Q&A with Michael Sean Harris, Assistant Director at Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts, Jamaica

Michael Sean Harris. Photo courtesy of Datzryte Entertainment

After being granted a scholarship to pursue a dual major in contemporary writing and production and music synthesis (now known as electronic production and design) at Berklee College of Music’s Boston campus, Sean Harris graduated and was contracted as the lead male vocalist for Holiday on Ice: In Concert, which opened in Paris in 2000 and toured Europe for three years. After, with longtime friend and collaborator Michael Holgate, Sean Harris formed Joy Mechanics, which has released two albums and staged the annual world/alternative music and arts festival Gungo Walk since August 2012.

Sean Harris’ next step was to enroll in the Music Production, Technology, and Innovation master’s degree at Berklee’s Valencia, Spain campus, from which he graduated in 2014. While on campus, he had the opportunity to present on cultural currency at TEDxBerkleeValencia, introducing the concept behind his current project, Folkbeats and Blipspeak, which is a fusion of Jamaican folk and electronic music and technology.

Today, Michael Sean Harris is a primary consultant with Digicel Rising Stars, where he is a performance coach, and he can also be seen regularly on television as one of the judges on the Television Jamaica (TVJ) high school choir competition show All Together Sing. He works as the assistant director for the School of Music at the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts, where he has also taught pop and jazz voice and jazz harmony, and co-written a music technology course for the college’s degree program.

Between studying at Berklee’s Boston and Valencia campuses, what’s the most important lesson that you’ve learned?

I think the most important lesson is to be open and teachable. I have had to be open to seeing myself in many different roles in the music industry: performer, arranger, coach, adjudicator, songwriter, producer, researcher, and the list goes on. I have found that an attitude of openness to learning from situations or from others, or even the willingness to remain current and aware of emerging trends, has helped me to make a career out of music. It might not be the rock star path, but it's real and attainable.

Why did you decide to pursue a master’s degree at Berklee?

I had actually wanted to pursue a master's degree for some time. In my searching, none really felt ‘right.’ I think I might have been spoiled by the awesome experience I had as an undergrad at Berklee. When I heard the college was about to launch a music production, technology, and innovation master’s degree program, I just signed up for more info and waited. I wanted that atmosphere of passionate creativity and near-limitless possibilities. I wanted to be around people who would challenge my artistry and my intellect. I wanted that buzzing Berklee energy. And I totally got what I asked for.

What opportunities did you have, being at Berklee’s campus in Valencia, that you may not have had otherwise?

The Valencia campus is a small, tight-knit one and it feels like every student and faculty member was handpicked for uniqueness. There are also the world-class facilities and a feeling that anything you need to bring your idea to life, you can have. Being in this environment and, specifically, the professors, put me in the perfect place to rethink and reshape my own cultural expressions. I also had the opportunity to be influenced by brilliant minds: the guidance I received in my creativity and musical output was invaluable. I also wouldn't have had the opportunity to perform my folk fusion for the King of Spain had it not been for Berklee’s campus in Valencia, not to mention being a presenter for TEDxBerkleeValencia. The whole process forced me to refine my own concepts. Last but not least, the city is amazing, and the surroundings of the campus are just like a movie.

Are there aspects from Berklee's campus in Valencia that inspire you in your day-to-day as assistant director at Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts in Jamaica?

The passion to embrace technology and push forward with my expectations, as well as to attempt to inspire that sense of the possible in my students and faculty, are partly due to my time at Berklee’s campus in Valencia. There was a really high output of creativity as a result of a very intense process, and I wanted to try to recreate that at the Edna Manley College.

How did your time at Berklee in Valencia shape your music and your vision of the industry?

Being in and from Jamaica, it is easy to be convinced that if your vision and passion isn't to produce reggae or dancehall, then your vision might be misguided. With my thesis being a fusion of Jamaican folk music and electronic music, it would not fit the mold in Jamaica; however, Valencia seemed the perfect place for discovery and experimentation.

I was provided with so many opportunities to perform the music for an outside audience and the feedback I received from faculty, fellow students, and the general public was invaluable for a plethora of reasons: they reminded me to follow my heart and my gut feelings, and they encouraged me to use my voice as the focus for much of the work. The various discussions we had about the music industry suggested that success will come from innovation and versatility, wearing many hats, being creative and—if possible—groundbreaking in how you approach and present yourself and your work.

Would you tell other students to come to Berklee’s campus in Valencia to study music production, technology, and innovation?

The environment is very much like a talent hotbed. The faculty members are all brilliant and contagiously passionate about their careers in and outside of school. The students you meet are all brilliant in different ways and different areas. In my year, we all became, for the most part, quite close. Many of us still speak every few days. You find that you learn almost as much from your peers as you do from faculty, even in a simple sharing of ideas. I had the sense that anything was possible. If the facilities could not presently accommodate your idea, they found ways to make it happen. And, above all, everyone exhibited a genuine love for what they do. I couldn't have asked for more.

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