Campus & Community

Mixing it up musically

“I’m interested in doing policy work one day,” Jenny Baker says. “But I’m also dedicated to my music.”

Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer

7 min read

Dual-degree students from Harvard and Berklee find many ways to harmonize

Two degrees, two colleges, two worlds

Adjusting to University life is a challenge for any entering student. But for a handful of students enrolled in Harvard College’s dual-degree program with Berklee College of Music, the challenges — and the joys — are twofold.

“I couldn’t imagine anything more perfect,” says sophomore Jenny Baker, a singer-songwriter and sociology concentrator. She’s taking advantage of the program to dive deeply into her passions: not only music, but gender studies, social and political inequalities, and criminal justice reform.

“I’m so excited about the chance to tap into Harvard’s resources, and Berklee’s too,” says Baker. “There’s such a different energy at both places.”

The five-year program, launched in 2016, allows students to pursue a bachelor of arts (A.B.) degree at Harvard and a master of music (M.M.) or master of arts (M.A.) at Berklee at the same time. During their first three years, students pursue a degree in the concentration of their choice at Harvard and take private instruction at Berklee. At the end of their third year, students complete an audition and interview to confirm their readiness for the Berklee master’s program. The fourth year focuses on completing all Harvard requirements, and the fifth year on the requirements for the M.M. or M.A.

This fall, Baker was part of both Berklee’s Mixed Pop Styles ensemble and Harvard’s 21 Colorful Crimson, a group of undergraduates in the class of 2021 who create and perform an eclectic mix of music. “There are a lot more musicians at Harvard than I expected,” she says. Going over to Berklee for rehearsals and classes allows her to dive into vocal technique and the experience of performing in an ensemble. She is also interested in other aspects of music, including songwriting, music law, and the challenges faced by artists’ managers. Back at Harvard, she’s taking classes on subjects such as mass incarceration, U.S. immigration policy, and feminist political thought. “I’m interested in doing policy work one day,” she says. “But I’m also dedicated to my music.”

Avanti Nagral convinced her professor in a gender studies seminar to accept an original song for her final class project.

Photo by Olivia Falcigno

“The Other Side” by Avanti Nagral

Avanti Nagral, a junior psychology and global health concentrator, is similarly relishing the chance to explore Harvard’s intellectual resources on many different subjects. But she’s also been impressed — even amazed — by the caliber of talent and dedication of her fellow students at Berklee. “It’s great to walk into a room and know that maybe 80 percent of the people there are talented and committed,” she says. “You can’t find that at very many other places.”

Nagral is a singer-songwriter whose most recent single, “The Other Side,” draws on her experience of living between two worlds: Boston and her hometown of Mumbai, and now Harvard Square and Back Bay. “I remember sitting and reading a neuroscience textbook while I waited for a private lesson at Berklee,” she says with a laugh. “People didn’t know why I was looking at pictures of a brain. But I’m interested in all of it.”

Nagral and her fellow students admit that the logistics of pursuing a dual degree can be challenging: “I spend my life on the 1 bus,” Nagral says. But the experiences also inform each other. Nagral has used the techniques she has picked up from private instruction at Berklee in her work as a peer speaking tutor at Harvard, helping other students prepare for speeches and presentations by coaching them on stage presence and body language. “I’ll always start with a vocal warm-up,” she says. “I want them to understand that the voice is more than just words.”

Nagral also finds ways to make her Harvard coursework applicable to her music. In the negotiation and conflict-management course she took this fall, she tailored some assignments to deal with contractual and legal issues in the music industry. She also convinced her professor in a gender studies seminar to accept an original song for her final class project.

“My experiences definitely inform each other,” she says. “And my classes at Berklee have given me the vocabulary for some things I was already trying in my own music. It’s been great to have these practical skills — creating lead sheets, for example — and also to be asked good questions like, ‘What’s your purpose as an artist?’ I don’t always have an answer, but it’s well worth thinking about.”

Eric Tarlin, besides being a dual-degree student, also plays in Harvard’s jazz band.

Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer

“How You Gonna Hate” by 21CC (featuring Jenny Baker and Eric Tarlin)

Sophomore and saxophonist Eric Tarlin agrees. “I’m interested in music tech and music performance, but the liberal arts aspect of the program is really important to me,” he says. “I think that foundation is vital to becoming a thinking adult. So I’ve been thrilled to dig into liberal arts classes and music classes at Harvard, and then private lessons and ensembles and some other classes at Berklee.”

Although the students enjoy the range of opportunities, they admit it can be tough to juggle not only the scheduling but the different approaches to music.

“There’s a lot more structured classical music at Harvard,” says violinist and music concentrator Emily Spector, a sophomore who also participates in classical ensembles at Harvard. Tarlin, who plays in Harvard’s jazz band, points to the department’s emphasis on musicology, “very different” from the broad range of musically focused disciplines at Berklee. But, he says, the two approaches make for a fascinating give-and-take that is shaping him as a student and a musician.

Emily Spector has taken songwriting classes on both sides of the river.

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

“When the Highway Ends” by Emily Spector

Spector agrees. “It’s been really cool to sort of help create this program,” she says. “I was so excited that it launched just in time for me to take it. I wanted a liberal arts experience, but I also wanted music, and not just classical.” In addition to her violin work, Spector (a voice principal at Berklee) plays guitar and piano, and has taken songwriting classes on both sides of the river. “It’s a nice mix of performance, composition, and the more scholarly work, which I really enjoy,” she says. “There are definitely clashes and challenges. But there are times when it all lines up nicely.”

Spector’s solution to the crosstown back-and-forth has been to dig her old bike out of her family’s garage. “It’s the best thing ever,” she says. “I can stuff my books into my guitar case and ride across the river with it on my back. I can be totally independent, do my own thing.”

But even more than the independence, Spector says the biggest advantage of the dual-degree program is the chance to enjoy two vibrant communities.

“The biggest value of any institution is the people,” she says. “I feel lucky to be surrounded by so many amazing people at both places. It’s really helping me grow as a student and a performer.”