Becoming Village People: a TALK21 with David Wallace

David Wallace is the chair of the String Department at Berklee College of Music, where the philosophy holds that “it takes a village” to educate and mentor a class of students. At Berklee, young musicians are not only encouraged to study with different instructors over the course of their academic careers, but they may also do so simultaneously—even if the instructors’ teaching styles and playing aesthetics are radically different. Hybrid ensembles and performers emerge: Celtic fiddling bands that reinvent Swedish folk tunes, harpists who devote themselves to jazz. It is the belief of Wallace and the entire string department that such versatility and curiosity are what best prepare music students for the unpredictable careers that lay ahead. 

The 21CMposium held in Greencastle, Ind., welcomed performers, educators, entrepreneurs and music leaders of all kinds to imagine the 21st-century musician. At TALK21 sessions, speakers delivered TED-style talks, during which they shared their personal experiences and contributed the wisdom they gained to this collective vision. For Wallace and the Berklee String Department, the 21st-century musician is curious about unfamiliar practices, invested in his or her peers’ success and committed to the idea that a diverse, positive community is integral to the musical life.


On embracing the diversity within a single person…

“If you are village people, you are acknowledging the whole person. You are not compartmentalizing their skill set, but you are saying, how can I tap every part of who this person is? You are not telling the person who they are, who they aren’t, what part of them you accept, which part of them you don’t accept. You start telling people ‘yes’ and ‘why not’. And when you’re in an environment where this happens, amazing and creative synergy starts to happen. New things that you never dreamed of suddenly become possible.”

On creating departments where students belong to everyone and no one…

“At its best, this model [of students assigned to only one teacher] is a deep kind of apprenticeship. And it does ensure a very solid tradition and technical background. … However, I would argue that this can be problematic, because if we continue to perpetuate structures and cultures where students are siloed, identified, stereotyped and judged according to who their private teacher is—this is not a village model. At its worst, it becomes a fiefdom, and it becomes limiting, and it can become abusive. At Berklee, since everyone is the department’s student, the teachers can’t compete with one another. We don’t own the students. …That gives the students a sense of freedom and self-empowerment.”

On what it takes to build a varied team…

“When you are hiring, think about what don’t I have that I could have? … It’s helpful to put together a more strategic hiring force to look for diversity. Also, ask yourself the hard question of whom am I shutting down or shutting out. If you don’t know, set up a conversation with a student who is dropping out or transferring, or a faculty member who’s leaving for something else. It’s worth the conversation. … Those things you learn should inform how you adjust your village.”

David Wallace

Dr. David Wallace is a fiercely eclectic musician, award-winning composer, master teaching artist, and Chair of Berklee College of Music’s String Department.  …more 

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