The WiMN’s Front and Center is a weekly column that showcases accomplished women who work in the music and audio industries. We spotlight successful female performers, manufacturers, retailers, educators, managers, publicists, and everyone else in between. Want to be featured? Learn how here

Front and Center: VP for Online Learning and Continuing Education/Berklee Music CEO, Debbie Cavalier. 

By Pauline France

Debbie Cavalier is a veritable Jill-of-all-trades. She is currently the Vice President for Online Learning and Continuing Education/CEO for Berklee’s award-winning online continuing education program, Berkleemusic, and is also the leader of the award-winning kids/family band Debbie and Friends.

She is a graduate of Berklee’s Music Education program and spent many years in the classroom teaching K-8 general music and directing choirs. She holds a Master’s degree in Education from Cambridge College and continues to further her studies in music, business, and online education. In addition, Cavalier has penned over a hundred music education methods books and arrangements for Carl Fischer, First Act, Alfred Publishing and Warner Bros. Publications.

The WiMN could not be more proud to showcase someone as accomplished, passionate and committed as Debbie Cavalier.

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WiMN: How long have you been in the music industry?

DC: I have been in the music industry for 25 years. After graduating from Berklee College of Music in 1987, I was a public school music educator/choral director for several years and found my way into the music education publishing industry through my mentor and uncle, the late Sandy Feldstein.

After publishing a number of method books and choral arrangements with Sandy while I was teaching, I left the classroom to write and produce music education publications full time under his leadership with CPP Belwin/Warner Bros. Publications (now Alfred Publishing).  It was a great experience and laid a strong foundation for the work I am doing today with Berklee Online.

WiMN: Out of all the areas in M.I., you have focused heavily and excelled in education. Tell us why you chose this route.

DC: I knew from a very early age that I wanted to be teacher. And, music was always part of my life. My Grandfather, Marty Gold, was a composer/arranger and A&R man for RCA back in the day. He led the Marty Gold Orchestra while at RCA and wrote, arranged, and produced dozens of LPs on the Stereophonic imprint.

My interest in music was encouraged and supported by my family from the start. I began taking piano lessons at four years old and continued from there. Music education was a natural career path for me because it enabled me to pursue my passion for education and music on a daily basis. This has led to what has become an extremely rewarding career.

WiMN: What are some of your responsibilities as the Vice President for Online Learning and Continuing Education/CEO for Berklee’s online continuing education program?

DC: First I’ll tell you a little bit about Berklee’s online continuing education program. Since its inception in 2002, Berkleemusic—Berklee’s online continuing education school, and the largest online music school in the world—has educated more than 30,000 students from 150 countries online, and won the University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA) award for the best online college-level course across all disciplines for eight years in a row. The mission of Berkleemusic is to expand the reach of the college and provide access to Berklee faculty and Berklee’s diverse curricula  to a global base of aspiring musicians. This year alone we will teach more than 13,000 students online with 125 courses and certificate programs in songwriting, production, music business, orchestration, arranging, guitar, voice, music history and more. The exciting news is that in the fall of 2014, we will begin to offer Berklee’s first fully-online Bachelor degree programs. The initial degree will be a Bachelor of Professional Studies and we will offer two majors to start: Music Production and Music Business.

My role as Vice President Online Learning & Continuing Education/CEO Berkleemusic is to oversee the operation and expand our reach through strategic partnerships and innovative educational programming online. We have a team of 50 talented and dedicated staff in marketing, admissions, business operations, programming, academics, instructional design, student services, video, graphic, information and user-interface design, and more. The Berklee Online team is passionate about the work we do and proud of the reputation it has earned over the past 10 years as a leader in quality online music education. In addition to our staff, we have more than 125 instructors facilitating our instructor-led online courses and programs. Our instructors are Berklee faculty and high-profile luminaries from all facets of the music industry.

The students we teach come from all walks of life, and their stories are incredibly inspiring. We have band members from Sugarland and the Dave Matthews band studying with us while on the road, a family from Venezuela taking music business courses to support their son’s interest in being a music producer while he attends the main campus program in Boston, soldiers in Iraq studying online while deployed, surgeons, NASA rocket scientists, and musicians representing all genres who want to enhance their skills through education to further their career opportunities. Berkleemusic is helping people change their lives and pursue their dreams.

WiMN: Tell us about Debbie and Friends. What inspired you to create it?

DC: Debbie and Friends is a children’s music and media company that includes live performances throughout the US, recorded CDs and DVDs, cartoon music videos, educational apps, method books, songbooks and more. Debbie and Friends songs are largely based on stories, concepts, and skills aimed at preschool age children. Our concerts are interactive and fun and provide a shared musical experience for families to enjoy and then recreate at home.  I’ve been involved with Debbie and Friends for 6 years.  It brings together all of my professional experiences and provides a platform to share music with kids and their families. It’s been a wonderful experience.

My first original children’s song, “Three Pigs and a Wolf,” was inspired by my nephew Will. One summer day I happened to hear Will telling my Mother the story of the Three Little Pigs when Will was just three years old. He told the story with such enthusiasm, and the different parts of the story sounded like song sections to me. It was at that moment that I thought, “this story could be a fun song for kids.” So, Will’s storytelling inspired me to write my first children’s song. That led to a series of original story songs and others and Debbie and Friends grew from there.

WiMN: You are an incredibly successful woman dividing your time amongst many projects. What are some of your greatest accomplishments and how do you manage staying balanced?

DC: Thank you. I think it comes down to pursuing a profession that aligns with a passion. Do what you love and work feels like play. I’m not sure I can agree with your statement that I manage to stay balanced per se, but I am very happy doing what I love every day.

WiMN: Tell us about challenges you’ve faced in your career and how you overcame them.

DC: In 2001, we had a bold idea to expand the reach of Berklee College of Music and create the first online music school. This was long before online education was widely accepted, let alone online education for music. There were a lot of naysayers and reasons to not pursue the idea, but we forged ahead knowing this was an important initiative for Berklee and would provide so many opportunities for a global base of aspiring musicians who wanted access to Berklee.

I believe we overcame the challenges by holding fast to our vision and being true to Berklee’s core. Berklee has always been on the cutting edge of contemporary music education. We established the first songwriting major under the direction of Jack Perricone, we were the first school to offer studies in guitar, and we have always been at the forefront of distance education. Berklee had a mail-based correspondence course back in the ‘60s and ‘70s that brought many great musicians to Berklee, including Alf Clausen of Simpson’s fame, and Grammy Award-winning vibraphonist and former Executive Vice President at Berklee, Gary Burton, among others.

Developing the first online music school was a natural for this forward-thinking, innovative institution. I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to be part of Berklee’s online program from the start (I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that Gary Burton helped start Berklee’s online program 11 years ago, and he now offers an online course available through Berklee Online based on his approach to Jazz Improvisation. Here is a link to more information).

WiMN: What instrument(s) do you play?

DC: Piano is my principal instrument, but as a music education major at Berklee, I had the great opportunity to study many different instruments.

WiMN: If you weren’t in the music industry, what do you think you’d be doing?

DC: That’s a tough one. It’s hard for me to imagine not being involved with music or education for my career path.

WiMN: What one piece of advice has served you the most in your career?

DC: The one piece of advice that has served me the most in my career was not something I was told but rather something I observed.

Sandy Feldstein was the best mentor I—and so many of my former colleagues—could have had. When I began my Music Education Publishing tenure, I had the great opportunity to work right alongside of Sandy, who was the President of Warner Bros. Publications at the time. My office was the conference table in his office for three months, and those three months turned out to be the best professional career education I ever experienced.

I witnessed his approach to leadership, management, negotiations, and more firsthand. I attended every meeting, and learned by example from the best in the business. Sandy not only knew how to run a successful music education publishing operation with 300 employees, just as many authors, and a wide ranging dealer network, but he also understood how to relate to people and inspire those around him.

He was a skilled leader as well as a genuine people person. From that experience, I have two pieces of advice to offer aspiring professionals:

1. Find a mentor and adopt the strengths that resonate with you.

2. Be skilled and be kind.

WiMN: Any words of encouragement to young women seeking opportunities in this industry?

DC: Yes. I would strongly encourage young women who are interested in working in the music industry to pursue that path. We need more women to help to shape the future of the rapidly changing industry.