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Behind the Scenes: Josh Groban’s Musical Director Takes Us Backstage at TD Garden

Alumni Tariqh Akoni ('91) points out the workers setting up the stage and explains the process to a group of Berklee students, Oct. 28 at the TD Garden. Photo credit: Belinda Huang

Tariqh Akoni (’91) points out the workers setting up the stage at the TD Garden and explains the process to a group of Berklee students. (Photo credit: Belinda Huang)

By Belinda Huang

True success is never selfish—it is a shared joy, a giving opportunity, and a special gift. Berklee alum, guitarist, and Josh Groban’s musical director Tariqh Akoni (’91) is a prime example of just that, a man who is humble and defined by a spirit of giving. On October 28th, Akoni took a group of Berklee students through a full-day journey at the TD Garden, from afternoon rehearsals to post-concert, showing us what his life is like on tour with Groban.

Upon arrival, we were led backstage into a rehearsal room where we were introduced to Groban’s band. The band consisted of two additional alumni, Grammy-winning pianist Ruslan Siriota (’03) and drummer Dave DiCenso (’76), as well as world-renowned musicians such as trumpet player Daniel Rosenboom and violinst Christian Hebel. Despite being in a room filled with incredible musicians, the meeting felt surprisingly casual. The band members humbly sat down with us to answer our questions as well as share their advice.

Here are some words of wisdom that stood out to me:

A musician’s narrative — what is said when he or she is not present — is extremely important. “You start at the bottom of the ladder and work your way up,” said Akoni. “Every time you get negative hashmarks, you go down the ladder. Be professional, be prepared and remain consistent.” Rosenboom echoed by saying, “Work amicably with everyone and make sure you are a joy to be around. Everything is word of mouth and who you are as a total package.”

Being a successful musician also means taking chances. Both Siriota and Akoni advised not to wait until you “get it all together,” but to have a happy medium of knowing where you’re at and going for it when you’re ready. “You are doing yourself a disservice if you think you’re better or worse than you really are,” said Akoni.

In addition, the music industry is constantly changing, and with that comes many challenges. Siriota advised, “Don’t get into a job that doesn’t teach you anything. Look further ahead and start now to build something you’ll be happy with at 48.” Akoni added, “Be flexible enough to work with the times—catch-as-catch-can. Remain smart about how to be malleable and think outside the box to where things are moving.”

Following the interview, Akoni proceeded to rehearse the locally hired orchestra and choir in one-hour blocks. We witnessed the process as flies on the wall, and it was incredible to see the level of skill and acute musicianship Akoni demonstrated during the rehearsals. He wasted no time, and though he remained extremely focused and commanding, he still had a warmth and livelihood about the way he directed the musicians, which was extremely admirable.

We then continued to the stage floor, which was colossal and overwhelming (the TD Garden fits up to 17,000 people). There was an army of workers loading and setting up chairs as well as workers building the stage. Akoni talked us through the process of how the stage is built (which begins at 5 a.m. the day of the show), and then answered a few more of our remaining questions. From there we parted and waited until the show started later that night.

All of us were filled with anxious excitement as we took our seats. It felt different from other concerts because there was a connection that was made between the band and us; it was like we knew them. So when the lights dimmed and Groban took the stage, it was a truly special moment. The empty seats from the afternoon were now filled with people, the stage was exuberant with lights going wild, and the music was coming to life. I could hear the intricate string parts that were rehearsed in the afternoon, I could remember the parts Akoni told the band to watch out for, and I silently cheered when they were successful. Everything about the show was different—I was a part of it.

As the show reluctantly came to a close, we knew the night still wasn’t over: Akoni had promised to bring us backstage after the show. We were led to a waiting area post-concert, and sure enough, Akoni came to get us. With him was Judith Hill, who opened the show. (Disclaimer: I am a huge Judith Hill fan. In other words, I freaked. I was able to shake hands with her, snap a picture, and ask her a few questions. I was in a star-struck daze after that, and it is a moment I will never forget.)

While backstage, we relayed our feedback about the show to Akoni. We all loved it and told him we felt like we were a part of it. We had the full experience and watched the magic unfold. Even after the show, Akoni continued his spirit of giving by answering any other questions we had. Through such a tiring, non-stop day, he remained completely engaged in us, eager to continue sharing his advice and experience.

Before we left, I remember him saying, “I’m willing to work harder than anyone else.” And from the looks of it, that statement could not be truer. Whether he is rehearsing, performing, or giving advice to aspiring musicians, he is completely invested and engaged in what he is doing. That is what makes him successful. And from this experience, I was completely re-inspired to persevere and work hard to do what I love. He didn’t just talk the talk—he walked the walk. He showed us what a real musician looks like, and he shared his life with us. That, to me, is true success. Because of him, many of us were inspired to follow his footsteps to become people of character and generosity. His impact will surely be an imprint on my musical journey.

Visit berkleegroove.com next week for our review of this concert!

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- who has written 15 posts on The Berklee Groove.


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