Mayah Dyson could be the next R&B diva. As she nears completion of her studies at Berklee College of Music, she has already appeared on “Saturday Night Live,” backing up Solange. On Sunday she has her own billing on the final day of the Essence Festival in New Orleans, the country’s premiere African-American music event, alongside some of her musical heroes — Mary J. Blige, Jill Scott, Diana Ross.
But for all her promise, Dyson is no diva. On Wednesday, she rehearsed one last time with her band in a room full of students in Jeff Dorenfeld’s Berklee Popular Music Institute class, the first of its kind at the school. The program provides real-world training for music business students, who help choose Berklee artists, groom them for the big stage, and accompany them to some of North America’s most prestigious summer music festivals.
“She’s always mad receptive to any criticism or comment we make,” said Jordan Johnson, a New Orleans native who is one of Dyson’s three-student team of handlers, responsible for promotions, tour budgets, and other duties. “I’ve never seen her with a mad face.”
“That’s me, 24-7,” said Dyson, smiling. She was huddled with her management team — Johnson, Oakland native Jordan Holly, and Miami-born Angela Rodriguez — to discuss how her band’s short set is shaping up for the festival. (The students are also taking an electronic producer and DJ named Dwilly to Outside Lands in San Francisco in August.)
One of the main pieces of advice the team had for Dyson was to play up her role as a queen of the stage. She fronts a compact band — a drummer, keyboard/synthesizer player, and two backup singers — with an element of performance art provided by two balletic dancers.
“We wanted her to turn that on onstage,” said Holly, standing in the middle of a roomy rehearsal space on the lower level of Berklee’s recently renovated building at 150 Massachusetts Ave.
Dyson and her band concluded their session with her simmering original song “No Strings Attached.” During an extended instrumental passage she fell into line with her dancers, exuding a stately poise as she swayed and pivoted.
“Night and day from where you were a couple of weeks ago,” said Dorenfeld, approaching the stage when the song ended. “Four days!” he added, reminding Dyson and her entourage of their big festival date.
Working his connections in the music industry, Dorenfeld has been bringing Berklee musicians to Lollapalooza every year since 2011. Before joining the Berklee faculty, he was a tour accountant for Ozzy Osbourne and the band Boston’s personal manager.
Last summer, he officially launched the BPMI initiative with four Berklee artists booked into festivals. He’s supported by an old student of his, Jeff Apruzzese, the former bassist for the band Passion Pit, who serves as BPMI’s operations manager.
“We’re trying to give them an experience no other college gives,” said Dorenfeld.
This year, culminating the first full year of the class, seven Berklee acts had dates to perform around the country. They include the all-female garage rock trio Lady Pills, who will play Lollapalooza in Chicago in August, and Olivia Swann, a London-bred rock and soul singer who will appear at Osheaga in Montreal. In early June, the eccentric, culture-hopping multi-instrumentalist Jack Martini was the first to take the plunge, making a strong impression at Governors Ball on Randall’s Island in New York City.
“It went incredibly well,” reported Martini, whose real first name is Jacopo. (The name of his music project, he explained on a phone call, “is like a Frank Sinatra version of my name.”) His student partners’ suggestions were spot-on, he said. They wanted him to emphasize his entertaining skills. At the festival, he took the stage by running through the crowd with his shirt off. He crooned playfully and joked with his audience. By the time he stepped away from the microphone, new fans were lined up to take selfies with him.
Playing Governors Ball was a welcome opportunity, he said: “There’s a difference playing a club gig.” At a big, all-day festival, “people want to love you more than in a club.”
Back in class, Swann worked on her presentation. Wearing high-waisted jeans and an old, tied-off heavy metal concert T-shirt, she belted a rock version of Ariana Grande’s hit “Side to Side.” Then she practiced her stage banter.
“Wassup, Osheaga?” she hollered. The small group of students in the room — 18 music business and management students were accepted into the class — hollered back, playing the role of her audience.
When the band finished its next song, Dorenfeld stepped forward. He wanted to know why they’d chosen to cluster together. It’s a big stage, he noted: They should spread out across the whole thing, as though they were in fact playing on a big stage.
“You should get as wide as possible,” he said. In the bigger picture, that’s exactly what he wants these aspiring artists to do.James Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.