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First-hand accounts of the Berklee experience

Erin Lee’s Internship at Panama Jazz Festival

Panama Jazz Festival

Hello to all readers! My name is Hae-In “Erin” Lee from South Korea.  I just graduated from Berklee in December 2010 where my principal instrument was voice and I majored in Professional Music. While I was at Berklee, I took part in an internship program at the Panama Jazz Festival (U.S. office) as an assistant to the executive director. I had a great time working at my internship site and I really wanted to go down to Panama and experience the actual event. I was very fortunate to receive financial support from the Office of Admission to fly down to Panama City from January 7th to 17th,, 2011.

For those who always slept in geography classes… The Republic of Panama is the southernmost country of Central America, neighboring between Costa Rica and Columbia. The capital is Panama City and the official language is Spanish. Panama is also well known for the Panama Canal.

The Panama Jazz Festival (PJF) was founded by a Panamanian Grammy-winning pianist named Danilo Pérez, who is a Berklee alumnus, former pianist of the Wayne Shorter Quartet, UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, Cultural Ambassador of Panama, and founder of the Berklee Global Jazz Institute.

What is really special about PJF is that the festival offers a rich program of concerts by leading international jazz musicians, and the emphasis is on music education. PJF also provides a week of master classes and audition opportunities for young music students entering college and looking for scholarships.

Please visit the official website:

For more information, check this Wikipedia article, which I wrote for my internship project last summer:

So, here are my exciting stories I brought from Panama and the photos I took!

1. Arrival

Two PJF staff members (Paul and Alida) were waiting for me at the airport gate. I was the only Asian there at that moment, so it was easy for them to find me. J

(Paul and Alida: Paul is originally from Cambridge, MA
and he is currently working at the PJF in Panama as a
Clinics Coordinator. Alida is Panamanian and a Coordinator
of Educational Events. They are such hardworking people and
always willing to help!)

Too bad I forgot to take a picture of myself at the airport. I was wearing my down jacket and the boots, which are crucial items in cold snowy Boston, but not in Panama! Panama was about 88F° (31C°). I was just too excited about staying in a new country and meeting new people.

Paul and Alida dropped me off at Luis’ parents’ apartment (which I thought was ten times cleaner and nicer than mine in Boston). Luis is a Panamanian saxophonist who is currently studying at New England Conservatory (NEC). Starting the second day, I stayed at the Continental Hotel (one of PJF’s sponsors), but on the first day I had to sleep over at Luis’ parents’ home.

(from the left:  Luis’ parents, Luis’ relative, Luis, Luis’ wife)

Luis’ parents treated me as if I was their daughter and they never stopped smiling. I still feel warm when I think of this family. Once Paul said to me, “They (Luis’ family) are beautiful people, aren’t they?” OH YES, TOTALLY!

2. First Mission

The first work day began. The temporary office where I was working was a suite in El Panama Hotel. (Goodness! How often do you get a chance to stay at the hotel suite!!!)

My first duty was to set up a printer and hook it up to multiple laptops. Then, I had to count and divide all the merchandise items into different colors, designs and sizes. Once items were categorized and nicely piled, I created an inventory and an estimated income chart.

(I think I have never folded this many T-shirts in my life! –
There are more items you don’t see in this picture.)

I am not a good Spanish speaker, so it was fun to learn new Spanish vocabulary. One of the most interesting Panamanian Spanish differences was that they say T-shirts as “Sweater.” I was often confused by the customers at the merchandise table who were looking for T-shirts and asked me for “sweaters.”

While I was taping receipts on white paper for scanning purposes, the scotch tape ran out. My supervisor asked me to go out and buy some tape. In case I got totally lost, she wrote a few sentences in Spanish on a piece of paper, so that I could read it out loud or show it to the employee at the store. I was a little scared, but I left the office. As it turned out, I didn’t need to speak a word to anyone when I got to the store. A pile of scotch tape was on the shelf and I just picked it up and paid.

After buying the tape, I stopped by a supermarket called “Rey.” I was very surprised, because instead having their national brand products, most products were the same as what we have in typical U.S. supermarket. Moreover, Panama uses U.S. dollars, so after I purchased and left the supermarket, I felt like I just shopped at the Shaw’s. Before I came to Panama, I thought Panama City would be very much like a traveling & vacation place, surrounded by resorts and oceans. However, the city was very modern and has a lot of new tall buildings.

Finally, my mission was complete and safely came back to the hotel. My supervisor smiled at me and said, “You’re still alive!”

3. My Supervisor

I want to briefly talk about my supervisor, Patricia Zarate, who is the executive director of the festival. She is a talented saxophone player and she majored in Music Therapy at Berklee. Another interesting fact is that Patricia is also a mother of three children and the wife of PJF founder, Danilo Pérez. She has contributed so much to the festival and the festival would not have grown like this without her effort and hard work. Raising three children and directing such a huge project like PJF all at the same time…?? Whoa, I cannot even imagine myself handling it. Patricia is a strong woman!

Patricia’s performance (saxophone):

4. The Festival Began

It was Monday, the 10th of January 2011. The 8th Panama Jazz Festival had finally begun.

(“Opening Day.” From the left: a faculty member from NEC,
Patricia Zarate, Danilo Pérez, Danilo’s manager, a faculty member
from Paris Conservatory)

(Panamanian children from Danilo Pérez Foundation. They
performed Gershwin’s “Summertime” and it was awesome!)

(My sweet roommate, Yuri Namkung. She currently teaches the
violin at University of Alabama. It was her 5th year to participate
PJF and she is the Classical Music Program Coordinator at PJF.)

5.  Harlem String Quartet

I was assigned to host the Harlem String Quartet (HSQ). Being a host was like being a babysitter. You need to get up earlier than the artists and bring them to different venues – sometimes you need to go up their room and bang the door to wake them up. You need to be a good timekeeper, so the artists can efficiently utilize their clinics and sound check hours. Lastly, you have to feed them and make sure everyone is safe and healthy.

HSQ is such a sensational group and they entered NEC’s Professional String Quartet Training Program in fall 2010.

* Violins: Ilmar Gavilán & Melissa White

* Viola: Juan-Miguel Hernandez

* Cello: Paul Wiancko

(Clinics with Harlem String Quartet)

As a responsible host (hahaha), I was literally chasing the HSQ every single moment. They even joked, “Erin, are you coming to our room to keep monitoring us?” All the HSQ members were energetic, brilliant and fun. And of course, there is no doubt that they are super talented musicians.

Harlem String Quartet’s “Take ‘A’ Train:

6. Panama Canal

“Panama Canal, I heard so much about you!”

Yes, it was the famous Panama Canal in front of my eyes. The VIP reception was held at the Panama Canal and I had so much fun there. The weather was warm and breezy and the food was amazing (I can’t even remember how many dishes I finished!). The Panamanian children started playing the drums and sang their traditional songs, and people danced to the music. All of my stress and tiredness melted away!

(Myself at the Panama Canal)

7. Berklee Auditions & Interviews

Berklee auditions and interviews are held at the festival every year. It is such a great opportunity for local, or even people from other Latin American countries who cannot afford to travel to Boston, just to audition. It just makes everything easier for Latin students.

The pictures I took below are from the information session, which happened the day before the actual auditions took place. Billy, a Panamanian staff member from the Office of Admissions, and other Berklee faculty members were there to help students prepare for the auditions and interviews. Many students were very passionate about their learning and they were so eager to enroll at Berklee. They had a lot of questions. They reminded me of myself when I was preparing my Berklee audition… awwww~

(Billy and Berklee teachers explaining how to prepare
and what to do at the auditions and interviews.)

8. Music Therapy

One of most unique Berklee programs is Music Therapy. As I mentioned, my supervisor Patricia also majored in Music Therapy at Berklee. Recently, more and more people are interested in this subject and Berklee is well known for offering a qualified Music Therapy program.

For the first time at the PJF, a Music Therapy Clinic was held. For this historical moment, Karen Wacks (Music Therapy Professor), came down to Panama and successfully conducted the clinic. There were many participants who even traveled abroad just to attend this very special event. I am looking forward to seeing the Music Therapy Clinic grow bigger and bigger at PJF, so that many people can benefit from it.

9. Berklee Global Jazz Institute

As the Harlem String Quartet finished their schedule and left Panama, I was assigned to host the Berklee Global Jazz Institute (BGJI).

BGJI is a performance program and is formed by Berklee’s top jazz musicians. The candidates for the BGJI have to go through an audition & interview process. (And of course, it is very competitive!!!) BGJI is directed by Danilo Pérez (Artistic Director) and Marco Pignataro (Managing Director).

For more information of BGJI:

PJF 2011 participants from BGJI:

* Piano: Christian Li

* Clarinet: Felix Peikli

* Saxophone: Hailey Niswanger & Tom Wilson

* Trumpet: David Neves

* Bass: Shin Sakaino

* Drums: Roberto Giaquinto & Isaac Haselkorn

(Grammy-winning bass player, John Patitucci and BGJI managing
director, Marco Pignataro at the clinic.)

(BGJI at the clinic)

(from the left: Matt Marvuglio(Dean of Performance Division),
Mia(Berklee faculty), and Carl Riley(Performance Division Assistant))

(BGJI teaching the Panamanian children at the Danilo Pérez Foundation.
Marco Pignataro talked about “improvisation” by singing and playing
“La Cucalacha” with children. It could have been a difficult concept for
the children, but he made it so easy and fun to understand – even
I had fun watching the class!)

(BGJI sound checking at the Atlapa)

10. Concerts and Jam Sessions

I was chasing and hosting the BGJI every morning and afternoon, and later on, I became a cashier and a merchandise sales person at the jam sessions. The jam sessions happened every night and ended around 2 a.m., meaning I had to be up until 3 a.m. as well. It was pretty hectic, but I was so happy to see other people enjoying the music (so did I). Some artists like Brian Lynch (trumpeter) were terrific and just blew me away at the jam session!!! While I was working at the merchandise table, I had a great time networking with other interns and volunteers, and it was one of the most wonderful memories I had at PJF.

Every time there was a concert in the evening, I had to leave early in order to set up the merchandise table for the jam sessions. It was unfortunate, because the highlight of the show always happened at the end!  I couldn’t even see Danilo Pérez performing at his own festival. :’( However, interestingly enough, I saw Danilo playing the drums at the jam session. How many people have seen him playing the drums – raise your hand please? The very last day of the festival, Danilo gave me a copy of his recent album, “Providencia,” which was nominated for 2011 Grammy’s Best Instrumental Jazz Album. Of course, he kindly signed on his CD and I felt like I was in heaven~

(The National Theater)

(The beautiful passionate Flamenco music and the dancer. My jaw dropped!)

(The famous Chilean vocalist, Claudia Acuña. Not only she
is a great singer, but she is also very generous and sweet)

(Claudia and myself)

11. The Highlight Of The Festival!

I couldn’t believe that it was the last day of the festival. All the clinics and concerts had happened indoors, but the last day of the festival was celebrated at the beautiful open space called “Plaza de Catedral” in Old City.

When I arrived at the Plaza de Catedral in the morning, the weather was humid and boiling hot. Then suddenly it began to rain! I was so worried the concert would be canceled. But thank God, by the time the first band performed, the sky was clear again and so many audience members grabbed their seats in front of the stage. (Well, we sold many umbrellas at the merchandise table anyway!)

I rotated the duties with two other volunteers. The first hour, I was helping the sound engineer (main sound board, off stage) to communicate with the other sound engineer (monitor, on stage). The second hour, I was selling CDs at the merchandise table and the last hour was my break. Over the break, I took pictures of the BGJI and also had some Panamanian food for my lunch. (You must have Panamanian food before you die. The food is incredible!!!!!) After repeating the rotation twice, I realized that six hours had already passed.

(My favorite Panamanian chicken soup called “Sancocho”)

(The audiences at the Plaza de Catedral)

(The Panamanian students receiving scholarships from Berklee)

(BGJI performing at the Plaza de Catedral)

12. People I Met in Panama

* Mark Steinert & Valentina Carrasco Zehender: Mark is a Music Business major and piano principal student from Berklee. He just started an internship at the PJF. Valentina is from Chile and she will be starting her 1st college year this spring. Both of them were volunteers and they traveled abroad to participate in the festival. They worked so hard and I felt so grateful to work with them as team members. I believe that the most valuable thing I earned at the festival was  probably these two friends. J

(from the left: Mark, myself, Valentina)

* Dr. Echeverria: He is a Panamanian medical doctor who used to be a diplomat in the Panamanian Embassy in Seoul, South Korea. I was just so thrilled by his stories, because he knows so much about Korean cultures and even the places where I used to go when I was in Korea. He told me that he loved the jazz clubs in Seoul and he had never attended as many concerts as he did when he went to Korea. I’ve been so busy with my school and haven’t visited my country for three years. The conversation I had with him made me homesick…

* Parents of Danilo Pérez: I will never ever forget Danilo’s amazing parents, especially, Sr. Pérez! He is the most joyous, bright, loving person I ever met – he cracked me up all the time! He was also my wonderful Spanish teacher who often asked me “Do you still remember how to say, ‘this is chicken soup’ in Spanish?” The first Spanish I learned from him was “Azúcar,” which means, “Sugar” in English. Every time he pointed out the sugar bottle, I had to shout very happily, “Azúcar!”  Later on, when I saw Danilo’s parents again, we greeted each other by saying “Azúcar!” instead of saying “Hi.” At the very last jam session, he was singing (He used to be an active singer in the past. Man, HE CAN SING!) and suddenly he pointed at me and  shouted “Azúcar!” It was one of the funniest moments I had at the festival. There is no doubt that Danilo’s amazing talents are inherited from his father!

* Ella: She is a percussionist from Chile and she is the one who opened the door of the whole new “Sancocho” world for me (Sancocho: Panamanian chicken soup). She helped me so much from the first day and we had a great conversation about “the women in music” as well.

* In addition to people above: Thank you… Yariela, Cindy, Jaime, Vincent, Ben, Jesus, Jose, Sebastian, Alejandro, Cristina, Jessica, Maria, Elizabeth, Fidel and so many other wonderful people that I will never forget!!!

(The last photo I took in Panama)

You can be a part of the Panama Jazz Festival just like me. Berklee students can take an internship program or join the BGJI to perform at the festival. Lastly, anyone and everyone can attend the festival as an audience member. Come and visit the Panama Jazz Festival. I guarantee you will love it!


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1 Comment

  1. Billy

    this is excellent! thanks for sharing!

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