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Students campaign to get Berklee professors the gig of a lifetime — performing at Obama’s inaugural celebration

Jared Lindh
Students campaign to get Berklee professors the gig of a lifetime — performing at Obama’s inaugural celebration
(Photo: Berklee College of Music)

Students campaign to get Berklee professors the gig of a lifetime — performing at Obama’s inaugural celebration

Jetro da Silva, a pianist and professor at Berklee College of Music, came to America from his native Brazil in 1991. But he said he was inspired by a speech delivered by Barack Obama early in his presidential campaign to become an American citizen and cast a ballot in an election for the very first time. (Photo courtesy of Berklee College of Music)

Just days after Sen. John McCain’s concession speech made Barack Obama’s historic victory official, students at Berklee College of Music set out on a presidential campaign of their own. Their goal is ultimately the same as the candidates’ — a starring role in January’s inauguration.

If the student campaign is successful, Berklee professors Donna McElroy and Jetro da Silva will perform “America the Beautiful” at President-elect Obama’s Jan. 20, 2009 inauguration.

The campaign’s centerpiece is a video posted on YouTube featuring McElroy, a vocalist, and da Silva, a pianist, performing “America the Beautiful” at the 2004 inauguration of Berklee President Roger Brown. During the five-minute clip — aptly titled “Berklee Professors Can Rock the Inauguration!” — the camera occasionally cuts to da Silva, capturing for the audience just how much the master pianist is enjoying himself.

But the video’s clear star is McElroy. Swaying, gesturing and working every last breath, her rendition of the classic number is soaring; she seems to be singing to the whole of America.

The campaign began last month, when Berklee marketing professor Stephanie Kellar engaged students in her two “Principles of Marketing” classes in discussion of the then-fresh election results. Kellar, who said she opens her classes each semester with a viewing of the “America the Beautiful” video, said the connection between the performers and the opportunity were there to be made.

“This is a traditional anthem — somebody is going to perform it at the inauguration,” said Kellar. “We thought it might as well be these two people.”

According to Kellar and her class, “America the Beautiful” is a perfect fit for the inauguration because of how it captures the spirit of the country.

“It not only embodies the incredible talent of these two musicians, but it shows everything that Berklee is all about, which happens to be what the Obama campaign was all about,” she added.

Marketing student Brian Caine agreed.

“It’s such a moving and powerful performance, [and] we thought, ‘What better place to perform this song than at such a historic [inauguration]?’” Caine said. “[Obama] makes us proud to be in America, and the song just exemplifies that so well.”

To reach their goal, the students are employing many of the same electronic promotional tools used so effectively by the Obama campaign.

 “We started by sending personal e-mails, then recruited [the] Berklee community as a whole, including all students, faculty, alumni and administration,” said Claire Finley, Caine’s classmate and an electric bassist. “From there, we moved on to [social networking Web] sites like MySpace and Facebook. Meanwhile, we also spent time making phone calls and writing press releases to spread the word.”

On Facebook, for instance, the students started a group named after the YouTube video. There is a link to the clip, as well as a message credited to McElroy imploring visitors to forward the link to as many of their friends and associates as possible. In its message on the Facebook page, the group set a target of 50,000 views for the clip on YouTube; as of the Banner’s press deadline, it had received 26,757.

The YouTube count doesn’t tell the whole story, according to Kellar, because the clip has become a “viral video,” meaning that it has been shared through other Web sites. While the wider distribution — student Caine estimates that the video has been embedded on more than 30 other sites — likely increases the overall number of video views, it also makes it nearly impossible to accurately track just how many.

Since the campaign’s endgame is a performance at the inauguration, Caine said, the key is not only getting the video to as many people as possible, but getting it to the right people — like the man himself.

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

Neither video star is a stranger to the spotlight. McElroy has been a popular vocal professor and coach at Berklee since 1995, teaching her students how to sing with their entire bodies through breathing techniques and physical support.

As the online campaign began to ramp up, McElroy said she was awed by her own level of interest.

“Ten years ago, you could not have convinced me that I’d be so computer savvy and be so interested in sitting in front of the computer screen,” she said.

Though she describes herself as an “Obama junkie,” McElroy is quick to dismiss the idea that her interest in performing would wane if it were Republican McCain being sworn in.

“The song that I’m singing applies to all of America,” said McElroy. “It’s work for me — I’m proud to be up there in front of the microphone.”

If the campaign is successful, da Silva will be commemorating not only the election of the first African American president, but his own personal electoral debut. A native of Brazil, da Silva came to America as a Berklee student in 1991, but cast his presidential ballot for the first time in this year’s election.

The pianist cited the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks as the catalyst for his civic engagement — “When 9/11 happened, that was the first time I felt more like an American per se than a Brazilian,” he said — and noted that an early Obama speech was the final factor that inspired him to become an American citizen.

Like McElroy, da Silva made it clear that he would have been honored to perform at a McCain inauguration, too.

“As a citizen, I still need to celebrate and honor the choice of the people,” he said.

As the year draws to a close, the Presidential Inauguration Committee is likely nearing a decision on the performance. Whichever way the committee decides to go, Kellar said she has no regrets.

“There’s no guarantee we’ll get the big gig, but it was certainly worth a shot,” she said. “A little sweat equity never hurt anyone.”

And no matter what, the power of the video still remains.

“Whenever I feel a little overwhelmed, I watch the video again and I’m raring to go,” she said.