The Ceremony: Four-Star Sendoff

A quartet of prominent music figures joins the 2006 commencement celebration.

"We entered high school and we were strange," said two-time Grammy-winning rocker Melissa Etheridge as part of her commencement address to Berklee's class of 2006. "We were the music weirdoes." But if strangeness means keeping company with the likes of honorary degree recipients Etheridge, soul legend Aretha Franklin, five-time Grammy-winning producer Elliot Scheiner, and esteemed educator and saxophonist Andy McGhee, then the 807 graduates would probably have one thing to say: normality is overrated.

Etheridge, best known for such hits as "Bring Me Some Water," "I'm the Only One," and "Come to My Window," told the soon-to-be-alumni representing 42 countries and 43 states that they, like all music "weirdoes,"  were in possession of a gift.

"You are the keepers of the dream of music, that's what you are," said Etheridge. "You have come here to this college because you believe in music, because you found music or because music found you."

Etheridge recounted her own musical journey, beginning as a little girl who found her calling with the help of four lads from Liverpool.

"The angels of music came down and spoke to me through a transistor radio," Etheridge said. "I remember very, very well standing in the gravel driveway of Leavenworth, Kansas, hearing the amazing music of the angels: 'Oh yeah, I'll tell you something/I think you'll understand/When I say that something/I want to hold your hand.' I was never, ever the same. There was no turning back. At that moment I wanted that. Whatever that was coming out of that little piece of electronics, that's what I wanted."

When she graduated from high school, she told her parents that if she were going to college, it would have to be at a school of contemporary music, one where she could study guitar. At the time, that left her with a single option, but an excellent one.

"I arrived here in Boston straight from Leavenworth, Kansas," Etheridge said, "and I walked straight into my first Berklee classroom—and you cats were so good…. I was suddenly surrounded by these amazing musicians, these incredible musicians. I [thought], 'Where have you been all my life? You who share this dream of music with me, you who have been looked upon and blessed with this amazing gift of music. Here you are playing hours and hours like I have always loved to do, and just playing so good—and I can't play that well.'"

After little more than a semester, however, Etheridge took her music on the road—from Boston, back to Kansas, and eventually to Los Angeles, where superstardom awaited. But while fame had been her goal once, it is not what sustains her now.

"Success is not measured in money or fame," Etheridge said. "Believe me, I've had both—I'm very grateful for both, yes indeed—but that does not bring the satisfaction, that does not make it feel whole to me. It is knowing I can put my truth into music. Every time I have made a choice to speak my truth, to be in my truth, I have been immensely rewarded. Be in your truth, be in your life, be in your love. Go out there and be the musician that you are, be the keeper of the dream of music."

Earlier in her address, Etheridge remembered that when she was a little girl her parents brought home "an amazing album called Amazing Grace, where I sat and bathed in the amazing music of Aretha Franklin. Music was a way to communicate with my family. We didn't have much else to say, but we could listen to Aretha Franklin." Shortly after the Queen of Soul welcomed Etheridge's praise, she accepted Berklee's highest award, an honorary doctor of music degree.

"To the graduating class of 2006, I'd like to say follow your dreams," Franklin said. "Follow your heart, sing yourself, go out there and let 'em have it. Keep God in the plan."

Producer Elliot Scheiner and Berklee professor emeritus Andy McGhee joined Franklin and Etheridge as honorary degree recipients. For Scheiner, who has produced artists such as Aerosmith, the Eagles, and B.B. King, and who is widely regarded as one of the world's leading authorities on 5.1 surround sound, the commencement ceremony was especially significant because he wasn't the only one in his family taking home a diploma.

"What makes it most special to me is that I get to graduate with my son Matt," Scheiner said. "What more could any father ask for than to graduate alongside his son, knowing that he believes that what you've done over your lifetime and career is worthwhile."

Scheiner also told the graduates that their Berklee education has more than equipped them to launch their careers.

"I have such a deep respect for Berklee and its students," Scheiner said. "It is without a doubt the finest school in the country. The educational programs, year after year, put out a crop of extraordinarily skilled young professionals ready for the music industry. In fact, the students at Berklee are more prepared for a job in the music business than any other student in any other school in the entire world."

In his brief remarks, Andy McGhee, a saxophone instructor at Berklee for more than four decades whose accomplished students include Walter Beasley, Donald Harrison, Javon Jackson, Richie Cole, Antonio Hart, and Greg Osby, expressed his gratitude to all the people in his professional and personal life who supported him over the years.

"Forty years is a long time to be any place," McGhee said. "Berklee is a great school—great leadership, fantastic faculty and staff, and it is indeed a pleasure that I have been part of this organization.… I would like to dedicate this day to my family and to a great, great lady, my late wife, Constance."

The commencement ceremony also featured a video salute to the class of 2006 called The Berklee Progression, produced by graduating students Melina Moser and Megan Sexton. And in the student speech, Major "Choirboy" Johnson-Finley urged his classmates to take on the future with the same passion that helped them through their rigorous stay at Berklee.

"Oh, matchless class of 2006, it is now our time to take this industry by storm," Johnson-Finley said. "As teachers, professors, therapists, lawyers, CEOs, presidents, rock stars, critics, songwriters, producers, engineers, directors—whatever it may be, just make it happen!"