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Meet Dr. Kim Perlak, Chair of Guitar at Berklee College of Music

Beth Marlis

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Jazz Guitar Today’s Women in Guitar Higher Education series with guitarist Dr. Kim Perlak, Chair of Guitar at Berklee College of Music.

JGT’s Women in Guitar Higher Education Series continues, Beth Marlis interviews Dr. Kim Perlak, Chair of Guitar at Berklee College of Music

Beth: Could you briefly give an overview of your career to date?

Dr. Kim Perlak: My approach to the guitar includes new music, education, and public service. My performances of classical works, original pieces, and collaborations with jazz and traditional players have been featured on National Public Radio programs, at the Peabody Institute Fretfest, and on five recordings. My projects combining performance, American music history, educational outreach, and work with American veterans have been funded through grants from the Center for African American Southern Music and Yale Alumni Ventures, and have been honored by the U.S. House of Representatives. At Berklee College of Music, I served as Assistant Chair of Guitar for five years before becoming Chair of Guitar in September 2018. I authored the book Classical Technique for the Modern Guitarist, (Berklee Press/Hal Leonard 2016). I was the recipient of the 2016 and 2018 Berklee Chair Recording Grants, which yielded recordings, curriculum, and a duo residency with slide guitarist, professor David Tronzo. I serve on the boards of the Guitar Foundation of America, the Boston Classical Guitar Society, The D’Addario Education Advisory Board and The Music and Health Institute at Berklee College of Music. I perform on guitars by Thomas Humphrey and Kirk Sand, and use D’Addario Strings. 

What initially drew you into higher education leadership?

Leadership in education, to me, is a pathway to create and build programs, and access resources to support and advocate for students. I loved performing, scholarship, non-profit work, and teaching. In the course of each, I often felt limited in what I could do for a certain student, or with a certain project. In these moments, I realized I cared just as much about what music does as what music is, to paraphrase a colleague! My Chair position allows me to balance my art with proactive work that facilitates opportunities for others. It’s a real service position, and I love that. 

Can you talk about the emergence of women into guitar education leadership roles? What are your observations about why and how this paradigm shift took place; and do you see it continuing?

When I became Assistant Chair at Berklee, the Dean at the time (Matt Marvuglio) said to me, “A lot of people are congratulating me on hiring a woman. I want you to know that I tell them, ‘I didn’t. I hired the best guitarist I could find.” I had the same acceptance from the Chair, Larry Baione, who had held that position for thirty years and mentored me in that role. When I invited Sheryl Bailey to accept the Assistant Chair role five years later, after our extensive search process, I did so because she was the strongest candidate. I think the shift is that strong women leaders and players are being recognized and welcomed into these roles. The women I know in guitar leadership built and managed multi-faceted careers – often in challenging circumstances and out of necessity. This skill set is valuable in a college leadership setting. I do see this continuing. 

Have you seen an increase in the number of women guitar professors in higher education in recent years?

I’ve seen more great women players and teachers find their home in higher education. It’s been good to hear from friends and colleagues that they’ve found positions that allow them to be creative and grow. As more positions open up, I’m looking forward to hearing more of these stories. I’ve gained perspective from our women colleagues who have held their professorships for decades. 

College level Jazz and Contemporary Guitar Program enrollments still tilt strongly towards a majority male student body. You’ll also find this same disparity among the guitar faculty and senior leadership positions.  Has this situation evolved at your institution?

When I came to Berklee in 2013, the Registrar told me that the population of women students in the guitar department had never risen above 4% — of the more than 1,000 guitar students. Five years later, when I applied for the Chair, that number had doubled. Our women students represent the top players in every style, including jazz, classical, metal, roots, and R&B. We have eight women on our guitar faculty, 15% of our full-faculty number, also representing the broad styles of jazz, rock, blues, acoustic, fingerstyle, classical, and songwriting. I am the first woman to be named both Assistant Chair and Chair of the guitar department, and our current Assistant Chair Sheryl Bailey is the second woman to hold that position. We are seeing a slow, significant evolution that is noticeable. 

Last year during our interviews with incoming guitar students, a young woman looked around my office and asked, “So, what is it like here, you know… for women?” I said, “Are you asking because you want to know how long it will be until we just take over?” She said, “Yes. Yes, I am.” I loved that because it’s time that all of our students to feel like they own the place.

As college educators, most of us go about our day-to-day responsibilities without thinking about gender; we do our jobs with utmost professionalism and work to support the growth of our programs, students, faculty, ourselves as leaders and our impact in the community.  Nonetheless, you are a powerful and visible role model for everyone under your purview and far beyond.  Do you have any comments you’d like to share about encountering and successfully overcoming institutionalized sexism or misogyny as an educator and/or professional musician?

Looking back, I’m most struck by how normal the general climate of sexism seemed, and the way things that may be called out today were seen as “the way it is”. I’m mindful of the ways that my few women guitar friends and I found to fit in, to deflect, to use humor to navigate and diffuse challenging situations – to be able to “hang” in social professional situations – to bring things back around to playing, to be taken seriously, to be safe. For me, these challenges pushed me to focus: on the guitar, on practicing, studying, and developing my own voice; on teaching and building programs, with an added awareness for the challenges my students may face; and on relationships with teachers and friends who were truly supportive and respectful in that mix – the men and women who became my trusted colleagues. I know that young women guitarists face many of these same challenges I faced as a student. That recognized, I am happy and impressed to see more and more women guitar students at Berklee who are confident and assertive in their creativity. 

Joining the guitar department at Berklee as Assistant Chair was a healing experience for me. From the first moment, the Chair, Dean, faculty, students, and senior leadership were respectful to me, and the vibe of the department community allowed me to be authentic as a guitarist and a leader. This reinforces to me the power a respectful community has in our growth as creative artists. As a Chair, I take on an active role in our college leadership, with the goal of building this kind of open community for all of our students and faculty. Together with Sheryl Bailey, our Assistant Chair, we’re able to set the tone that we are focused on a community that values depth in guitar playing and respect for all players. 

What are the broad ramifications of this shift in leadership in the guitar community that you see?

I’ve noticed that the shift in leadership that welcomed me was an invitation to students and faculty who felt as though they were different in some way than the mainstream they perceived coming up. Whether personally or stylistically, we all benefit as players when more voices are honored and encouraged to develop.

Tell us what are your go-to guitar(s) and amp(s) these days.

For many years, I’ve played concert classical guitars by Thomas Humphrey. I have a 1990 and 2003, both Millenium designs. Tom and I developed a mentorship and friendship when I was a student. He built the 2003 guitar for me, based on hearing me play over the years. When I plug in for concerts, I play a custom-made Kirk Sand nylon-string guitar – the John Knowles Thinline model, with a neck Kirk made to fit my playing. I use the Fishman Auora pedal, and an AER amp. 

What are your goals and plans for the future? Is there anything you might want to share with our readers about upcoming gigs, projects, sage advice or final words of wisdom?

The remote environment of this school year has been a reminder of the necessity and the creative power of adaptation. I’m getting a lot of inspiration from and putting energy into teaching and developing Berklee courses with professor David Tronzo, in spontaneous composition and modern writing. I’m composing solo guitar music, and finding new ways to engage as a performer and scholar while we’re virtual. I’ve got three books for Berklee Press and a course for Berklee Online in the pipeline. My board work for D’Addario, Guitar Foundation of America, and Music and Health Institute is centered on collaborative approaches to education, diversity initiatives, and holistically supporting students. In the guitar department at Berklee, we’re focusing on our central relationships between faculty and students and developing ways to connect and prepare for remote professional work. 

My projects can be found at: www.kimperlak.com; daily posts from the Berklee Guitar Department can be found on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. 

My advice, which I try to take, is: Let curiosity run ahead of doubt, dive deeply into every opportunity, run right at what scares you, keep learning from other musicians, become a good colleague. Remember: you have to go deep to be free. 

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