Mike Bland

Coffee with Milk and Concrete

A reflection on my experiences at Berklee to date, including the realization that music and language are isomorphic human activities

- Boston
Tags: Berklee, music, personal, philosophy

Since Berklee started last January, I’ve hardly had time or energy to post any worthy updates to this blog. I had no idea how the hell far down this rabbit hole was gonna go. But, I also have zero regrets. It’s challenging, expensive, and up to this point still dreadfully lonely most of the time, but I remain convinced it’s exactly the right thing for me to be doing with my life right now.


Just a couple weeks ago, I finished the summer semester, my second full semester to date. So far, I’ve made pretty good grades. Not perfect grades, but pretty damn good. (More on the idea of grades later.) I’ve declared my major as Performance, and transferred a lot of elective credits from my first two bachelor’s degrees. Consequently, I think that a few semesters down the road, I’ll switch from the diploma to the degree program, which will require a only a handful of extra liberal arts credits without pushing back my planned graduation date in August 2015. It seems worth it to me to pay for a few extra classes just to get that little bit of extra credit, for whatever it’s worth.

However, I learned the hard way this summer to never, never, ever again take a full-load during the summer semester consisting of nothing but music classes. In fact, part of why I’m writing now instead of practicing is because I’m still recuperating from the end of the semester. The summer semester lasted twelve weeks instead of fifteen, with the only day off being the Fourth of July. On the one hand, yes, I got good grades, and it’s nice to have been exposed to so much new information so early in my studies—but I was barely able to handle it. In some classes I did really well, in some I slipped a little, and my private guitar instruction suffered most of all—partly because I put a lot of time into practicing piano for one of my lab courses. Were I taking a part-time load, I probably would’ve done really well across the board.


The problem of struggling to keep up isn’t due to the fact that I’m an older student; the problem is that I’m really far behind compared to nearly every other Berklee student in terms of musical experience. Yes, I’ve been playing guitar for a long time, off and on; but whereas most other folks have seriously been playing music for five, ten, maybe fifteen years, I’ve only started dabbling again the past couple of years. Honestly, I’ve only been seriously studying and practicing since January, when the spring semester started. I underestimated how much catching up I’d need to do to be able to hang with the other Berklee students from a musical perspective. If I hadn’t started taking jazz guitar lessons during my sabbatical from Google and getting all those new chords under my fingers, I’d’ve been nearly hopeless.

Part of this catching up has to do with my realization that music literally is a language, and a language is not mastered in only a few months. This is by no means an original thought, but I somehow remained ignorant of this insight for most of my life until now, and realizing it has given me more of a sense of where I am in my development and what I need to do to catch up.

Just to show that I’m not blowing bubbles, a quick Google search turned up a few interesting tidbits of research, some of which I’ll hopefully have some time to read more carefully in the coming months:

What’s more, the University of Rochester appears to have a research division dedicated to Music and Language, and a 2007 Science Daily article, Music and Language Are Processed by the Same Brain Systems, provided the inspiration for this post’s title:

Miranda and Ullman examined the brain waves of the participants who listened to melodies in the different conditions, and found that violations of rules and memory in music corresponded to the two patterns of brain waves seen in previous studies of rule and memory violations in language. That is, in-key violations of familiar (but not novel) melodies led to a brain-wave pattern similar to one called an “N400” that has previously been found with violations of words (such as, “I’ll have my coffee with milk and concrete”).

However, the most profound (and, in a way, creepy) affirmation of my realization is a popular TED video by renowned bassist Victor Wooten that I found just as I was sitting down to write this post:

Victor begins making the direct analogy between the language-learning and music-learning processes at the 1:30 mark. What he says at the 2:21 mark about babies being encouraged to talk with adults (“jam with professionals”) and receive positive reinforcement despite their mistakes is almost exactly what I’ve hypothesized about to friends in private conversations regarding how similar the two processes are.

At 2:45, after asserting that the process of natural language acquisition would also apply to musical skill acquisition, Victor explains exactly why: “Proof of this can be seen in almost any family where a child grows up with other musicians in the family.” Consequently, he advocates having music students playing with other musicians, even highly-trained ones, as often as possible—and that is why I chose to return to Berklee, in a sense: As a means to discover and integrate myself into a musical “family” where I’d be immersed in an environment such that I couldn’t help but improve.


My own realization of the “music == language” idea came sometime in the spring semester, when I realized how the Berklee “core music” curriculum (i.e. general education requirements for music) was organized:

  • Harmony: Berklee-specific contemporary music theory, corresponding to grammar rules and how to recognize them in existing music and apply them in composition
  • Ear Training: Reading melodies and singing them out loud, as a means to recognizing scales, intervals, and harmonies by listening
  • Arranging: The physical process of writing music, of laying it out on the page such that it’s comprehensible to others; also, minor composition choices
  • Private instruction: Synthesis of all of the above in an instrument-specific fashion

There are a few other classes in the core curriculum, but this much alone should illustrate just how similar the musical curriculum corresponds to that of a typical language curriculum—the main difference being that grade school reading and grammar students already have a solid foundation in the basics of “singing” and “listening”, whereas even a large majority of Berklee students require remedial training in these areas.


Early in the summer, I realized that my time and energy were really at a premium, and I started making a few lifestyle changes in the hopes that I could stop feeling like crashing out in the middle of every afternoon. The results were largely successful: I started my morning exercise routine up again; cut gluten mostly out of my diet; cut my alcohol consumption back significantly; started making sure I got sufficient amounts of sleep on a semi-regular schedule; and perhaps most bizarrely, I kicked caffeine. Why? Just the general notion that perhaps I’d have more of an even keel without it; and despite the expected headaches for the first couple of days and the unexpected, massive, near-suicidal depression of the next week or two, I managed to wean myself off the stuff. It’s been easy to stay off since, by remembering that a substance that could make me feel so bad when I’m not getting enough of it is probably a substance that isn’t doing me so much good in the first place.

I also got a mind to try meditation as a means to develop more mental discipline and the all-around well-being that comes with it (without getting all new-agey about it). Shortly after starting on my own, a meditation group started up at Berklee that was very helpful in keeping me motivated and developing good habits. So far, I’ve kept up my morning meditations for a couple months, spending twelve to fifteen minutes every morning, and it’s definitely made a positive improvement in many aspects of my day-to-day functioning. Most critically, it really helped me not to lose my mind during the final few weeks of the summer semester; I probably would’ve completely cratered had I not already developed a sense of detachment from all the stress and negative thoughts that inevitably rushed through my brain during that time.


Going back to Victor’s assertion that musicians should play with other musicians as often as possible, that’s where I’ve really fallen down on the job so far. Turns out that the one thing I want to do more than anything is the one thing I’m most frightened to do, because I feel so less prepared than nearly everyone else at Berklee. This is, obviously, a self-defeating attitude, and one I can’t possibly maintain if I’m to finish this program successfully.

This summer I really didn’t have much time and energy to upgrade that attitude given my course load, and as a result, I’ve been abysmally lonely much of the time here so far. I’ve made some friends, but I don’t get to see them often, probably because we hardly ever play together. Once the fall semester kicks in, however, I’m going to do what I can to connect with folks and get to jamming as often as possible. See, that’s actually a far more important aspect of the Berklee experience than going to class and getting good grades. That stuff is important, but as I’ve heard said, no one will ask about your Berklee GPA when you’re on the bandstand. And there’s no way to make it onto the bandstand if you aren’t out and about in the community, and doing what you have to to make connections and develop your live performance skills. The whole point of all that book learnin’ is to better prepare you for real-time, live performance, not to stand in for it.

And this is where the problem with being an older student does come in. At the beginning, I figured I’d get straight-A’s throughout every semester, given my age and life experience and maturity and appreciation for what I’m doing—and the fact that I’m personally writing big checks for the privilege of being here. That would be how I’d stay focused and motivated to do well and save face in front of all the little teenagers and twenty-somethings. But the reality I discovered was that I only have so much time and energy to go around, and I have a lot of catching up to do. Hiding behind homework and projects and sitting in the practice room and in my living room playing scales and tunes all by myself, while necessary to an extent, isn’t enough to reach my goals, and it’s lonely as hell. Plus, just doing well in class is no guarantee that you’ll get the most out of Berklee, since networking and taking advantage of opportunities to jam and perform are such a huge part of the culture.

On the basis of these realizations, I can’t allow myself to get too attached to letter grades as a signal that I’m making satisfactory musical progress. What I need most is to face my fears and take the big, scary leaps I need to take to overcome the obstacles that stand in the way of doing the thing I most desperately want to do, which is to perform music with other musicians, for an audience. After all, Berklee, as with any institution, is set up to administer a process, a series of long-term challenges and changes that each individual must come to terms with as part of a larger collective pursuit of shared goals. The important goal isn’t to pass through with an unblemished academic record; it’s to stick with the process and emerge at the other end a fundamentally different person than you were going in. Mistakes can be some of the most valuable components of that process.

So it’s about time I stopped being embarrassed about my age, and my current level of musical ability, and proudly assert my desire to have (decaf) coffee with milk and concrete! Err, raw cane sugar!