What I Wish I’d Known About Berklee: A Retrospective

by Lily Lyons

In three weeks I’ll graduate and be done with Berklee. When people ask, I say I’m ready for it to be over—not because I have my life perfectly together, but because there is a time for everything to end, and I’ve been at this school long enough. I could go all nostalgic on you and talk about the ancient days of my first semester when the caf was this janky but lovable place in the basement of 150 and 160 didn’t even fully exist. But I’m not going to do that. Because it’s romanticizing the past. And though my time at Berklee was lot of things—exciting, challenging, and an opportunity I’m deeply grateful for—it was definitely not romantic. So instead of reminiscing, I’m going to write a letter to my 18-year-old self starting college and tell her the things she would need to hear, the things I wish she had known. And hopefully if you’re reading this it will speak to you and your Berklee experience too.

Dear 1st semester me,

I want to say a few things to you as you start out at Berklee, the school you don’t really know yet but that you chose because it gave you butterflies, and made you uncomfortable and exhilarated all at once.

1. You belong at Berklee. You belong here. This is your community and you are not a part of it by accident. Some people come to this school thinking they’re the best and they deserve this—but a lot of people, including you, aren’t yet sure this is a space they can inhabit, a place they can be. So I want to tell you that you are here because of hard work and musicality and willpower. You can be here. Unapologetically.

2. Berklee is not going to hold your hand. It will not support you or take care of you. You will have to ask it for what you want, and savor the sweet and sour of the things it offers back. You will have to start from zero, alone in some strange apartment, and build up a support network.  And then you’ll need to choose to show up—for class, for friends, for rehearsals, for sessions—and be fully, deliciously present. Berklee can be a bit ruthless, but no other school has more to offer to someone willing to take initiative.

3. Believe your mentors. There will be moments in your Berklee career when your professors and friends you respect tell you you can do things that you don’t think you are capable of yet. You are capable. You have to trust a little when the people you look up to tell you it’s time for you to leap. You are not the only—and not always the best—judge of your abilities.

4. Be kind to yourself. You’re the type of person who is constantly restless and you’re surrounded by people who are restless too. This is because there’s always room to be better in art, and restlessness is needed to innovate, to push. But within that restless feeling you need to be kind to yourself. Measure yourself on your progress, and fall in love with the idea of progress as much as you are in love with the idea of achievement. You need to go through phases where you don’t sound—or write—like you want to in order to get where you need to be. Ira Glass has a great thought about this:

5. The rules are flexible. You can eat lucky charms for dinner or test out of your MAT class. You can ask for extensions. You can do way more than what’s required of you. Or, if everything is too much, you can just skip class and take the T to the ocean. The key is that if you want to do something differently you have to ask for it thoughtfully.

6. Don’t go too fast. I know it seems like you were supposed to have already figured your shit out before you even got here. But you’re going to grow and change your mind. So be here while you’re here. Allow yourself to be a student, a work in progress. And realize that you don’t stop working and learning when you walk out of these doors. This is just the prep, the beginning of your development as a musician. If you rush it too much you’re gonna burn out. And you’ll end up sitting by the Charles ugly crying because you took too many credits for summer semester and it’s been years since you have done anything but school and you’ve stopped remembering what sleep feels like. So don’t do that to yourself.

7. Your ego fragility is not worth failing to try things out. Attempt something new and suck at it. Aim at some grand musical goal and have it fail. Regretting doing stupid things is better than regretting not having done anything at all.

But above everything else, remember you belong here.