At the end of 2014, Tago Jazz Café in Cubao, Metro Manila, was packed and the audience more attentive than I’d ever seen them. We were all there to watch Jireh Calo in one of her last performances before leaving for Boston to pursue her music studies at the Berklee College of Music, an outstanding music college and performing arts conservatory. Shortly after she arrived in Boston, we had our first interview via Skype, which I posted as “Jireh Calo, a Filipina Musician on Her Way.” (Link) Fast forward to three years later, Jireh is now a Summa Cum Laude graduate of Berklee with a degree in Contemporary Writing and Production. We talked again via Skype on January 2, 2018.
I first arrived in Boston in January 2015, shivering as much from excitement as from the winter cold. It was my first time in the United States, my first time to live in a country other than my own. In my heart, I knew that I left the Philippines not just to pursue a great music education but, more importantly, to broaden my perspective of the world, to deepen my understanding of others and self, and to grow emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. When I look back at the past three years, that’s exactly how I see I’ve grown.
What are some of your best memories?
The “firsts” were really special. I remember how it felt like magic to be walking along the streets in the falling snow or to be wandering aimlessly around a new city. I remember my first walk along the Charles River, my first ride on the subway, my first hike up a mountain in New Hampshire, my first cross-country skiing in a blizzard–so many wonderful memories.
So how do you like Boston and New England?
I’ve learned to love this as my second home. There’s so much nature to see in New England. You can drive an hour or two from the city and go hiking up a mountain or camping by a clear lake. The city is also pretty cool. There are historical buildings, green parks, old churches, museums and libraries all around Boston. You can really see the juxtaposition of old and new. There are many top universities and students from all over the world, so it’s a quite diverse environment. The changing seasons are magical. Despite the often erratic weather, I’ve learned to appreciate summer more because of winter and winter more because of summer. The other day it was 20 below zero, so I stayed inside and appreciated the warmth. One of the things I had to learn is you’ve definitely got to know how to dress for the cold!
So what were you studying?
I majored in Contemporary Writing and Production, or CWP, which teaches students to be professional writers, arrangers, and producers in today’s music industry. It’s pretty intense but also very well-balanced. With a CWP degree, you’re well-equipped to branch out into more specific fields like film scoring, arranging for different ensembles, writing for commercials, producing albums, engineering, mixing, and more. I gained valuable skills that I will definitely be using in my music career.
Can you describe the core program?
Every student is required to take the core music classes like arranging, conducting, ear training, harmony, tonal harmony and counterpoint, and music technology. We can choose to test out of these classes too. I chose to take all of them because I wanted to start from scratch and build up the foundation I knew I lacked.
You also have private instructions until the fourth semester, unless you’re a Performance major. I declared CWP as my major during my third semester, and that’s when I started taking classes in arranging for big band, writing for orchestra, vocal writing, studio writing and production and more. What’s cool is that the program is set up so that the courses build on each other and you really utilize the knowledge you’ve learned from previous classes. It makes it a lot more integrated that way.
What were the teachers like?
I was blessed to have had really great teachers. They’re all very different, so it’s hard to generalize, but most were passionate and individually unique people who really took their role as educators seriously. I loved the mutual respect teachers and students had for each other, and I think that was key in making the classroom a healthy environment for learning.
Can you give an example of a teacher having an impact on you?
I’ll never forget my Electronic Production teacher, Louden Stearns . He asked the class one day, “What’s the speed of sound?” We searched on our phones and told him, “343 meters per second!” “I don’t believe it,” he said. “How do you know that’s true if you haven’t tested it? I never believe something unless I’ve tested it myself.” He then asked us how we would conduct an experiment in class to test this. Several hands were raised, and he called on me. I suggested that we have two mics set up on different sides of the room, have one sound source and record the sound captured by both mics into Protools or Logic (digital audio workstations) and then measure the difference between the transients (the start of a waveform).
The next week, we conducted this experiment in class, setting the microphones up, measuring distances and then recording our teacher clapping right next to one of the microphones while the other was at the opposite end of the room. We measured the distance from my teacher’s hands to each microphone and then measured the distance between the transients of the recorded audio. After some calculations, we found that the result was pretty close to 343 m/s, although not exact. “Well, it seems we got an answer that’s close. There are other factors to consider that may have affected the results, but at least now we can safely assume that 343 m/s is pretty close.” He ended that lecture by saying, “Don’t just accept what I say. Test it out! See for yourself if it’s true.” I loved that my teacher took the time to share his process of learning with us and challenged us to take our education into our own hands, even in the context of school. Teachers like that are the best, in my opinion.
What academic classes were you taking?
I took the arranging classes, jazz harmony and tonal harmony classes, ear training classes, and the music technology classes. I also had conducting classes, Writing for Big Band, Writing for Orchestra. Later on I had more of the production classes like Electronic Production and Advanced Production for Writers. I also took the Harmony in Brazilian Song after finishing Harmony 4 because I became fascinated with Brazilian harmony. I dug into Latin Afro-Cuban music by joining a percussion class and then becoming part of the Advanced Latin Jazz Ensemble and Latin Afro-Cuban Ensemble (Link) in my later semesters.
What’s ear training?
It’s basically training your ear to recognize how notes relate to each other in a given key or mode. It’s pretty cool what the ear and brain can do when you train them. Eventually, you learn to identify intervals, sight-sing, recognize chord qualities and their harmonic functions, and transcribe onto paper what you hear. It actually helped that I had no classical music training because Berklee follows the movable “do” system, which is different from the fixed “do” system that most classically-trained musicians use, where “do” is always C.
You mean “do” like a scale–do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, si, do?
Yes. I learned the Berklee system from scratch, so I didn’t have to deal with the challenge of switching my mind to a new system.
Do you have perfect pitch?
No, I have relative pitch. I’d need a reference note to identify a given note.
I’m assuming that you also learned a lot about improvising and going off to wherever the music takes you.
Honestly, I was never really taught to improvise. Improvisation for me is basically letting go and creating in the moment. It’s like speaking. You use words from your vocabulary to say something. The more you expand your vocabulary, the more you’re able to articulate and express yourself in moments of improvisation.
I used to want to be able to improvise like the jazz legends, mostly because I loved listening to them and wished I could play like them. But as my understanding of music broadened and deepened, I realized that I didn’t have to be like someone else to be great, I just had to be myself. We all have something unique to offer the world if we can allow ourselves to be ourselves. Personally, I find it more powerful to hear honesty in a musician’s performance than crazy chops. Technique and skill are mere tools for expression, and I think as a musician it’s important not to lose sight of that.
What are the projects in your portfolio now?
My final portfolio consists of an orchestral piece I wrote and conducted, an underscore for a film scene, a commercial with my music and voice-over, a pop song I produced, an EDM song I produced, and an ensemble arrangement I produced. In the last semester, I had one-on-one directed study sessions in the studio with Prof. Simone Scazzocchio, mixing and mastering all these projects. It’s a pretty broad portfolio but one that highlights the different CWP skills I learned.
What was it like writing for film?
It was pretty cool seeing how much music can direct a listener’s emotions and tell a story. Now, every time I watch a movie or come across an ad, I pay close attention to the music and think about how much it affects the way I take in the scenes.
What kinds of classes did you take aside from the music classes?
Well, I had really incredible liberal arts classes. I had one class called “Scandals & Vandals” taught by Prof. Ross Bresler that was about art theft and vandalism. It was decidedly the most fascinating arts history class I’ve ever had, not just because of the course but also because Ross taught it exceptionally well. It made me think a lot about the value of art.
I also had really mind-opening discussions in my Eastern Philosophy and Philosophy of Religion classes, both taught by Prof. Teodros Kiros. I appreciated how honest and open my professor and classmates were. It helped me see into the different perspectives people have on spirituality, faith, God, self, life, death, hope, and even current issues. It was such an important experience to be able to listen to why people believed their beliefs, to go beyond stereotypes and to assess myself and my own beliefs. Most people, whether we realize it or not, have stereotypes of other people. Unless we have open and honest conversations, it can hard to be able to see beyond our own beliefs.
What are some highlights of your time there?
One was writing for and conducting a live orchestra during my last semester. I didn’t sleep for a whole night working on it, but it was incredible finally hearing my work played so beautifully by real players. After the recording session, I thought, “Wow! I actually wrote that?” For me, that was the culmination of all the different things I’d learned over the last three years.
The piece is called “Ahon”, which means “to rise out of” in Tagalog, and it’s a dedication to my country and fellow Filipinos around the world. (Link)
You went through a four-year program in less time, right? I’m assuming this was hard for you.
It definitely kept me pushing myself to the next level. I took the maximum full-time credits every semester and then attended the summer semesters, which were shorter and cheaper. In my last year, I was able to cut my eight semesters down to seven, enabling me to finish my degree in three years. I loved school but there were times I felt my brain was on overload because of everything I was juggling. What was most challenging was balancing creativity and time efficiency. I had to find that focused space of being creative while also balancing my academics and my part-time work. But I managed, only by God’s grace.
What kind of living arrangements did you have?
I moved a lot. I’ve always been a sort of urban nomad, even back when I was living in the Philippines, so I’ve gotten quite used to it. It’s taught me a lot about people and about myself, that’s for sure. During my first semester, I stayed in a dorm, sharing a room with two female roommates. Rent in Boston is pretty expensive, and with my part-time earnings, it wasn’t something I could afford. I reached out to friends within my Filipino and church community.
It’s a humbling experience to rely on the kindness and hospitality of people and I’m grateful for it. It kept me grounded and gave me a sense of community during a time I was still getting used to being away from home and family. I will always be grateful to the people who graciously opened up their homes to me, and I’ll take this kindness with me wherever I go.
What was your work like? Did you gig a lot?
I performed a lot, both in school and outside, and had different kinds of jobs throughout, but most of my work was teaching. On-campus, I worked as an ESL tutor for international students. I really loved that job. I met so many different people from around the world and learned a lot about other cultures and languages. Often the lessons would become therapy sessions, as my students would share the difficulties of being an international student in a new country and not being able to express themselves fully. A lot of my students ended up becoming my friends. That experience made me realize how important it is to be able to share what you know and what you’ve experienced with those who might benefit from it.
I also teach private music lessons, mostly for piano and voice. My students range from four years old to fifty-five, though I work mostly with kids. I love teaching music. It gives me so much joy to be a part of another person’s journey, and it’s helped me process the things I’ve learned myself.
Aside from teaching, I lead the Jr.-Sr. High Youth ministry at my church, Revive Community Church in Burlington. I just started last year and honestly didn’t think I’d be good at it. But I’ve grown to love it. The kids challenge me to stay passionate and keep growing. It’s hard to work with the youth, and it really impacts them negatively if you don’t have the passion to serve and you yourself are not willing to grow.
It seems that you grew a lot.
Honestly, when I look back at the past three years, the most important things I learned were things about myself, about other people, about the world. I think of all the memorable interactions and conversations I’ve had with people that broadened my perspective. I think of the difficult situations that pushed me to look within myself and then go beyond myself. There were so many times I had to step out of my comfort zone, face my fears, confront my weaknesses and ultimately trust in God’s wisdom and power. Those experiences were far more valuable to me than anything I could have ever learned in a classroom.
I’d like to share a story from my last year. It’s funny looking back on it now that I’m on the other side, but there was a time I thought of giving up and going home prematurely. In early 2017, I received an email notice from the International Student Services that my I-20 status had been terminated and that I had fifteen days to leave the US. In order to be able to stay, I had to find a way to raise enough funds to cover a whole school year and to get a new I-20. I had no idea how I was going to do it, and felt like, “This is it. This is as far as I can go.”
At that moment, it seemed impossible to continue. But then I realized that on my own, yes, it was impossible, but I wasn’t alone. I hadn’t gotten here on my own, and I wouldn’t finish on my own. God opened my eyes to what I had—music, community, people who loved and supported me. With guidance and encouragement, I launched a fund-raising campaign, recorded an EP (with the help of producer Tony Molica) and had an EP launch and fundraising concert at my church.
It was so touching to see how the people around me stepped forward to help–people in my church and Filipino community, people from school, people from back home in the Philippines, friends of friends, and even people I barely knew. It was a life-changing experience for me. Through the kindness and generosity of many, I was able to raise enough money to get back to school and finish.
Honestly, that was probably one of the hardest things I ever did. To allow myself to be vulnerable like that was kind of scary at first. But this experience was a valuable lesson for me. I realized that I could not move forward along the path God set for me if I could not face my fears and trust in Him completely. What’s beautiful is that out of this challenging time came my second EP, “Solid Ground,” a collection of songs born from this whole experience.
So what’s next?
I’m going to keep growing. Now that I’m done with school, I’d like to dedicate more time to the things that I’m passionate about and utilize the knowledge and skills I’ve gained. I’ve been teaching a lot more, creating more, performing more. I’d like to bring more song ideas to life, collaborate with different people, keep educating myself, and keep exploring what’s out there.
Jireh is not entirely done with school. Berklee just accepted her into its graduate school. This includes a full tuition scholarship. You go, girl!
Youtube videos (Link)
Solid ground interview followed by others (Link)