petersen (read all about it HERE) we asked Kyle to elaborate on his experience at the Berklee College of Music Summer School in Boston. We got much more than we bargained for, in a good way…
MP: I wanted to ask you about Berklee College because I read about that on your website. How did that change your approach to your career as a musician and your view of the music industry? There you saw it on a global scale and not just from a South African perspective.
Kyle Petersen: Yes, it changed everything. When I went to Berkeley I realised this is intense. We went from 8 in the morning to 6 or 7 at night. You apply for the Summer School 7 to 8 months before the time and you have to upload videos and stuff with your history as part of the application process. When you get there you have to audition again so that they can place you in different ensembles. Luckily I got placed in all top-level ensembles which was great. You’ve got harmony classes, theory classes, music history classes, pop writing classes that focus on melody and others that focus just on arrangement.
One thing that everybody guns for when you’re at the Summer School is to get into what they call the Berkeley All Stars. There were about 1050 of us in the Summer School and 137 keyboard players. They are from various ages. You’ve got kids there from 15 or 16 that are like insane prodigies to people in their 30’s. There are only 3 All Star bands. One is funk, one is jazz and one is rock. That means there is essentially 2 slots for keyboard players because the jazz band is a pianist only. I wanted the rock one cause that’s what I do. I love the AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, Heart and Journey stuff. That’s my thing and that’s why Karen Zoid and I work so well together.
For the audition I decided to do something completely different. The one keyboard that I took with me was a Roland FA-06 workstation. From a weight perspective the FA-06 is awesome because it’s like 7 kg. It’s easy to fly with and I needed something to practice on when I wasn’t at the College. So I took a composition of Beethoven and rearranged it with live drums and changed it into a medley with Van Halen’s Jump so I could play that solo part. From there I took it into a heavy Rihanna/Jay-Z type track. A couple of days later I got an email saying congratulations you made it through to the final auditions. For the final auditions we had to bring sheet music because we were accompanied by live bass and drums played by senior students at the college. I went to the library and got the drum and bass scores for Bohemian Rhapsody. When I got to the rehearsal the drummer and the bassist did not know the song.
MP: Sorry for interrupting. I just want to clarify that I heard correctly. They did not know Bohemian Rhapsody?
Kyle Petersen: No, they didn’t. (At this point MuzoPlanet left the room to get a beer – ed). So we auditioned for the department heads. Everything went well until we got to that middle part where it’s just vocals and percussive stabs. The bassist and drummer just stopped completely. I carried on all the way through. I just kept singing the melody in my head and played it right through. Then one of the department heads asked me if I can play a 12-bar blues. So I said ok great, in which key? That was a bit cocky but I thought let’s just rather ask instead of me just selecting something like A or B or C. We ended up jamming it in A and after that they ask me to take a solo. We then started chatting about Cape Town because one of the heads have just visited the University of Cape Town. The audition was on the Saturday and on the Tuesday night at 11 the email came through to say congratulations, you’ve made it into the Berklee All Stars.
Why I say it changed so much for me is because up until that point you think ok cool, so in South Africa I am doing pretty well, but in America or globally it’s not gonna be the same because our standard is different. This whole thing about “just because you’re in South Africa you are not as good as someone from anywhere else” changed for me. Everyone was coming up to me saying “Hey dude, wow, well done, that’s next level”. And I was just like but it’s what I do you know. The thing is you’ve gotta play the way you play. I think that’s the mistake that a lot of people make. They start to emulate someone else’s style of playing. Don’t try and play like Dan Patlansky because he is already there. Don’t try to be Stevie Wonder cause there already is one. Follow your own style and your own way of doing things because ultimately that’s what’s gonna set you apart.
And that just challenged me on every level musically cause I thought if your mindset is right and you are authentic and you are not trying to be anybody else you are actually already up there in terms of what is termed as “the best in the world”. “The best in the world” became a more flexible description because no one can actually be defined as the best in the world when it comes to creativity. Yes, Hussain Bolt is like the best hundred meter athlete in the world because that is an isolated thing. When it comes to music and creativity or any kind of art form saying that someone is the best is all bullshit because there is no way that you can label anything like that. A big and strong sense of inner peace hit me because I realised this conditioning that happens in the SA industry where you think we are not as good as anyone else is just wrong.
So we did the All Stars and I got to perform in the Berklee Performance Hall. It was just insane because all the alumni and all the people who sit on the board and support the college are there. So you’ve got people like Sting sitting in the audience. One of the pieces we had to perform was a piece by Jeff Beck and it is just beyond mental. There is no sense to it in terms of this is section A, or section B, or section C. So I went to the lecturer in charge of the Berkeley All Stars rock ensemble and I was like I’ve got a small problem here. And he’s like what is it? I said well there aren’t any keyboards on this track. He’s like ok well then you have to make up your own part then. The other track was one by Steve Morse and it was like insane. So I got that under my belt and then everything was on schedule. In between you’re also writing exams so it’s studying, rehearsing and then ensemble and more studying. It is awesome but you are dead afterwards. The third track was one by Muse so I was like “Yes, I can play synths!” Then they said in the Steve Morse song you need to take a piano solo! That was like a day or two before the gig.
MP: Was it one of the Dixie Dregs songs or one of Steve’s solo stuff?
Kyle Petersen: No, his solo stuff. The other big thing I want to drive home hard is something that needs to be broken. To give some background, at Berklee we had improvisation classes twice a week. It’s an hour and a half and there are 10 keyboard players/pianists. So the 10 of us are sitting in the room each one on piano. You get a piece of music and a chance to check it out. Then everyone will play it while one student takes a solo over it. Then it goes to the next person to take the solo and then the rest accompanies him. Everybody takes turns and it just rotates over and over. That part is fine but where the huge difference is between South Africa and the US, or at least when I was there in 2014, is that those classes were normally at the end of the day so they finished at 6:30 but at 9 we were all still in the room. Although the class finished at 6:30 someone would come up to you afterwards saying “Hey man, I really liked what you did. Can you show me? The difference there is that everyone shares information with everyone. When we all left there at 8:30 or 9 the group has gotten better. We all had more information and it wasn’t just two or three people. The whole class stayed every time because it’s the journey of accessing information and seeing someone else doing something differently.
About 90% of our music schools breed this culture into their students that they should keep their skill and knowledge to themselves. People here do not share knowledge enough. What’s happening too much is that the teachers are saying to the students, especially teachers who perform and have gigs and do theatre shows, you know you’ve gotta keep your skill set close because you don’t want this person to take your gig or that person to replace you. It’s not like people in America are more talented than people in South Africa. The level of the talent is the same but the amount of information that professional musicians share with each other in America versus here are worlds apart. That is why the overall standard is higher but it’s not a difference in the level of talent. The difference is that they are open and the collective average becomes that much higher. It’s not like I came back with any form of superiority complex or anything, but I did feel like if you can make the All Stars by just being authentic and like playing the way that you do, then just keep doing that here and you will be fine you know. And that’s what I did and it has just worked since.