Some people need to find their talent before they translate it into a calling. Not Shelly Berg. The dean of the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music could play piano with two hands before he even started attending Cleveland Institute of Music at age 6.
“If you had asked me when I was 6 years old, ‘What are you?’ I [would have said] ‘I’m a musician.’ It’s what I am,” Berg says. “It was always as much me as my name.”
As an adult, Berg is a musical jack of all trades: producer, composer, arranger, director and jazz and classical pianist. His career has taken him to a variety of musical worlds. He has orchestrated for film and television, recorded and arranged with a host of jazz musicians, earned Grammy Award nominations, and worked with artists as varied as Steve Miller, Prince Royce, Carole King and Chicago.
Berg has shared his knowledge as well. He taught jazz at the University of Southern California for 16 years before becoming the Frost School’s dean in June 2007. There, he has implemented the school’s Frost method, which is characterized by experiential learning in a broad range of skill sets across musical genres.
“We have students in groups of four or five with a teacher … composing, improvising, arranging and orchestrating,” Berg says. “We’re teaching every student about music business and music technology, how to have good stage presence and market themselves well and be able to teach. … Your career doesn’t start when you leave college; your career’s already going.”
The Pinecrest resident spoke with Pinecrest Lifestyle about his career and his thoughts on music.
1. Can you tell us about a memorable musical project?
Right before I left Los Angeles, I was the musical director [of a PBS special]. It was emceed by Natalie Cole and Quincy Jones—a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald on her 90th birthday. It featured Stevie Wonder and Wynonna Judd and the great Nancy Wilson—all these amazing artists in one show. It was the first time that I performed with Stevie Wonder. I’ll never forget what it felt like when he came on stage and what it felt like to be a part of that.
2. In a TED Talk, you posited that Burt Bacharach is the secret to life. How so?
Burt Bacharach co-composed a song with Hal David called “Alfie.” I did the math and he has sung “Alfie” 10,000 times. Yet, if he walked into a room today and played “Alfie,” it would move you to tears. How does that happen? It happens because somehow, he’s able … to call upon that original emotion and make it new again. If every day when I wake up, I can feel like the first time I told my wife I love you and make it new again—isn’t that the secret to life? You have to do that to be a great musician. Music teaches us something that, if we transfer it to the rest of our lives, is very powerful. But you don’t have to be musician to understand it.
3. Is there a particular challenge to playing both jazz and classical music?
Musicians who I know grew up playing classical music only get nervous when they have to play jazz. And musicians who primarily play jazz can get nervous when they have to play classical. The classical musicians are more comfortable with the notes that they know they’re going to play. Jazz musicians are nervous about “I have to play that note. I hope I get it right.” Because music is an endless way to learn and grow, I’m trying to [get to the mindset] where playing classical music feels like playing jazz. When you’re playing jazz, you are creating on the spot. I want to play classical music as if I’m making it up, as if I didn’t practice all those notes. I’m not there yet, but I’m working on it.
4. What do you see in the future of music in Miami?
There’s no way to tell what the future of music in Miami is, because there are so many influences here. But we know this: Miami is a culture that loves music. This is an interesting place because things might happen here that couldn’t happen anywhere else, because of the musical cultures that are mixing here in ways that they don’t mix in other places. I think it’s an exciting time to be in Miami because people are collaborating from across different cultures. I love being in Miami. I think the vibrancy of the music scene is amazing. Our students are out there playing professionally all the time, so I know it’s a vibrant scene because they’re busy.
5. What would surprise people to know about you?
People see me on stage and think I’m the most comfortable, confident person in the world, but I went through decades of stage fright that I’m still overcoming in some ways. I don’t have it with jazz anymore but I can still have it a little bit with classical music. It’s not debilitating me anymore.