The American Roots Music Program at Berklee College of Music in Boston is one of the most exciting projects to emerge from the school in recent years. It’s a wonderful case of the snowball effect: the program was created in 2009 in response to an influx of young folk-based string players at the school, and since then it has made both Boston and Berklee that much more attractive to young roots musicians.
“There are a lot of young virtuosos in this scene, but being a virtuoso is only one part of the trip,” says Matt Glaser, former chair of the Berklee string department and founder of the program. “If you’re gonna become an educated musician—and I subject myself to this as well—you have to know your field. And to know your field would mean to have listened to the widest possible array of early American music.”
That philosophy governs the program, which covers genres as diverse as “blues, gospel, folk, early country music, bluegrass, old-time, cajun, western swing, polka, Tex-Mex, and others,” according to the website. Glaser’s project to educate his students in a wide variety of styles is fuelled in part by the overwhelming prevalence of bluegrass and Celtic instrumentalists, and fiddlers in particular. Berklee has been attracting musicians of that type for far longer than the roots program has been in existence, and has produced some extraordinary players: five-string bluegrass fiddle phenom Casey Driessen, cello innovator Rushad Eggleston, Scottish fiddler Hanneke Cassel, and more recently, mandolin virtuoso Jacob Jolliff and jazz violin prodigy Alex Hargreaves.
However well-versed they are in their chosen styles, students in the roots program are necessarily students of musical cross-pollination. They take songwriting, composition, improvisation, and ensemble classes, and study under instructors with specialties as diverse as classical, jazz, and bluegrass. The first principal mandolin player to ever attend Berklee, Joe Walsh, graduated in 2007, and today mandolins are a common sight at the school. And thanks to the American Roots Music Program, students can now study banjo, cello, and harp in traditional idioms.
The program’s talent is on display every month at The Berklee Roots Music Series at Club Passim in Cambridge, MA. Students and faculty share a stage in the cozy basement room, taking turns debuting original material, trying out new collaborations, or just jamming. It’s there that the true value of the program is most apparent. Traditional and roots music is, by definition, social, and there is nothing more exciting than when a bunch of people get together to play a tune. Something unexpected, and potentially extraordinary, is bound to come out.