On May 13, members of Berklee Online’s class of 2023 will gather in Boston to take part in this year’s Commencement ceremony, alongside Berklee campus students. Each year this milestone brings together Berklee Online students from around the world for a weekend of celebration among graduates, instructors, advisors, and family and friends. The class of 2023 spent the majority of their programs in a Covid-world, embracing the importance of camaraderie and perseverance through their music studies. Read the inspiring stories of seven Berklee Online graduates who reflect on their experiences and share what’s in store for their futures.
Not only will Leon Williams walk across the stage at Commencement, but he’ll also perform onstage at the Commencement concert the night prior. Leon is graduating with his bachelor’s degree in Interdisciplinary Music Studies, and is coming to Boston from his home city of Nashville, Tennessee, which played a big role in his musical upbringing with gospel music.
“Obviously it’s no secret that country music is very prevalent here [in Nashville], but it also has a very strong gospel scene,” says Leon. “That church is kind of my background; I grew up on the gospel circuit.”
At the age of six, Leon’s church gifted him a Hammond organ, which he performed all through his youth. At age 18, he put a unique twist on his organ skills by purchasing a Korg R3 Vocoder from a local music shop. Having always been interested in talk boxes—an effect unit that modifies vocals through a long, clear tube—he plugged in and hasn’t looked back since. Famous talk box moments in music include the opening of “Let’s Groove” by Earth, Wind & Fire, Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ On a Prayer,” and “I Can Make You Dance” by Zapp.
“I’m an introvert and I don’t really talk a lot unless it’s something I’m passionate about,” says Leon. “So I always looked at vocoders and talk boxes like an extension of myself.”
After Commencement, Leon plans to record an album and leverage his music business knowledge to create a brand for himself and partner up with Nashville businesses. He says he’s excited to be able to set out on this new endeavor with a new network of musicians, including his Berklee peers and instructors.
“Berklee has really taught me to get out of my comfort zone and network,” says Leon. “I made some really good connections with my peers . . . I’m looking to take the summer and to record new music: All original. I’m still finding my sound, but I still have Berklee professors to reach out to and help on that journey.”
Also coming to Boston from Nashville is 19-year-old Ainsley Costello who is graduating with her degree in Music Business. Ainsley started at Berklee Online at only 15 years old, shortly after she and her family moved to Nashville so that she could pursue music full-time. She originally considered studying songwriting at the Boston campus, but decided to round out her business skills so that she could become the best independent musician she could be.
“I’ve been doing the independent musician thing since I was 13, putting out music and writing music,” says Ainsley. “I knew that to get your name out there, you can’t really wait for a major record label to be like, ‘Oh, hey, we like you.’ You have to get out and you have to start doing it yourself.”
Ainsley’s song “Cherry On Top” recently earned the No. 1 spot on the aBreak58 playlist, which is an online radio station that highlights independent artists across genres. After Commencement she’ll go to Washington, DC to perform a concert at the aBreak58 lounge.
“All Berklee Online students should check [aBreak58] out, especially if you’re an independent artist because this organization really caters to independent artists,” says Ainsley. “It’s run by people who did the major label stuff in the past and who now really want to focus on finding the next generation of young talent.”
Ainsley says that fans can expect new music from her at the end of 2023 into 2024, but in the meantime she’ll be touring and thinking about the next iteration of her brand. Ainsley says that balancing school with the demands of her career has been one of her biggest challenges, but also one of her greatest sources of pride.
“There have definitely been times where I felt overwhelmed, like being a full-time college student and being a full-time working musician,” says Ainsley. “So I think I’m just really proud of the fact that I’ve been able to marry the two and really make it work seamlessly with my career and pushing through those hard moments where I was sleep-deprived on tour, being like, ‘No, I have an assignment, let’s get it done!’”
As tour manager for the progressive metal band After the Burial, Victor Kusaka will be flying to Boston to attend Commencement after finishing the band’s last show of their North American tour. Victor is graduating with his bachelor’s in Interdisciplinary Music Studies.
“I’m really stoked to be finishing this program with a Bachelor’s of Arts degree in my hand,” says Victor. “If I do ever decide to step away from the touring aspect of music, I’ll have this degree that I can use in other aspects of music and I’m really excited about what that could open up for me in the future.”
Victor first connected with the members of After the Burial at Warped Tour in 2017. At the time, he was doing promotional work for Sumerian Records at the festival while After the Burial was performing. They hit it off and Victor became their guitar and backline tech. Six years later, he’s gone on tour domestically and internationally with the band as their tour manager.
“I became really good friends with them [the members of After the Burial] and over the years as I’ve been touring with them, I’ve been getting more and more responsibilities to the point where now I manage them,” says Victor.
When Victor is not on tour, he works for School of Rock in Vacaville, California as an instructor and studio coordinator. One of his reasons for earning his bachelor’s is so that when he’s ready to stop touring, he’ll have more options for teaching music.
“The touring and the teaching thing has been treating me very well and I do know that I can’t tour forever,” says Victor. “What I would like to do is use my degree to get an actual state-certified teaching credential. That way I could become a certified music teacher throughout the state and not just at private afterschool things.”
Victor plans to keep touring for a few more years, and in the meantime he says he’s excited to get back to his students, this time with his bachelor’s degree.
“Being with the kids and just showing them things that I wish I would’ve learned at their age is so fulfilling,” says Victor. “I try to inspire them, especially when I come back from a tour. I try to let them know, ‘Hey, this is possible if you really dedicate yourself to it and put in the hard work.’”
Hailing from Wilson, North Carolina, Valerie Thoms’ journey at Berklee Online has been all about uncovering the musician she’s been all along. She has always enjoyed music and singing but says she was too shy to perform in front of anyone. Her cousin knew she had a great singing voice she needed to let out, and asked her to join her band.
“I was really shy as a kid, so I didn’t really let anybody know that I was able to sing until way later in life,” says Valerie. “Maybe five to ten years ago, my cousins had an inspirational band and they asked me to join. And so that’s kind of how I got back into it and really got into knowing myself as a musical person.”
The band was short-lived but played a crucial role in inspiring Valerie to want to learn how to write, perform, and record her own music. Her husband and two daughters will join her in Boston for Commencement—the fact that it’s taking place on Mother’s Day weekend is only fitting, she says—as she graduates with her degree in Interdisciplinary Music Studies.
“It’s been a whirlwind because I do have a full-time, 40-hour per week job and then my kids are super active,” says Valerie. “So yeah, it’s been crazy to balance it out and find the time to get it done but it’s been totally well worth it.”
Valerie’s next step is working on her EP, and in the meantime she decided to upload three of her demo tracks to Spotify. It’s also only fitting that she titled the collection of songs Quit Your Day Job Vol. 1. Even though it’s not fully produced yet, she still wanted to get a few of the songs out there for the world to hear.
“I’m most proud of being able to really tap into who I am as an artist,” says Valerie. “I’m just happy to have been able to figure out who I am as a musician and really know what kind of message I want to put out into the world.”
Graduating with his degree in Electronic Music Production and Sound Design, Nick Neeley is a professional drummer for the United States Marine Corps, stationed at the Marine Barracks in Washington, DC. Nick completed his degree all while performing multiple times per week in DC and touring the US.
“I would pick and choose my classes to make sense with the schedule of work and what I knew was coming up,” says Nick. “This last semester was probably my busiest, mainly because I was finishing my capstone course, and taking two other courses all throughout the time when we were on the road. We were in Arizona learning our show and I was doing homework at the hotels and we were staying at when we were on tour.”
A few years after joining the Marines, Nick downloaded a digital audio workstation and started experimenting with electronic music in his downtime. This experimentation became a music project called Mfinity, which now has more than 1 million streams across streaming platforms.
“It started out as me just messing around because I’m a percussionist and I like making beats,” says Nick. “In the Marine Corps, we’re playing other people’s music and it’s very strict; there’s not much individuality. This music project was a way for me to express myself.”
Nick has been releasing EPs since 2020, gaining exposure by reaching out to various record labels and achieving placements. His latest EP, Off Path, was released on the Odyzey label. This fall he’ll be finishing up his tour of duty with the Marine Corps and will be going on tour with French producer and electronic artist CloZee. Even with a record label relationship and tour dates on the calendar, Nick says he is most proud of his ability to budget his time and keep his grades up at Berklee Online.
“I had never really been good in school—I think I graduated high school with B’s and C’s,” says Nick. “I think how much I enjoyed my classes helped a ton. And I actually ended up graduating with a 3.98, so keeping my grades up and just sticking with it is something I’m really proud of.”
When Kelly Aliaga was figuring out her Berklee Online major, she was originally interested in performance, but her mother made a successful case for music production. Now Kelly and her mom will travel from Lima, Peru to Boston to see the result of years of hard work as she receives her bachelor’s degree in Music Production.
“My main instrument is voice and I write my own songs,” says Kelly. “And my mom told me, ‘Hey, by the time you earn your degree as a performer, don’t you think the first thing you’ll need to do is find a producer or someone to record you? Wouldn’t you feel more free in your creative process to know how to do that yourself?’ And at the time I was like, ‘You are totally right.’”
In 2022 Kelly put her music production skills to the test after her song “Joven En Pandemia” (or “Teenager in a Pandemic”) went viral on TikTok. Her followers enjoyed the song so much that they encouraged her to put it on Spotify. With the help of a friend, she uploaded a finalized version of the song, which is about what it was like to come into adulthood during the pandemic, and it has been viewed and shared thousands of times. To date, Kelly’s TikToks have received more than 1 million likes.
“Basically I wrote a song about how empowered I feel about being young and having a very huge amount of possibilities to reach my dreams from my own room,” says Kelly. “And I posted a TikTok about that and completely out of the blue, it connected with so many people my age here in Peru.”
Kelly says she is excited to keep producing her own music and aspires to come to the US to work in a recording studio. It’s not lost on her that she’s breaking ground in a very male-dominated industry like music production.
“As a girl who can just come up with a song, write it on a piece of paper, and then go to my room, set up a microphone and start recording and start making a full arrangement, I feel so independent, and so empowered to know how to do that,” says Kelly.
Serena Steinhauer will be traveling to Boston for the Commencement ceremony from her home in Johannesburg, South Africa. Serena has been performing nearly her whole life as a vocalist, pianist, and musical theater performer, which is why she chose to focus her Interdisciplinary Music Studies degree in liberal arts and music business.
“As someone who started training very young, I was comfortable with my instrument, and I think what Berklee Online really taught me is how to be a working musician,” says Serena. “I learned skills that I never would have thought existed . . . It just opened a whole new world to the music industry.”
Commencement in Boston marks the start of an exciting new chapter for Serena. In August, she will be moving to NYC to pursue her MFA in acting from PACE University. However, before leaving Johannesburg, she wants to perform one more show in her home city. With encouragement from her mentor, Bryan Schimmel, one of the top music directors in South Africa, Serena is writing and performing a one-woman show about her identity as a Jewish woman, though the message is something everyone should be able to relate to.
“I’m a granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, which is a big part of the Jewish story,” says Serena. “And I thought ‘I’m going to take that sentiment of the resilience of Jewish women, and write to play about that.’ But it’s not just a Jewish story. I moved away from the solely Jewish story because the resilience of women is so universal, and I really wanted to capture that.”
The show is titled The Undone and performances run from June 27-July 8, 2023 at Theatre On The Square in Sandton, South Africa. Serena has a lot to be proud of during her time at Berklee Online, but she says she’s most proud of the connections she formed along the way.
“What Berklee Online does is give you a community,” says Serena. “Even if you were by yourself, you always felt part of something bigger and everyone was in it together. It just brought together a world of musicians and I think that was the best part; the community, the perseverance, and the work itself was just life changing.”
The Commencement 2022 photo at the top of this page is by Dave Green.