By Erich Riepen
Two Berklee alumni currently on tour with virtuoso vocalist Josh Groban offered their experience to eager ears at the Alumni Affairs Office following Groban’s most recent concert in Boston. The first of them, Tariqh Akoni (’91), is a highly sought-after sideman and seasoned session guitarist in LA. Now musical director for Groban’s tour, he has performed and recorded with the likes of Elton John, Christina Aguilera, Stevie Wonder, and Jennifer Lopez. The second alum, keyboardist Ruslan Sirota (’03), holds a Grammy for his work with the Stanley Clarke band and has played for Seal, Ne-Yo, Chick Corea, and more. Tariqh and Ruslan kindly shared their knowledge with students about being at Berklee and making it in the music industry. Here’s what they had to say:
1. Your career starts at Berklee.
Berklee is a microcosm of the outside music world. Like no other school, the College has a unique culture that works just like it does in real life. As a student, you are beginning to develop your reputation that will follow you the rest of your career. Everything you do – your punctuality, your attitude, the work you put into class, your willingness to play sessions and to show up – contributes to the impression you make on your peers, the very same girls and guys who one day will rule the music profession. Take advantage of the outstanding opportunity to interact with and learn from all the great players and writers at your fingertips. Look out for the unknown, quiet kids in class – you never know who is going to make it.
2. Play everything.
Don’t be picky about what tracks you play on or what groups you perform with. Do it all. Tariqh, now one of the leading guitarists in LA, started out doing a lot of average gigs and simply played for “anyone who was dumb enough to call [him].” After graduating from Berklee, Ruslan played R&B in a General Business band for two years. It was through simply doing a lot of shows that both Tariqh and Ruslan were discovered and taken on by bigger acts. Takeaway: Be versatile and explore different genres – you will be sought after for playing “without an accent.”
3. Be visible.
People won’t come knocking on your door to hear you play. You must showcase your skills yourself. Musicians are able to work in the industry because key people know (or at least know of) them, so make an effort to be around. It’s not necessarily the best players who get hired – it’s the ones people see or hear about. Ruslan recalled a time when he recommended a less qualified guitarist over a better player simply because he had recently seen the one guitarist at a show and had totally forgotten about the other. For Tariqh, his first major gig (with Tom Scott) came about because he was recommended by some of his very own band mates. Word-of-mouth is powerful, so make an effort to be in people’s short-term memory.
4. Take time to practice. Now.
For most students, your study at Berklee comes at a unique time in your life because you do not yet have the responsibilities (spouses, kids, finances) that will one day tug you away from the practice room. Take the time now for those 4-hour practice sessions and make sacrifices from your social life to improve as a musician. Partying will always be there for you later. If you think you don’t have the time to put in practice, Tariqh suggested mapping out the 24 hours of each day to delineate sleep, meals, class, work, and practice. There is always more time than you think to fit in homework.
5. Work the hardest.
Hard work is the precursor to success. Tariqh attributed his ability to work in the competitive music industry to his dogged work ethic. “You will never beat me,” he emphasized, describing his drive to work harder than anybody else for a gig, many times transcribing entire songs and studying them. Every single performance reflects on your viability as a player, so make sure you go to the mat, fight, and “play the sh*t out of it” every time. Though you should never play gigs that are above your current level, keep pushing the envelope and never settle. If you’re not good enough to play something, go to the woodshed and practice until you are.
6. Inspire confidence in others.
People must be able to trust you before they can feel confident enough to hire you or recommend you for a gig, so always be professional. Never excuse yourself for anything you can manage: Show up on time, learn the music extremely well, and “don’t be an a**hole.” Keep in mind that you are responsible for the experience of the crowd, so maintain good stage presence. Be prepared to play by ear and to mesh with the band by listening to the other musicians. Remember, every time you have a performance, your reputation is at stake. Word gets around!
7. Keep trying until you make it.
If you don’t have success at first, don’t give up. Ruslan offered an excellent analogy to illustrate the value of persistence in a career like music: It’s like the classic probability problem of blindly pulling a certain colored marble out of a bag. If you don’t pick the right one at first, reach back and pull again. In the end, with enough attempts, you will succeed by finding the one you want.
In the interim between reaches in and out of the proverbial sack of marbles, make sure you are prepared for the unexpected run-ins with those who can further your career. Treat every $50 gig like a $5,000 show – you never know who’s watching. Assuming you have only three minutes to impress a big shot who’s interested in you, what would you want him or her to see? Carrying around handsome business cards and having a solid website that shows exactly who you are and clearly displays your music will reflect well on you. If you attach mp3’s to an email, don’t ever send out more than 3 tracks – it’s just too much. There is value in simply hanging out where musicians and industry people go, so increase your chances of a fruitful encounter by sticking around!
Both Tariqh Akoni and Ruslan Sirota began small. Careers that started out at Berklee and in small Boston venues ended up in stadium-sized concerts with A-List artists. If you have aspirations to play for a singer like Josh Groban, heed their advice: Network while you’re at Berklee, work harder than ever before, stay visible, and always be professional. Getting a gig is about far more than simply being the best player, so follow all leads and be relentless. Never forget this: It all starts right now at Berklee.