Ruth Mendelson of Berklee College of Music: “Be a good listener and have Kleenex handy”

Be a good listener and have Kleenex handy. Many students come to me after class (even on Zoom during Covid) because they need to talk to someone they can trust. For many of these students, I’ve noticed that the quality of their work radically improves when they know that someone cares about them. As a part […]

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Be a good listener and have Kleenex handy. Many students come to me after class (even on Zoom during Covid) because they need to talk to someone they can trust. For many of these students, I’ve noticed that the quality of their work radically improves when they know that someone cares about them.

As a part of my interview series about “5 Things You Need To Know To Be A Highly Effective Educator”, I had the pleasure to interview Ruth Mendelson.

A New York Times Critics’ Pick and Emmy nominee, composer/producer/arranger Ruth Mendelson has been writing award-winning scores for documentaries, HBO, National Geographic, Discovery Channel, Disney, Animal Planet, The Learning Channel, A&E, PBS, CBS, and NBC (among others), as well as creating innovative multi-media “surround-scapes” for over 25 years.

Ruth was the first woman in the history of Berklee College of Music (Boston, MA) to teach in the Film Scoring Department, where she designs and teaches master classes in documentary and dramatic scoring.

Recent film scores include The Prison Within (Apple/iTunes), The Hope (Disney Plus/National Geographic). Ruth is currently producing a series of audiobooks for Dr. Jane Goodall (first release: My Life with The Chimpanzees, Hatchett Press) and composed the soundtrack for Dr. Goodall’s podcast series, Hopecast (world premiere: January 2021).

An active studio musician, Ruth has been featured playing a number of instruments in a wide variety of genres with artists in LA, New York, Boston, Europe, and India. She has also served as location sound recordist for the U.S. and international documentaries, most recently in spring 2017 when recording location sound on the high plains of Mongolia for the documentary film series “Mongolian Chronicles.”

Ruth is a keynote speaker, music director, and author. Her novel, The Water Tree Way, was released on Amazon in December 2020 and is quickly becoming a favorite for children of all ages around the world.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory” behind what brought you to this particular career path?

I’ve always had a keen interest in education and LOVE teaching, but I never pursued this path. It pursued me. Years ago, one of my most beloved mentors from college called me and asked if I would consider teaching in the department I had studied in. He said they needed some fresh energy around there. I flatly replied, “No.” The truth was I didn’t think I was qualified. I had never done that before. I’ve always had an honest relationship with my mentor and expressed my reservation. He replied, “Well, if you hate it, quit.” There was no way for me to refuse that reasoning. I knew I had to try. That was 25 years ago. I’ve been teaching ever since. I now design and teach final thesis/masterclasses in film scoring at Berklee College of Music. I had the honor of being the first woman in the school’s history to teach in the Film Scoring Department.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your teaching career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I’ve had so many interesting experiences, and it’s hard to choose. But I’ll share one that started as the most AWFUL and ultimately became one of the most beautiful. I’m very fond of my students. But one student, in particular, challenged that to the hilt.

What I learned from the following experience is that pain takes many forms, and how we respond or react to it can change the trajectory of a person’s life. It’s essential for us teachers not to take things personally when a student’s behavior is inappropriate. It can be so easy for us to forget the powerful position that we’re in. We may never know the wounds we’re interfacing within the class. But they will surely have a better chance at healing when they’re met with non-reaction rooted in love and compassion.

Twelve years ago, I had a student who I will call “John.” While an incredibly talented (and celebrated) pianist and composer, John exhibited a consistently belligerent attitude. One day towards the end of the semester, while critiquing students’ work in class, I asked John why he didn’t make the necessary revisions we had discussed the previous week. There was only one week left in the semester before graduation. John casually replied that he was talking with his friends about my feedback/instruction from the week before, and they decided that I was wrong, that I didn’t know what I was talking about, and so he refused to make any changes.

The class fell silent. The other students looked at me, wide-eyed, wondering what I was going to say. No student had ever spoken to me with such disrespect — ever. I honestly felt like he was trying to provoke me to react. Gratefully, I stayed calm and simply replied, “John, you have so much talent. But if you can’t handle constructive criticism, you’ve chosen the wrong career. I’m so sorry to have to say this to you now when you’re about to graduate.”

The class continued from there, and the day ultimately ended on a far more positive note.

That night, I felt compelled to write to John. I was still his teacher for one more week, and there was more to say. So I wrote him an email — about how I wanted to see him have a successful and happy life and how important it is to have humility — how necessary it is for connection — with oneself and others. I wrote that I was concerned that if he continued on the track he was on, he was headed towards living a very lonely life, regardless of any outer success. I ended the note wishing him the very best and asked that he please keep the email and reread it in the future.

The following day, I received a reply. John started his note by saying that I was the only person he could trust. That was a surprise, given his behavior towards me the entire semester. He proceeded to tell me, in great detail, about parts of his life he said he’d never told anyone before. He wrote about how his mother had beaten him. He was very smart and skipped grades in elementary school- where his classmates bullied him because he was physically much smaller than the other boys. That he had achieved great heights academically but had learned to trust no one. He had concluded that everyone was against him, until my class.

He apologized for his behavior and re-submitted his work, including all revisions.

John has continued to be in touch with me to this day. He’s doing well, and his work is brilliant. John often writes with updates re: how he’s working on forgiving those who hurt him in his quest to develop more humility. He has reminded me more than once that he has kept the email I wrote to him all those years ago.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I wrote a book! “The Water Tree Way” is an inner-outer, multi-dimensional shamanic fairy tale for readers of ALL ages! Dr. Jane Goodall (who I produce — soundtracks, audiobooks, and podcasts) wrote the forward. This book is, in fact, a cloaked instruction for the times we’re in. Positive reviews have been coming in from readers 6–87 years old.

I recently composed the soundtrack for Jane Goodall’s new podcast series, “Hopecast.” This podcast is a 100% inspiring series that features conversations with Dr. Goodall and changemakers worldwide.

I’m also:

Currently serving as music director for Dr. Goodall’s short film, “The Lion Family.” The story teaches children to love and care for animals and the earth.

Scoring a new documentary, “Taking Down Giants.” This film is all about empowerment — especially for young girls and women around the world. It features women in various countries addressing and finding solutions to issues such as Climate Change, Food Supply, Self Esteem, Environmental and Sustainable housing. I recently had my first zoom recording session at Skywalker Studios in California. We were recording vocals for the song, “Let It Be Said,” that I arranged for the film.

I’m also working on a production of my own. I’ll be recording the incredibly talented vocalist Rohan Kymal next week for a song I wrote about redemption.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the US education system?

I would honestly have to say that the results of the US education system are poor. The emphasis on standardized testing in younger grades has led to many problems. In order to get the necessary funding, many public schools are pressured to spend the majority of their time meeting test requirements.

Thus, the learning process is reduced to a barrage of exercises that involve studying what’s needed to pass a standardized test. The loss is a great one — as the process often aborts curiosity and thus innate love of learning. This system doesn’t include or encourage imaginative thinking — which is the foundation of becoming a visionary as an adult.

Also, many public schools no longer have art programs. Many inner-city elementary schools don’t have playgrounds.

The arts and exercise are known to be important factors in healthy brain development.

The result is a significant population of ill-equipped young people, devoid of confidence, with little (if any) idea of how to effectively problem solve and no resilience for the hardships of life. Drug abuse has become an enormous issue.

Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?

I want to focus on a pre-college level in answering this question. There are some great opportunities for learning in the US education system, but it all depends on where you live. If you can afford to live in a relatively affluent area, many schools are well resourced. And if you can’t, the opposite is often true. I’ve seen both versions. Children, of course, have no choice and are greatly affected by these divisions.

  1. One significant aspect, regardless of economics, is that girls in the US are allowed to get an education (this is still not the case for girls growing up in various countries worldwide).
  2. In many areas that suffer economically in the US, schools provide the only meals a child receives during the week.
  3. It is important to note in areas that are not well funded: there are extraordinary teachers who, without fanfare, purchase supplies for their students from their salaries. The only reason the system works in those regions is because of the sacrifice of these heroic teachers.
  4. In areas that are well funded, students have access to a variety of educational programs, state-of-the-art equipment, resources for those with learning disabilities, etc.
  5. While controversial for some, public charter schools offer an alternative to the rigid curriculum followed in public schools. While no two charter schools are exactly alike, they can provide students with more flexibility in learning styles.

Can you identify the 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?

  1. There are two types of education: education for a living and education for life. Almost every student I’ve met is thirsting for the latter to be included as part of their schooling. Many are inundated with ongoing social traumas. Many feel they have nowhere to go. Drug abuse has become a catastrophic problem. By prioritizing education for life, the US education system can be part of a critically needed solution. Regarding drug abuse, huge improvements could be achieved in this area by providing psychological support for children in schools while they’re still very young. Specifically, there need to be more trauma-informed counselors beginning at the elementary school level. I understand that the funding necessary for this would be significant. And: we need to invest in our children far more than we have thus far in this regard. Many university students have confided in me re: their addictions to either prescription or recreational drugs. Many students have told me about being given medicines for ADD since they were children, never wanting to take them because the meds made them feel either “out of it” or “jittery,” but were forced at the time, and now they don’t know how to get off them. I am not saying that all prescription meds are “bad.” Meds are appropriate in various cases. However: all of the students who confided in me relayed that no one ever asked them about their behavior when they were young. No one inquired as to why they were “acting out.” Instead, they were told to take a pill. We need a system that doesn’t immediately administer drugs if a child is experiencing behavioral challenges. Again, I acknowledge that there are cases in which med are appropriate. And: there simply needs to be more discernment re: how we administer behavioral drugs to children. And we need more resources for children that offer alternative support. Almost every college-age student I’ve seen who has taken ADD meds since childhood has grown up to identify him or herself as a drug addict with very low self-esteem. By distributing meds as a primary solution for behavioral problems, we’re inadvertently teaching children that the power to handle any situation is found in a pill, not within themselves. There are physical side effects as well. Every student I’ve seen who has been on such meds since childhood complains about how the drugs make them feel like an adult. Interesting to note is that I teach both American and international students in my classes. It is a sad fact that the vast majority of students who deal with these issues are American. Many children experience trauma at a variety of levels. They need compassionate and insightful care. Meds are simply not a blanket solution. This is an area where we’re falling short in the US education system. Again: we need more trauma-informed counselors beginning at the elementary school level.
  2. School syllabuses need to include teaching tolerance, patience, discernment, how to choose curiosity over judgment. Many children in the US are directly or indirectly affected by the violence of racism. Children innately don’t want it but don’t know what to do about it. Addressing these issues with insight and compassion provide children/youth with tools that can help them not repeat the same mistakes they’re often surrounded by.
  3. Teaching students basic life skills that will help them stay in balance daily. The current system emphasizes speed and the need to keep up with ever-evolving information. Most students I see are burnt out. They’ve learned how to go fast but not how to stop. No one would buy a high-speed car that was built without breaks. And yet, that’s what the current education system is producing. Self-care is critical. For the past several years, I’ve been assigning my students to get outside and take “sky breaks” daily. My students are required to get AWAY from their monitors, get outside and simply look at the sky for 5 minutes daily. It’s been extraordinary to see their aptitude improve significantly in doing this simple exercise daily. Creatively, clarity, overall attitude improves. Many have written to me years later saying they still practice this to this day.
  4. How to manage one’s mind. Students are encouraged to fill their minds with information, but not how to USE their minds effectively. Most students I see are incredibly critical of themselves and their work. The result is inordinate stress. It’s the nature of the mind to be critical. Students need to be taught WHEN to bring in critical thinking (at the editing part of any project, for example) and learn NOT to listen to self-criticism at the start of any endeavor. There’s something I started with students about 15 years ago that, so far, has a 100% success rate. It’s called the “bullshit detector.” I assign this at the beginning of each semester. Students must purchase a spiral-bound notebook, write BULLSHIT DETECTOR on the cover, and tally each time they have a negative thought about themselves or their work throughout the week. They don’t write down the thought itself; they assign each thought with a simple mark. They’re required to bring in their notebooks each week. If they’ve been doing the exercise sincerely, most have an entire notebook (full of tallies) within about a month. This exercise is easy and deceptively powerful. It gives self-critical thoughts somewhere to go — the result: massive improvements in confidence, creativity. I’ve seen students stop smoking, even get off of drugs.
  5. Make selfless service projects a part of the mandatory curriculum starting at the elementary school level up through high school. I have yet to meet a student who doesn’t relish being reminded that their life has meaning. That they have the power to help make this world a better place. There is great fulfillment in serving others. Everyone wins. Even little ones can participate in simple endeavors. One idea is a national program where all students are required to plant and care for saplings each year (this includes the inner city). When children are very young, starting this practice instills a love and care for nature through a personal connection. Another idea is for students to visit elders in senior centers throughout the school year to read to Elders, or Elders can read to them. There is so much isolation in society, rampant depression. No shortage of children and Elders can benefit from one another’s presence. And there is nothing new about cross-generational learning. But it has relatively vanished from society and needs to be brought back. Selfless service is esteem building. Students get to learn firsthand about their innate ability to contribute to a world that needs them.

Super. Here is the main question of our interview. Can you please share your “5 Things You Need To Know To Be A Highly Effective Educator?” Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Be a good listener and have Kleenex handy. Many students come to me after class (even on Zoom during Covid) because they need to talk to someone they can trust. For many of these students, I’ve noticed that the quality of their work radically improves when they know that someone cares about them.
  2. Don’t judge students even if other people warn you about them. I had a student once who others had warned me about at school. Her fashion was “goth”: bright blue hair, very thick white pancake makeup, and black lipstick and nail polish. The people who warned me about her were very critical of her physical appearance and felt she shouldn’t come to school looking like that, that she didn’t take school seriously, and that I should be prepared for her to give me a hard time in class. One day this student asked to meet with me after school. Once the door was closed and we were in private, she asked me a question. “Do you know why I wear makeup like this?” I replied that I didn’t, but that I thought it was cool. I was impressed with the bright blue color of her hair. I had tried dying my hair an unnatural shade years before. Let’s say it didn’t end well. She told me that there was a reason for the thick makeup she wore. She was sick. Very sick — to the point of waking up in pain every morning but refusing to miss school nonetheless. She confided that her goal in life was to live to be 30. Her doctors weren’t that optimistic. She was 22 years old at the time. She chose to go “goth” as she felt it was the best choice in covering up her condition. Don’t judge. Instead, be curious and let yourself discover the miracles that are there. PS. 8 years later, she contacted me on her 30th birthday.
  3. LOVE WHAT YOU DO. Enthusiasm is infectious. I LOVE scoring films. There’s a magic window that opens once you have the discipline and work ethic to let yourself go there. I’ve found that many students need to be reminded that learning and risking are actually FUN. A student told me once, “This isn’t a classroom. It’s a spaceship!” This student had suffered from Aspbergers and often felt misunderstood and socially isolated in school. In fact, school and homework had become relatively torturous for her. But she told me that since I have fun with my work, that gave her permission to start having fun as well. Her work improved, her confidence grew. She went on to be celebrated in the department for the creative vibrancy of her compositions.
  4. Be patient for all of the reasons given in my answers thus far.
  5. Let students know that you believe in them. Remind them that they have the power to create a better world for themselves and others. That truly anything is possible. A few years ago, I had the honor of being asked by my department chair to design and teach a master class in documentary scoring. It would be the first course in the history of the school to focus specifically on documentary film. First and foremost, I wanted the class to be dedicated to compassion-based education. As part of the course, students get to work with professional film directors, scoring films that cover a wide variety of social and environmental issues. Each film that I bring to class is designed to enhance awareness and encourage positive change. We’ve worked on documentaries profiling how various communities are dealing with climate change, how girls in Pakistan risk their lives daily (acid attacks etc.) to get an education, how doctors in the US struggle to vaccinate immigrant children in detention centers. That’s just a glimpse. Not frivolous topics.

One semester the class scored short films about Rwandan orphans (now young adults) reconciling with the perpetrators who had murdered their parents during the massacre. Before starting on the project, one student, I’ll call “Jim,” felt that such reconciliation was impossible. He was from the middle east, had grown up surrounded by territorial violence his entire life. He was clear that he wanted to be a source of peace in the world and use his talents to that end, but was adamant that it was impossible. He called his dream for peace “naïve.” We (the entire class) spent a lot of time talking about injury and forgiveness as part of preparing to support such a challenging topic musically. Many students shared personal experiences. I’m unspeakably grateful that, each semester, the class has become a safe place for students to explore their inner landscapes. This process is mandatory for compassionate, insightful scoring. I encouraged “Jim” to — just for this class — let go of his preconceived notions that his dreams for peace were impossible. I asked him to dare to feel hopeful and to write music from that inner space. The piece that he ultimately wrote for his film was stirring and soulful, pained in a way that supported the reality of the situation, but beautifully nuanced with hope and redemption. It happened that the very orphans in the film were being honored at an event in the Boston area at the end of the semester. They were being flown in from Rwanda for the program. The film director knew the organizers of the event and showed them “Jim’s” short film. After watching (and hearing) it, they wanted to feature it at the event. They invited “Jim” and myself to attend. It was a thrill to witness “Jim” being introduced to the very beautiful souls he saw on screen.

They all happened to be the same age and spent a lot of time talking together. The following week in class, “Jim” announced that he had a complete change of heart. He now wanted to work for peace in his homeland after meeting his new friends from Rwanda. Anything IS possible when we allow ourselves to remain open to what life can bring. I honor “Jim” for his courage to challenge his own beliefs and embrace change in service to himself and others. As teachers, one of the greatest things we can do for students is to believe in them and their abilities to accomplish great things in life, regardless of what they’ve previously concluded about themselves and the world.

As you know, teachers play such a huge role in shaping young lives. What would you suggest needs to be done to attract top talent to the education field?


Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“If you’re not getting rejected a lot, you’re not getting out there enough.”

When I first started as a freelance film composer, this quote completely transformed my perspective. Instead of taking rejections personally as a newcomer, I saw them as proof that I was actually on the right track.

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Former President Jimmy Carter.

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Thank you for your time, and your excellent insights! We wish you continued success.

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