Gary Burton’s name rings a bell in most musicians’ minds for his innovative work re-inventing and changing the music scene whether as one of the first jazz-fusion musicians or today as a featured soloist and partner in crime to fellow legend, Chick Corea. Moreover, on the technical side Burton is known for popularizing and mastering the four-mallet techniques on vibes and marimba that he pioneered throughout his career (though he was not the first).
Yet, unbeknownst to many, Gary Burton also lies on the cutting edge of music education. As a longtime member of the Berklee College of Music faculty, he launched numerous groundbreaking programs including the music synthesis and therapy majors as well as the Berklee Online courses. Read on as he takes us through his own education as well as his journey teaching the next generation of musicians.
How did you get started in music as a kid?
It was somewhat coincidental. I grew up in rural Indiana and my parents had the idea that all three of us kids should get to take music lessons. My sister was older than me and she started taking piano lessons. When I got to be six, as the story goes, I started hanging around watching her practice and getting interested in what was going on with the piano. So, my parents decided it was time to find an instrument for me. It turned out that in the town we lived in, there was a lady who lived not far from us who played the marimba and the vibraphone. That’s where they took me, so that’s how I got my start on mallet instruments. Almost nobody does. Most everybody that plays mallet instruments starts out on piano or drums or something else and comes to the vibraphone later in life as a second instrument. For me it was my first though.
I took lessons for about a year-and-a-half with that teacher; her name was Evelyn Tucker. Then we moved to the other end of the state and I had no more teacher after that, but I had gotten started. I learned how to read the notes and how to hold the sticks and what not. I just kept on going after that. My father would track down sheet music for me and order it from music stores in Chicago or places like that. I just kept learning more music…until I discovered jazz. That was around age 13 or 14. That really caught my attention. Up until that point, music was just kind of a fun thing to do. Everybody in the family played instruments, but it wasn’t really a major pursuit of mine and I certainly didn’t think I would be a musician. But jazz really excited me.
The first record I heard was a Benny Goodman record. I don’t know how I came across it in Princeton, Indiana. My sister and brother and myself all got inexpensive record players around that time and we would search for records to buy. Somehow I ended up with this Benny Goodman record and I was so excited about what they were doing. There is so much rhythm and energy and excitement going on. I then started actively looking for jazz records and also tried to play jazz tunes. I practiced soloing and copying things I heard on the records.
So I did that into high school and towards the end of high school I had gotten to the point where I could play gigs at local clubs. The nearest larger town was about an hour away. It was called Evansville. My senior year of high school I was able to work at a restaurant there six nights a week with a trio and get some playing experience.
Later on you ended up going to Berklee College of Music and then even teaching there. How has the school changed between your student and teacher days?
When I went to the school it was still relatively new. It started in 1945 and when I came it was 15-years-old. It was still quite small with maybe 100 or 150 students in one remodeled brownstone house in the Back Bay of Boston. It was a terrific experience though. There were only two schools in the United States that welcomed jazz musicians as students. One was North Texas and the other one was Berklee. It’s hard to believe now that there are like 2000 colleges that have some kind of jazz band or program. But in 1960, if I left high school, those were my two choices. My father actually took me down to Texas on a business trip so that we could visit the campus at North Texas. It was even more desolate than Southern Indiana with tumbleweeds rolling down the street and everything. The whole jazz program was in a sort of temporary metal hut. I thought, “Whoa, I need to get to a city where there is more of a jazz scene.” So sight unseen I signed up for Berklee and it turned out to be just great. The teachers were really terrific and the Boston music scene was very vibrant. I got a great education during the two years I was a student at the school before I moved on to New York.
Then I came back ten years later and the school had grown by leaps and bounds. It was up to about a thousand students by that time. I was there for 33 years as an employee. It kind of broke down into decades: I was a teacher for a decade, then I was a dean for a decade, and then I was the Vice President for a decade. So I did less teaching in the last ten years that I was there because I had taken over the day-to-day running of the school. During that time we enlarged the school to 4,000 students, which is where it is today. We’re in 22 buildings now as well. It’s an amazing place, an amazing institution, like a city of music. In a way I wish I was going there now as a student. But I’ve had close ties to it and great feelings about the place ever since my student years, which was already a great experience even if I had never come back. I’ve been lucky to have a long run in the Berklee community.
Now I’ve been retired from education for about eight years, since 2004. I am teaching again though at Berklee, but I’m teaching online. They have a pretty substantial online program, which was actually one of my bright ideas the last year or two I was at the school before I stepped down. I proposed that we should get some sort of online school going. I never imagined it would become the big success that it is. But after watching it these past years from afar, I got interested in creating a course in improvisation and now I’ve been teaching since January. I’m enjoying it immensely. I have about 20 students to a class and I’ve created this whole 12-week program for the semester. I created 95 videos that the students learn from and then I’m online with them several times a week as well. It works out great because I can do it with flexibility around my gigging schedule. I’m enjoying being back in teaching again.
What are some of your overarching themes when you teach improvisation or just music in general?
My main thing about improvisation is that young musicians often get overwhelmed by all of the things they feel they need to master, whether that’s, “How do I play over all of these chords? How do I play fast? How do I play hip? How do I sound like my favorite player? What exercises should I be playing?” What gets lost in the shuffle is kind of an overview of what happens when we improvise. There’s a mental process that’s different than from playing rhythm music. It’s a lot like speech in that when we talk about something, we don’t think about nouns and verbs and sentence structure. We kind of picture what it is we want to communicate and the sentences pop into our mind as we say them. It’s this language thing that happens. The same thing happens in improvising. You get a tune and there’s a set of chord changes and you have all of this assimilated music language information and it puts together musical sentences for you, melodic phrases with the right notes and in the right order. They pop into your mind just as you’re about to play them the same way it happens when we speak. This is something that isn’t talked about much by music instructors. Everything is more in the physical terms. You know, play these scales, practice this exercise, set the metronome, do this and do that. Students frequently don’t understand exactly how it is supposed to work. How is this unconscious language ability at the heart of how we improvise?
So my teaching includes not only practical how-to information, but also keeping in mind how the overall process works.
That sounds like a pretty amazing course. Now, in creating this online program, where do you see technology and music interacting in the education forum nowadays?
Technology has had a huge impact on music in general during my lifetime. When recording came along and changed the whole music experience and then when multi-tracking came along, that changed things even more. When the synthesizer and the computer entered the scene it changed even more again. So now, the delivery methods of music and the tools we have to get what we’re thinking onto either paper or digital is vast. It used to be that you had to have a small fortune to make a proper record. Now people are doing them in their living rooms on their iPhone practically. So the cost of recording and creating layers of music has greatly gone down, just as the cost of computing has greatly gone down. We’re able to buy all of this incredible equipment and technology for an affordable price and moreover, we can do so much with it.
The big surprise for me with the online course was how effective you can be teaching music on the web. When I first thought about this ten years ago, I racked my brain thinking about how we would go about it when we’re used to the typical music lesson where you’re standing therewith the trumpet player in front of you and you say, “Play this,” you listen to it and critique them. How do you do that on the web? And son of a gun, if we didn’t find tons of ways to teach by examples, feedback, sharing files, and everything else. It’s amazing how well it works. The students who I’ve had so far have been raving about how much they’ve gotten out of the course and how much they’ve enjoyed it. The technology is sophisticated enough now where it works surprisingly well. I noticed my guitarist, Julian Lage, has put the word out that he’s looking for a computer collaborator, somebody to compose music with via the computer. They can be anywhere in the world. He’s going to pick someone to team up with for a composition project. There you go, he’s a 22-year-old and this is the world he is in. I would never even think of doing that, but to him this seems like a perfectly logical thing to do.
If you were still creating curriculum for Berklee today, is there anything you would put into practice that you don’t see happening?
Well, over the time I was there, every now and then I would come across something new that I thought would be a good addition to the school. One of them was starting a music synthesis major back in the ‘80s, another one was starting a music therapy program that I got very interested in during the ‘90s, and then this online program was another one. Now the school is so large and diverse, there are so many creative people. The school has about 1,000 employees and 500 or 600 teachers and everybody has ideas for possible things to do and teach or offer. It’s a very creative atmosphere. Right now I can’t think of anything that I feel is the next great thing that they haven’t tried yet. If I were still there on the campus maybe I would have some idea. I got my ideas from seeing other people doing them.
With the music synthesis major, there were a couple of really creative guys who were putting together a few courses that were just great using these new instruments. Pretty soon it seemed logical that we should have a program for that because a lot of students were interested. I stumbled into music therapy when working on a program in Japan with autistic children and their mothers. A friend asked me to do this and I went and did it. I learned so much about music therapy that I came back all fired up to explore it at Berklee. After a couple years of research it seemed to be a good fit and now Berklee has one of the larger music therapy programs. But all of these ideas came from students and people on the faculty or experiences I had. I was just in the position to give these ideas the green light.