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Berklee professors fall short in pursuit of inauguration gig

Jared Lindh | 1/28/2009, 7:41 a.m.
Despite a two-month Internet and word-of-mouth campaign, students in marketing classes at Berklee College of Music were unable to win professors Donna McElroy (left) and Jetro da Silva a slot performing their soaring version of “America the Beautiful” at the inauguration of President Barack Obama in Washington. But students and professors say they are content to get back to the books and watch the president in action. courtesy of Berklee College of Music

When President Barack Obama took the oath of office last Tuesday, one local subplot reached its own quiet conclusion. Despite a two-month online and word-of-mouth campaign, marketing students from Berklee College of Music were unable to secure a performance spot at the inauguration for two of the school’s multitalented professors.

The would-be performers, Donna McElroy and Jetro da Silva, knew from the start that they faced tough odds and steep competition.

“I knew [we’d] have to get at the back of a very long and prestigious line, but I said, ‘Let’s go for it, what the heck!’” said McElroy during a recent interview.

The focal point of the campaign was a performance video of vocalist McElroy belting out the standard “America the Beautiful,” accompanied by da Silva’s triumphant piano work. The YouTube-hosted video clip, titled “Berklee Professors Can Rock the Inauguration!” was shot at the 2004 inauguration of Berklee President Roger Brown.

“I’m very optimistic,” said Berklee senior Brian Caine in November. “… We know as soon as [Obama] sees it, he’ll say, ‘These people need to perform.’ It’s that infectious.”

While it is not known whether President Obama ever saw the video, many others did. On YouTube alone, the video had garnered nearly 30,000 hits at the Banner’s press deadline. But viewer volume alone was not enough to secure the gig.

Aspiring inaugural acts must apply for invitation through the Presidential Inaugural Committee (PIC). Applicants are divided into two categories: “marching bands” and “special acts.” In December, the Berklee students received a letter from the PIC informing them that while they would not be invited to perform as a marching band in the inaugural parade, they would remain in consideration for performance as a special act at the ceremony. However, the PIC never reestablished contact.

While their efforts were ultimately unsuccessful, those behind the campaign say they’re focusing on the positives: the opportunity to promote the talents of two of their professors, and the beginning of a new era in American leadership.

For Berklee marketing professor Stephanie Kellar, the PIC rejection does not equate to failure.

“The fact remains that we never heard anything back from the Presidential Inaugural Committee,” said Kellar. “Which is fine, because we were still able to share that video with anyone with Internet access. … The video does stand as a wonderful representation of the college, and everything that the college stands for. On that level [the project] was a great success.”

Asked what he would do differently if given another chance, Caine had some ideas.

“The main thing [would be] trying to figure out how to get the video to go more viral,” he said. “We needed to get the video more available … almost like spam.”

So-called “viral” videos are spread throughout the Internet through grassroots efforts like e-mailing, instant messaging, social networking sites and file-sharing programs. Caine suggested the possibility of adding additional performance videos of McElroy and da Silva to supplement the “America the Beautiful” clip.

Kellar was quick to identify the broader lessons learned during the classes’ campaign.

“The project highlights for students the need for entrepreneurial thinking — to look at opportunities, assess the pros and cons and potential, and make the decision to move forward or not,” said Kellar. “In the music industry, and certainly in other industries, you have to be willing to take that risk. I think we did this in a strategic and thoughtful way.”

At present, no plans have been laid for a second campaign at the next presidential inauguration. For now, students and professors alike say they are content to get back to the books and watch the new president in action.

“We’re all facing hard times, but I feel very comfortable with this man at the wheel. It’s almost like a great pressure has been relieved,” said Caine. “I think Obama will show us that government can work for the people, and that’s really important.”

For professor and pianist da Silva, a first-time voter in 2008, Obama’s election was especially poignant.

“[Obama] has all the particulars of a great president, but only time will tell if he is a great leader,” he said.