Debunking misconceptions about pursuing a career in music with Bernard Jonathan

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Bernard Jonathan performing at Berklee's Indonesia Cultural Night 2018

“Following your passion is how you become homeless.” I saw this quote attributed to Confucius in a YouTube comment. Although it was a joke, it definitely hits home for a lot of Asians. Most Asian kids are encouraged to pursue careers in wealthy and stable fields and discouraged from pursuing careers in the creative fields as it is considered riskier. As someone who works in the STEM field, I’m lucky to have had the support of my parents when I was in university, but what if I had wanted to become a musician instead? I spoke with Bernard Jonathan, a third-year student at Berklee, to hear about his experience as an aspiring musician from Indonesia.

Bernard is a jazz composer and pianist, and is currently a student at Berklee College of Music, majoring in Jazz Composition and minoring in the Theory of Jazz. For those who aren’t familiar with Berklee, it’s the world’s largest independent college of contemporary music. Not only that, but it’s also widely regarded as one of the best music institutions in the world, and 120 of its alumni have received over 283 Grammy awards. Essentially, Berklee is the music world’s equivalent of an Ivy League college — if you want to study music properly, Berklee is the place to go.

When Bernard decided to attend a music institution and pursue music professionally, he was met with a lot of disapproval, both from his friends and family. A lot of people would ask him, “Ngapain jadi musisi? (Why become a musician?)” He remembers the advice his mother gave him, “Mendingan ambil kuliah biasa aja, tapi musiknya sambil jalan. Kalo musiknya take off, kamu jadi musisi. Kalo gak kan kamu masih bisa cari kerja. (Why don’t you go to a regular university, but still pursue music on the side?. If the music takes off, you can be a musician. But if not, you can still find a job.)” Though he understood where his mother was coming from, he didn’t agree with her. Here are a few common misconceptions on pursuing a career in the music industry, debunked.

#1: Why do I need to attend a music institution to become successful in the music industry? Can’t I just go to a regular university and pursue music on the side?

To be successful in the music industry, you need to have a deep understanding of music theory and the world around it. “Gak cuman main piano dan ngarang lagu asal-asalan. Mungkin iya bisa kalau cuman mau main yang simpel-simpel, cuman gue mau lebih dalam dari itu. (It’s not just about playing the piano and carelessly writing songs. Yes, maybe you can if all you want to do is to play simple songs, but I want to go deeper than that.)” It’s also not just a matter of having the theoretical knowledge, but it’s also about cultivating the skill through prolonged exposure. Time is the most important resource every human has. We all have 24 hours a day, and 365 days a year, and Bernard didn’t want to waste his time doing things that aren’t meaningful to him. “Musisi besar pasti menghabiskan pagi hingga malam buat musik. Gue mau nya seperti itu. Masa gue dari pagi sampe malam belajar akunting, trus dua jam main piano dan setengah jam ngarang lagu. Kapan mau jago? (All the big musicians would spend morning to evening doing music. I want to do that too. I can’t imagine spending morning to evening studying accounting, and then spending two hours playing piano and thirty minutes writing songs. When would I get better?)” There is indeed a lot of truth to that. In Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell theorizes that in order to master a skill, you need to spend an average of 10,000 hours practicing it. It makes sense — if you never practice, you’ll never be good at it.

#2 So what about all the musicians who are commercially successful but never attending music schools?

There are two possible reasons for this, Bernard says. A lot of musicians can get lucky, even if they don’t have much talent and aren’t technically skilled. A lot of very well-known musicians are also just naturally gifted. There are people like Joshua Redman for example, who despite never having gone to university to study music, are still successful musicians (Redman studied Social Studies at Harvard but went on to become a successful Grammy-nominated jazz saxophonist). Most people attribute his success to his natural gift in music, but not everyone is as lucky as him. “Kita harus melakukan yang terbaik dengan apa yang kita punya. Kalau kenyataannya emang kita gak seberbakat dia, ya harus latihan lah, (We have to do the most with what we have. If the reality is that we’re not as talented as him, well then we have to practice.)” Bernard explained.

#3 Why go into music? It’s such a risky field; there’s no money in it!

A lot of students who study at traditional universities aren’t necessarily secured jobs after graduating either. Even the ones who study abroad, they aren’t necessarily that much better paid as compared to their peers who were educated in Indonesia. Bernard put it this way: “Kuliah musik atau enggak tuh antara sama-sama belum tentu dapat kerja, sama-sama dapat kerja tapi pas-pasan, dan sama-sama bisa kaya. (Whether or not you study music or not, you both have equal chances of not getting a job, both getting a job but not very well-paid, or both getting really rich.)” The chances are roughly the same, and there are actually a lot of jobs for people with formal music education, whether it be teaching or working in studios.

So far, he has really enjoyed his experience at Berklee. There are over 6,000 students at Berklee, and they are some of the best musicians in the world. On top of that, Berklee has such a diverse student population originating from all parts of the world (in fact, did you know that the most popular music group at Berklee is the Indian ensemble?), and he has access to excellent musician professors.

Berklee Indonesian Ensemble - all performers
Berklee Indonesian Ensemble – all performers
Berklee Indonesian Ensemble - arrangers
Berklee Indonesian Ensemble – arrangers

At Berklee, Bernard is also the president for the Berklee Indonesian Community, as well as music director for the Berklee Indonesian Ensemble. These groups aim to create a home away from home for Indonesians studying at Berklee, while at the same time introducing the Berklee and American community to the beauty of traditional Indonesian music. Bernard speaks of Indonesian music with passion, and you can tell from talking to him that he’s proud to bring Indonesian music to the US. “Musik adalah salah satu identitas kita yang bisa bikin kita spesial, dan memang musik kita tuh bagus banget loh. Contohnya, gamelan tuh secara seni memang berbeda dengan musik barat. (Musik is a part of our identity that can make us special, and our music is actually very good. For example, gamelan is actually quite different from western music in terms of the technical music aspect.)” Every spring, the Berklee Indonesian Ensemble puts on an event called Cultural Night in which they combine western music with Indonesian music. If you’re in the Boston area, I’d highly recommend checking it out!

Last but not least, Bernard’s advice to Indonesians looking to pursue a career in music is to be confident and be sure that music is what you want to do before diving deep into it. “Yakin dulu akan goal lo. Jangan udah kesini, susah-susah, mahal-mahal, dan lo belum yakin mau jadi musisi. Jadi musisi itu berat, apa lagi di tahap awal. Pasti gak ada yang percaya sama lo. Tapi hal pertama tuh harus believe in yourself. If you don’t, who else will? (Be sure of your goals. Coming all the way here is hard and expensive, so don’t come if you’re not sure you want to be a musician. To be a musician is tough, especially in the beginning. No one is going to believe in you at first. But you need to believe in yourself. If you don’t, who else will?”)

Bernard at Berklee College of Music. November 2018.
Bernard at Berklee College of Music. November 2018.

This article was written by Indira Pranabudi and edited by Riri Malikah. Featured in this article is Bernard Jonathan. In his own words:

Bernard Jonathan is a jazz composer and pianist from Indonesia. He is currently pursuing a bachelor degree at Berklee College of Music with a major in Jazz Composition and minor in Theory of Jazz. Other than his love for jazz, he also is a practitioner and composer of Indonesian traditional music, primarily in balinese tradition. He likes to blend elements of jazz, fusion, and Indonesian world music in his composition and playing. He is also the current president of the Berklee Indonesian Community as well as the music director of the Berklee Indonesian Ensemble. Other than participating in several ensembles, Bernard leads 2 groups, ‘Bernard Jonathan Sextet’ based in Boston, MA and ‘Bernard Jonathan Group’ based in Jakarta, Indonesia.

All photos were provided by the author.