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The University of Miami’s Frost School of Music at 95

A look at how Frost's jazz program has built a creative culture that draws in faculty and students alike

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In the early 2000s, pianist Emmet Cohen, then 17, was hammering away backstage at the Jazz Band of America concert in Indianapolis. He was part of a soundcheck with vocalist Patti Austin and the late saxophonist Phil Woods. “I was pounding on the piano cause I was super-excited,” he remembered in a recent interview, “and Shelly comes over, and he’s like, ‘Emmet, you can’t pound on the piano before the concert, you’re going to put it out of tune.’”

Cohen was embarrassed. “I said, ‘Oh my God, I’m sorry, I didn’t realize that.’”

But Shelly—that would be Shelly Berg, pianist, composer, and dean of the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music—saw an opportunity. “Then he said, ‘You come study with me, I’ll teach you how to play the piano without putting it out of tune.’”

During his 14-year tenure, Berg has shown himself to be a deft recruiter of talented students and faculty to Frost, which counts Cohen among its alums, alongside such notable names as Bobby Watson, Carmen Lundy, Danny Gottlieb, Jon Secada, Raul Midón, and Bruce Hornsby. (Two of the most famous musicians associated with Frost—guitarist Pat Metheny and the late bassist Jaco Pastorius, who both attended the school in the 1970s, when it was still called simply the University of Miami School of Music—never graduated and were actually faculty members there for longer than they were students.)

Now 31, Cohen, like many Frost graduates, is appreciative of the guidance he found there, especially from Berg—who, in addition to being the school’s dean, teaches piano. “He was serious about mentoring me in many different facets of my career and my music,” Cohen said. “He has a great way of getting the best you out of you.”

The culture at Frost, which has evolved significantly over the 95 years of its existence (it was renamed after arts patrons Phillip and Patricia Frost in 2003), is now carefully nurtured by the likes of Berg and the school’s chair of studio music, John Daversa. “Artistic creativity is something of great value here, and you can feel it when you’re on campus,” Daversa said, noting that students are encouraged to innovate while respecting the traditions of the past. 

Daversa also emphasized that there’s a healthy measure of competitiveness, but not the toxic variety that cripples the spirit and brings institutions down: “We challenge each other to be our best, but also nurture each other at the same time. That goes from faculty to student and student to faculty.” Additionally, students are encouraged to explore genres of music far outside their field of study and comfort zones. Even the classical students are taught to improvise. And there’s also diversity in the jazz department, which has ensembles that play R&B and gospel. “Jazz draws from so many different musics,” Daversa noted. “And we put it all together and make it our own in that freedom of expression.”

“We get the music on Tuesday, we’re playing it Wednesday night somewhere, because that’s the real world.” –Etienne Charles

Working Players Only

In an institution that prides itself on artistic freedom, there are few if any unbreakable rules. However, Berg insists on only hiring working musicians for the faculty. When students at Frost get a dose of music theory, it’s coming from skilled artists who continue to practice and refine their craft. “We give them our opinions and we don’t expect them to take everything we say as irrefutable,” Berg said. “But it carries a certain weight when they know that we do that thing that they’re aspiring to do.” 

The other element that makes putting seasoned musicians in the classroom effective is that they aren’t as constrained by rules, convention, or traditions that might inhibit how they choose to share their wisdom. Their expressed role is to guide students into becoming the best version of themselves.

In a masterclass video series on the school’s website, Frost’s teaching style is on full display. To illustrate the point that there are a number of ways to interpret music, Berg is joined by drummer Dafnis Prieto and pianists Martin Bejerano and Gonzalo Rubalcaba as they offer detailed commentary while deconstructing Keith Jarrett’s composition “Last Solo Final Impromptu.”

After playing a few bars, Berg chimes in. “This entire piece is played over a one-bar pattern in the left hand. And what’s difficult about it is, you’re doing in one hand what normally two hands of a drummer do. You’ve got American backbeat rock with Latin syncopation.” Bejerano adds a note of caution: “Don’t sit down and try to play this thing all at once. It’s going to be really difficult to do that.” From there, the teachers go on to offer technical advice that will assist musicians in performing the piece more efficiently.  

Frost’s instructors are also challenged to provide a mentorship experience that goes beyond creation and performance. “We understand that nobody cares if you have a degree on the bandstand,” Berg said. “They care about the artist that you are.” And complementary skills are needed to provide the foundation for a sustainable career as a musical artist. Among them: audience engagement, nurturing a fan base, and marketing. These skills are embedded throughout the school’s curriculum.

“Everybody on the faculty does something well besides play or sing,” said Berg, who leverages the non-musical talents of instructors by asking them to incorporate subjects like social media or stage presence into their lectures.

Brian Lynch is a trumpet professor and Grammy-winning bandleader (his album The Omni-American Book Club won Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album in 2020) who doubles as a marketing instructor at Frost. “I emphasize having the ability to wear many hats,” he said. “Putting a successful project together is thinking about the marketing right from the jump.” He tells his students to think about how to discuss their work, both in writing and conversationally, as if speaking to a reporter or working with a publicist. “You want to have control over the narrative about what is going to be said about what you’re doing.” 

Using his own success as an example for his students, he explained that marketing efforts for The Omni-American Book Club were framed around his experiences as a lifelong reader of African-American writers: “Everything was grouped around these authors and providing connections between the authors and the music that was composed.”

He also cautions young musicians to resist the temptation to emulate the playing style of an artist who’s enjoying a season of popularity. “A lot of players try to occupy the same space,” he said. “If you’re a trumpet player and it’s 2015, every kid is trying to sound like Ambrose [Akinmusire]. Be original and talk about what makes you unique.”