Student Spotlight: Sam Banister

The music therapy major unpacks his Berklee summer program experience, shares insights about the psychology of music, and picks songs from Sons of Kemet, Kamasi Washington, and more.

June 12, 2023

What’s it like to study at Berklee? Our Student Spotlight series asks current students all about their Berklee experience—what they’re learning in class, what kinds of projects they’re involved in onstage or behind the scenes, how they recharge, and of course, what they’re listening to. This week, get to know tenor saxophonist Sam Banister, an eighth-semester music therapy major from Paducah, Kentucky.

Tell us about your path to Berklee. What made you decide to come here?

I have always wanted to follow my path to becoming a musician ever since I was young. I knew I wanted to study in New England for school and dreamt of being a part of a big city music scene. After moving away from my small hometown to pursue the Youth Performing Arts High School in Louisville, Kentucky, I learned about Berklee and heard about its Five-Week program from a close friend of mine that had attended. After a few short weeks of engaging in the coursework and mini-industry, I was absolutely hooked on the school and the community of artists that it fosters. I later came back and auditioned on saxophone to pursue music business before I learned about the power of music therapy.

What's been your favorite class so far, and what has it taught you?

Each class has been extremely insightful and humbling, especially within the music therapy major. But, one of my all time favorites was Psychology of Music with Professor Renate Rohlfing. The course taught me more than just the explicit applications of music in our brains and psychology, but it also supported the complex implicit ideas taught and heralded in the music therapy field—the immense connection to music that we have as humans. Most importantly, the class put me on course to continue my research into vocal improvisation’s effects on our brains and health.

What's a project you've worked on since coming to Berklee that you've been especially excited about?

There are so many projects musically that I have been a part of, including some really profound work with music production and engineering (MP&E) students, the L.A. Studio Ensemble, community homes, and other local artists. But, during my semester abroad at Berklee Valencia, I completed a pilot research project on extemporized vocal improvisation’s effects on quality of life in young adults. During the study, three individuals explored their intrapsyche with music through a series of vocal improvisation experiences. This project helped me center my ideas on my future research goals, and it showed me where I want to commit my efforts in expanding upon the previous work of analytic music therapy and Nordoff-Robbins music therapy

How do you typically recharge or find new ideas outside of class?

Finding calm in the storm—the best way for me to relax and reset is to run about Boston and turn on a record I haven’t listened to before for each run (the storm being the running in this instance). This helps me to focus on the music rather than the running, which isn’t exactly my strong suit, but still getting outside and away from the hustle of Berklee. Doing activities outside of music listening alone is imperative for my self-care practices at a demanding music institution like Berklee.

What careers are you interested in pursuing in the future?

I want to become a music therapy researcher and continue to find ways for others to find wellness. I want to encourage clients to be willing to seek their path to wellness physically, biologically, psychospiritually, psychosocially, and existentially in order to continue to engage the psyche in all ways—always forging their own paths through music. In order to do so, I want to pursue graduate studies in neuropsychology and in the expressive arts therapies to help grow the field into something that’s accessible, accepting, and inclusive to all people, wherever they are in their journey to wellness.

When you think towards your own future, who inspires you most?

I think to all of the people who are searching for their direction in life, and seeking guidance in whatever form that may come. It is naturally challenging to accept when it's time to find help and seek a new path in life. As a soon-to-be music therapist, those who have started a new journey or have found their current path are more than inspiring. 

What's one piece of advice you'd give to your high school self?

Fan your flame. Fly your flag. Protect your energy. Continue to find how to use the world’s music to support those around you.

Sam’s Top Five Artists

We asked Sam to share tracks by his favorite artists. Here’s what he said:

1. “To Never Forget the Source,” Sons of Kemet

Sons Of Kemet’s ability to profoundly remind the world of the Afro-diasporic tradition and music is beyond explicable. Their presence combined will be missed as they have since separated, but their music will prevail in their individual journeys.

2. “The Emancipation Procrastination,” Christian Scott aTunde Adujah

Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah’s influence on Afro-diasporic music cannot be overstated. His journey to combine stretch music with the postmodern movement of sound is illustrious—it brings the listener through a journey that can only be found through the dwelling of his music.

3. “So Ubuji,” Makaya McCraven

Another force of sound and Afro-diasporic music, Makaya Mccraven has been there for my struggles throughout Covid and has served as a starting point for a lot of my transcription work when I felt alone. This song encompasses the future, and brings it to become the present.

4. “Qué Hice Mal,” PES  

PES’ music has influenced me in thought and musicality in rock, pop, fusion, and has proven to be a powerful development in the Latin music scene. His most recent release, “Qué Hice Mal,” takes the listener to a powerful conversation that can be reflected upon for many walks of life.

5. “Truth,” Kamasi Washington

Finally, Kamasi needs no introduction. This is one of his older installations of art that I got to witness live a few years ago at the Hollywood bowl. There, Kamasi told the crowd that the song works to combine desire, humility, knowledge, perspective, and integrity to form the overarching virtue of truth.