What's the best way to get into the music business - education or experience? Juan Chavez shows you why you don't have to choose. This Berklee College of Music student has a thriving music career with his salsa band Dile on the go even while he is pursuing a degree. Here, he gives some insight into what student life is like at Berklee, plus he shares some behind the scene stories about his oh-so-accomplished band. Read on to find out how you can get the best of both worlds.
Question: What’s a typical day like in the life of a Berklee music student?
Academically, Berklee students have about 4 classes a day, including music labs, private lessons, ensembles, general education classes and classes relevant to your major. Berklee students are given heavy workloads, so a good portion of our time is spent on assignments. Outside of academics, Berklee students are constantly making music, including anything from practicing to composing, recording, performing and more. Our day usually runs very late when it comes to music and you can find us in the practice rooms at all hours of the night. Socially, Berklee students secure plenty of time for just hanging out; although, I will say when Berklee students are just hanging out, they usually have an instrument in their hand and tend to speak in song.
Q: You’re a bandleader at Berklee – what are your responsibilities? How did you end up that role?
As a bandleader I must do everything that keeps the band in existence! I have to work as a performer, music arranger, composer, manager, publicist, clinician, agent, and (sometimes) parental figure. I’ve always been a take charge; build something greater than you type of person. Since pre-school I think I’ve always been trying to boss people around. In high school I led a Salsa band and when I came to Berklee I wanted to continue to have my own band. I put out an ad for salsa musicians and got more responses than I knew how to deal with! I held auditions and ask those who I thought were good fits to join. Of the eleven I initially selected three years ago, two of them are still with me today.
I have extensive knowledge when it comes to Afro-Cuban music and I’ve always made sure that my musicians know I’m an open book and am willing and eager to teach them everything I know. I think it’s because I’m so willing to share my knowledge I have that I’ve been able to maintain a leadership role.
Aside from my knowledge of the music I have good business skills, which a lot of musicians lack. Musicians are much more eager to work with a bandleader that can ensure work. I’ve always made sure to befriend business and venue owners in my music field. Not just become acquaintances, but also really get to know to them, spend time and show that both my band and I are genuine, trustworthy and have a passion for this salsa music business.
Q: You’re a salsa violinist – not what many people think of when they think of the violin! Tell me more. What came first for you, your love of salsa or your love of the violin? How did you marry the two?
Although people don’t think of the violin in salsa, it’s actually been a part of the music longer than the piano and even the conga drum. When people think of the violin they think of long beautiful melodic lines, which isn’t a wrong representation of the violin, it’s just one-sighted. In salsa the role is reversed. The violin is a percussive harmonic instrument that provides support the same way a drum and guitar would. If you listened to a salsa radio station for an hour you would hear at least one salsa violinist; however, the instrument is being played out of the context that you’re accustomed to and you’re more likely to pay attention to a lead vocal or melody line. Although the violin is a supportive instrument in salsa, occasionally great musicians such as Alfredo de la Fé, Susie Hansen or Anthony Blea pull it into the spotlight. When this is done well the sound is incredible! To me it’s a perfect mix of rhythm, melody and harmony all in one instrument and in one song.
My love for the violin definitely came first! I’ve been playing as long as I can remember. I was inspired to play after attending a Dwight Yoakam concert at the rodeo in Fort Worth, Texas when I was very young. All I remember was seeing an amazing fiddle player taking a solo on the huge side screens. He had so much passion in his face as he improvised and all I knew is that I wanted to play that instrument. Shortly after, I fell in love with classical music and from elementary school to my teenage years I annoyed everyone around me with constant unwanted music facts.
In junior high school I became obsessed with improvised music and none of my teachers could improvise or knew much about it. I tried to teach myself but was never happy with how I sounded and had no clue what the methodology was behind improvising. I auditioned for, and was accepted to, the performing arts high school in Dallas and was fortunate that there were amazing jazz music teachers there, in addition to the fact that the school was forming the only salsa ensemble in the country that counted towards academic credit. I auditioned and made it into the salsa ensemble and from then on knew that salsa was the music I wanted to play for the rest of my life. Since then I’ve been writing, transcribing, listening to and learning from salsa music for the violin, as well as trying to make it publicly available to those who are also eager to learn.
Q: Your salsa group Díle has an impressive list of accomplishments under its belt – being the first student Latin band to represent Berklee outside of Boston, recording at XM Radio headquarters, performing live on Voice of America – the list goes on and on. Do you think your affiliation with has helped you secure opportunities? How so?