Taking Up the Baton
President Erica Muhl describes herself as a radio person, not a playlist person. She likes to channel surf. She’ll jump from the classical channel to the one that plays ’80s pop and rock. From there, she might dip into some bluegrass, take a ride on the country air waves, or spend time with folk and classic rock favorites. Lately, her digital dial has been landing a lot on the jazz station.
It’s hard not to hear a bit of her own biography in the genres she likes. “Music, I think, was really a very large part of everything I did and thought about from my earliest years,” she says, describing a lifelong passion that began with classical training, propelled her through a long career as a composer and educator, and brought her last May to Berklee, where she became the fourth president in the history of the institution, assuming a post held by Roger H. Brown since 2004.
It was a path she seemed to follow naturally. The daughter of Edward Muhl, who ran Universal Pictures for 20 years, and Barbara Muhl, an amateur opera singer, Erica Muhl grew up surrounded by artists and musicians. When she was 3 years old, her parents enrolled her in violin lessons. At 10, she switched to piano, and by 13 she was composing. In high school, she belonged to both the jazz band and school orchestra. All the while, she was soaking in the music of the time, from the rock ’n’ roll of Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones to songs coming out of her native Los Angeles by folk pioneers Joni Mitchell and Linda Ronstadt.
After high school, she went to the American Conservatory of Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger, an iconic educator and composer who had taught such luminaries as Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, and Quincy Jones '51 '83H. Muhl then returned to the U.S. and got three degrees in music composition: a bachelor’s from California State University, Northridge; a graduate degree from the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome; and a doctorate from the University of Southern California, where she later became a tenured professor of composition. Tucked into the spaces between these milestones, she worked as an assistant conductor for the Seattle Opera, played banjo in a bluegrass band, and maintained a composing career, among myriad other endeavors.
A little more than a decade ago, she turned her focus to executive roles. Starting in 2009, she spent three years as associate dean of the USC Thornton School of Music. From there, she took on the role of dean of the USC Roski School of Art and Design, a position she held until 2018. Meanwhile, in 2013, she became the founding executive director of the USC Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy, which focuses on innovations in the areas where technology, business, communication, and arts and design overlap.
It was during this period that she began thinking intensively about what it takes to educate students in a way that honors their choices and agency, and she began asking questions such as, “Does that mean that faculty change what they do? Does it mean that we educate in different types of facilities? Do we educate in cohorts or groups or teams? Do we bring in experiential learning or real-world learning? And what does all of that look like if we’re really starting to think about driving impact as educators?”
It was at this point, she said in an early February interview in her office, that she changed course. “So my career just took an enormous turn 10 years ago because of that realization, which is why I’m here today rather than a tenured professor of composition at USC.”
Below is an edited and condensed version of that conversation.
When did you know you wanted to be a musician?
I think it was when I started writing for the first time ... when I could really take my own ideas, get them down in a way that they could then be recreated either by me or by somebody else—that that was an experience that I just hadn’t anticipated in terms of not just the ability to express musically something that was mine, but it gave me a whole other dimension of communication that I think I just hadn’t anticipated would be as much fun as it was.
Through high school, that passion grew and that love grew. And then when I was given the opportunity to audition some of my early works for some of the people that worked with Mademoiselle Boulanger, that was a dream come true. And then working with her, it was just clear to me that was my path. And I became very fixed about it from that point, and there was just no other way for me to go.
“I realized that what I was doing as an educator quite possibly was more important than what I was doing as a composer. And that the ability to clear the path...just became so much fun.”
Do you still make time to play the piano and compose these days?
My piano is currently in Los Angeles being restored. So I haven’t been able to play for months on end at this point, and I miss it horribly. But I only play for myself, because I’m afraid the path that I’ve chosen doesn’t allow the hours in a day to be able to really keep my chops up. But I do love it. Both playing the piano well and composing well—they take a lot of time during the day to be able to keep those skills, and I call them muscles, working well and fluidly. And so unfortunately, I did make a choice about seven years ago to not take any more commissions as a composer.
Growing up, who did you look up to both musically and as a person?
So I had a lot of heroes, as a young composer, who were working in films…composers like Erich Korngold and Bernard Herrmann. And, more recently, John Williams, whom I met and knew in Los Angeles.… I had the opportunity, being in a city like Los Angeles, to have my musical ideas and my musical tastes formed by a lot of really, really great people.… One of those was a gentleman that I was able to study conducting with, and he was probably the most formative influence on me as a conductor, and that was Fritz Zweig, who had been principal conductor of the Deutsche Oper Berlin. I was able to learn repertoire from him in a way that came down almost through an oral tradition that was very, very powerful. He had worked with and helped to premiere a number of the works of Richard Strauss, for example. And he had been a pupil of Humperdinck, and through Humperdinck had this amazing oral tradition from Beethoven. And so it was an extraordinary experience.… I’ve also been greatly influenced by the work of composers like Joan Tower and many others, women in this country and others, who have forged the path for a younger generation of women composers like me. It wasn’t always an easy path for women, especially in the United States. And so Joan was a mentor and a good friend.
Most recently, one of my heroes is Jimmy Iovine. He’s extraordinarily giving. What he knows about the music industry is just astonishing, and what he knows about identifying and supporting talent, and the long roster of artists that he helped to launch and to support during their careers, but also now his work in supporting students and education. So that was an incredible friendship for me. I still count him as a friend.
What do you think is the most important lesson you learned from him?
Humility. He talks about humility nonstop. I’ve seen him put it into action; I have seen him at the peak of his career sit at the feet of anybody that he felt he could learn from. And that’s a remarkable trait: to be as accomplished as he is in his career and to have hit the milestones that he’s hit in so many different areas of his career, and yet, he still feels like he can learn from anybody who crosses his path.
About your time at USC, and at the Iovine and Young Academy, what would you say is the most important thing you’ve learned from working in these academic institutions?
I think it’s important to always remember why we’re here: We’re here for the students. When we’re young and we’re creative artists, we think about what we might contribute to the world someday as a creative artist.… I remember reaching a point in my work, both as a composer and as an educator, where I realized that what I was doing as an educator quite possibly was more important than what I was doing as a composer. And that the ability to clear the path, if you will, to support and provide the means for somebody else to become the person that they were supposed to become, just became so much fun. And I felt that “Okay, well, what I might do as an artist, that’s fine. If it’s had any impact on the world, that’s fantastic. But on any given day, I might be affecting the lives of 10, 20, or 30 performance artists, creative artists, etc., who themselves might go out and affect the lives of 10, 20, or 30 people who were making these great contributions to the world, and on and on and on.” So it not only seemed like the right path to focus on; it just became incredibly fulfilling.
“Education needs to be more affordable. It needs to be more accessible. It needs to be more equitable. It also needs to be more relevant.”
How do you think an arts education prepares people for whichever field they want to go into?
I have seen without question that an education in the arts creates resilience. It creates strength of purpose. It also creates fantastic thinkers who are naturally critical in their analysis of everything that they encounter. They are also not afraid of situations that might present ambiguity, and that might take time to work through, or work toward an outcome that is initially unseen. We are also by nature collaborative in the arts. And so the ability to bring other minds or other perspectives to a problem is quite natural for us. If you think about it, and you think about the way the world is going today—even the world’s largest businesses—it is exactly these attributes that everybody is looking for. So there is so much that an arts education can prepare us for in the world—certainly a career in the arts, but those skills are transferable to almost anything you can imagine.
And then switching more specifically to Berklee, what have you learned about your role since you’ve been here?
That I’m incredibly lucky. It is a magical place. There is nothing like it anywhere in the world. As somebody who’s spent my career in the music world, of course, I was very familiar with Berklee, very familiar with its accomplishments, the accomplishments of its alumni. But I really wasn’t prepared for how unique it is in the world. I had to get on the ground to really understand that it has brought something to arts education that doesn’t exist anywhere else, precisely because of its roots and the way it has looked at preparing musicians.
How so? How do you feel it’s different? What does Berklee do differently in arts education?
There seems to be an immediacy here that is so connected to the pulse of the art world. And in other institutions you can feel removed from that.… A lot of people that I’ve talked to here, there’s almost kind of a badge of honor about the fact that Berklee is scrappy, and allows itself to be that because it embraces so much of what happens in the culture of the arts as it comes up with us, as we grow in our own communities and our own society. There’s just this tremendous sense of high touch on the music industry, the performing arts industries, and the entertainment industry in general.… It’s vibrant and very alive. And as I said, this is not my first institution, but it definitely feels different.
Berklee has expanded quite a lot in the past decade, and I’m wondering if you see it continuing to do so.
I do see us continuing to expand geographically, although carefully. Again, my interest is in continuing to grow the opportunities for our students.… And I think anything that can expose our students to greater opportunities, to greater ability to directly understand the global community that they are now a part of, is just a good thing. That said, where we go in the world has to be carrying with us an understanding that we have a responsibility to any area [in which] we decide to create a campus or create a center or have partnerships or relationships. That includes working closely with arts organizations and artists in that region in order to be able to not just learn from what they are doing, but also empower the region, hopefully, by what we can bring to that area as well.… We have to consider very carefully each area at a time and what it might look like for that area, because our first responsibility is to be a value-add for any place that we might consider going.
And then, how do you see the academic offerings expanding?
We also have a responsibility to provide our students with the types of skills and abilities and knowledge that could carry them well into their careers, years beyond Berklee, and that might include career changes. I’m a big believer in not just the ladder up but the lattice that allows students to move laterally as well. And so as we think about our curricular offerings…we need to continue to provide the opportunity for students who come to us passionate about the arts…the ability to choose from a broad selection of pathways and career goals that can fulfill that desire to be in the arts—it might be in a way that they didn’t envision when they arrived at Berklee, but it’s a way that became very clear to them while they were here.
But I also believe that beyond the core in the arts, we also have to offer our students deeper dives into the business of the arts: arts entrepreneurship, also the technologies that support or fuel the arts. Communication, including visual communication, is extremely important. You find in many, many arts-based industries that the lines between music, the visual arts, experiential design, and live events are blurring rather significantly. And so I think as an institution, we need to take that very, very seriously and continue to design and launch curricula that will take advantage of everything that our students can do [and] might want to do, including careers that we can’t even envision today.
That reminds me of the new interactive media program, and also what they do in Valencia, where the experiential students really work very collaboratively with other students.
Yes, that’s true. Also, New York City just launched a master’s degree in live experience design, which is the first of its kind at Berklee. And so you can see the directions that are coming. The new Bachelor of Arts [in music industry leadership and innovation] is the first degree in Berklee to not require an audition, or to not require a student to identify an instrument for performance. There is a new degree in independent recording and production, which acknowledges the fact that a lot of the even high-end production that is going on in the music industry today is taking place in laptops. And so there's just a new way of thinking about everything that our students can do as artists.
Do you see Berklee offering more programs to which nonmusicians can apply?
I hope so, because I think Berklee offers one of the best educations in the world, and what would be more natural than to provide that education to more people, offer greater access to a Berklee education? And I also think there are a lot of people in the world that are passionate about music and the other arts, and that see their place in that world not necessarily as a performer or even as a creator, but they might see their place as somebody who is facilitating those things, or as a great producer, or somebody like a Jimmy Iovine, who is a dot-connector. So there’s a lot of ways to have a really impactful and fulfilling life in the arts.
And then, more broadly, what are your top priorities for Berklee?
It’s early days yet, so I hope you will allow me an opportunity to answer that question maybe a little bit later in more detail. But I can tell you, just broadly, that Berklee is its community of faculty, staff, and students. And so my first priority is always for them. You know, what programs, what initiatives, can we launch that will continue to benefit our students, benefit our faculty and staff? What programs can we launch, or continue to engage in, that benefit Boston and the extended communities in Massachusetts that we may be a part of? We have a lot of institutions here that we work with, and that we have great relationships with. So I want to continue building those relationships and building bridges with the incredible higher education community that is Boston.
And what do you think are Berklee’s biggest challenges?
I think every higher education institution today is challenged with new expectations on the part of the world, on the part of students, on the part of parents. I think we all have to morph, and in many cases quickly, to be able to adapt to the changing needs of our students and the changing needs of the industries for which we are educating those students. And I don’t think that’s just Berklee’s challenge. I think that’s everybody’s challenge. I think institutions will sink or swim in direct proportion to how quickly they can respond. First of all, how quickly can they understand the environment, and then secondly, how quickly can they respond to that changing environment.
What are these challenges?
You know, education needs to be more affordable. It needs to be more accessible. It needs to be more equitable. It also needs to be more relevant. If you would have looked at higher education 20 years ago, and you would have talked to anybody in higher education and said, “In 2022, you will be facing X, Y, and Z,” nobody would have believed you because the rapidity, the incredible pace of change in the world that is surrounding us, I don’t think anybody could have envisioned. I mean, the advent of the internet. A fully functioning internet by the late 1990s meant that by 2017, 2018, 2019, the populations that were coming to college were, as a group, entirely different from any generation we had seen previously. Their abilities with technology, their expectations from that technology, the way they acquire, consume, share information, is radically different from any previous generation. As a result, their ability to influence tastes, even drive new products, new pathways for communicating, new ways of making a living—whether it be e-commerce or traditional forms of commerce—it’s just unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.
Also, we are being questioned as an industry for the first time in history. People are asking, “What’s the value of higher education? What is the value of a college education? Is it really something that I have to have?” And we need to take that seriously. We need to not just toss it off or assume that our place in the world is right and assured. It’s good to question ourselves. We go back to that point about humility. It’s good for higher education to be humble about what it does and what it offers. And I think if we can maintain that attitude, we’ll be okay, but it is a challenging time, for sure.
And when facing these challenges, what do you think are Berklee’s strengths?
Nimbleness, agility. It’s game. Again, I use the word “scrappy” about Berklee. I’ve seen Berklee muster forces and teams and strengths to be able to face down some pretty significant challenges that have just come in the past two years. And it’s quite extraordinary to see this team go into action as different things come at us, as we want to both overcome and maybe even absorb and change from those things that are coming at us. So I think its strengths are its people, its community, for sure. And that goes back to your question about the arts, right—what are the attributes of an artist?
One of those things that everybody is confronting is diversity on campus. Can you tell me about the progress that you think Berklee has made?
I think that question goes beyond how we are addressing, and where we might be succeeding in diversity and inclusion. We also have to talk about the efforts to address systemic racism as well. And, really, efforts to address discrimination of all kinds and provide equity and a welcoming environment at Berklee for everybody. I think we’ve made huge strides in the last three to four years. There have been a lot of great programs in place, a lot of people hired, we are definitely making headway as we continue to hire faculty, staff. As we continue to recruit students, we are definitely doing better as an institution in terms of a diverse campus. Even the programs that I think hold great potential to be able to make a real difference for our community, they’re still in their early stages…. So nobody thinks this isn’t a yearslong journey—it is.
When you’re not listening to music, what do you do in your free time?
I love to read. Mostly these days I read books about innovation and change and change management. And also books about how creative thinking and right-brain thinking can influence other sectors of the world. I must admit, I’m a big fan of movies. I grew up in a movie family. And so I’m always searching out what are some of the latest content offerings on what is now a wide world of internet-based content. And if you’d asked me that question about seven or eight years ago, I would have told you every spare hour was spent on horseback. I’m an amateur equestrian, but the job got a little demanding and so I gave that up…. I walk a lot and I really enjoy it.… I don’t get to be at home a lot, which is odd because I’m a bit of a homebody, and I like being at home. So mostly my pursuits when I’m at home are quite quiet.
How are you liking your first Boston winter?
You know, I’m told it’s quite mild, and I am finding it to be so by comparison to what people told me what to expect. I’ve experienced one Nor’easter but it only lasted about 24 hours, so I consider that was a pretty easy introduction. I’ve already learned from my neighbors the proper snow-shoveling technique on my driveway.… We have an awful lot of sun in Southern California so I am enjoying the changes as it moves from snowy days to bright, gorgeous, sunny winter days to gray and rainy days like today.… And I love Boston. Absolutely love it. I used to live in Paris, and oddly, even though it’s not the same size, it reminds me a lot of Paris in its walkability, the great restaurants, how pretty it is, the tremendous wealth of culture that is here in the musical institutions, the museums, the arts institutions, etc. And so I feel very at home here already, which seems kind of odd for somebody who literally spent her entire life in California.
This article appeared in the spring/summer 2022 issue of Berklee Today.