Whether you’re a student, a teacher, or a parent, I think you’ll appreciate this story of how one teacher can completely and permanently change someone’s life in only a few lessons.
I was seventeen and about to start my first year at Berklee College of Music.
I called a local recording studio with a random question about music typesetting.
When the studio owner heard I was going to Berklee, he said, “I graduated from Berklee and taught there, too. I’ll bet I can teach you two years of theory and arranging in only a few lessons. I suspect you can graduate in two years if you understand there’s no speed limit. Come by my studio at 9:00 tomorrow for your first lesson, if you’re interested. No charge.”
Graduate college in two years? Awesome! I liked his style. That was Kimo Williams.
I showed up at his studio at 8:40 the next morning, super excited, though I waited outside before ringing his bell at 8:59.
He opened the door. A tall man in a Hawaiian shirt and a big hat, with a square scar on his nose, a laid-back demeanor, and a huge smile, sizing me up, nodding.
(Recently I heard him tell the story from his perspective. He said, “My doorbell rang at 8:59 one morning and I had no idea why. I run across kids all the time who say they want to be a great musician. I tell them I can help, and tell them to show up at my studio at 9:00 if they’re serious. Nobody ever does. It’s how I weed out the really serious ones from the kids who just talk. But there was Derek, ready to go.”)
After a one-minute welcome, we were sitting at the piano, analyzing the sheet music for a jazz standard. He was quickly explaining the chords based on the diatonic scale — how the dissonance of the tri-tone in the 5-chord with the flat-7 is what makes it want to resolve to the 1. Within a minute, he started quizzing me. “If the 5-chord with the flat-7 has that tri-tone, then so does another flat-7 chord. Which one?”
“Uh… the flat-2 chord?”
“Right! So that’s a substitute chord. Any flat-7 chord can be substituted with the other flat-7 that shares the same tri-tone. So reharmonize all the chords you can in this chart. Go.”
The pace was intense, and I loved it. Finally, someone was challenging me — keeping me in over my head — encouraging and expecting me to pull myself up quickly. I was learning so fast, it felt like the adrenaline rush you get while playing a video game. He tossed every fact at me and made me prove that I got it.
In our three-hour lesson that morning, he taught me a full semester of Berklee’s harmony courses. In our next four lessons, he taught me the next four semesters of harmony and arranging classes.
When I got to college and took my entrance exams, I tested out of those six semesters of requirements.
Then, as Kimo suggested, I bought the course materials for other required classes and taught myself, doing the homework in my own time. Then I went to the department head and took the final exam, getting full credit for those courses.
By doing this in addition to completing my full course load, I graduated college in two and a half years. I got my bachelor’s degree when I was twenty.
Kimo’s high expectations set a new pace for me. He taught me that “the standard pace is for chumps” — that the system is designed so anyone can keep up. If you’re more driven than most people, you can do way more than anyone expects. And this principle applies to all of life, not just school.
Before I met Kimo, I was just a kid who wanted to be a musician, doing it casually. Ever since our five lessons, I’ve had no speed limit. I owe every great thing that’s happened in my life to Kimo’s raised expectations. A random meeting and five music lessons showed me that I can do way more than the norm.
Twenty years later, Berklee invited me to give the opening keynote speech to incoming first-year students. Go to sive.rs/berklee to see it. Kimo knows how much he means to me, and we’re friends to this day.