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At Berklee, ex-student John Mayer turns professor

Berklee student Callie Sullivan joined John Mayer onstage during a songwriting master class at the school.

Kelly Davidson

Berklee student Callie Sullivan joined John Mayer onstage during a songwriting master class at the school.

It’s not every class that sees students bursting through the doors, some literally screaming with excitement as they run to their seats. Of course, it’s not every class that ends with John Mayer playing The Grateful Dead’s “Friend of the Devil.”

The Grammy-winner and former Berklee College of Music student held an intense two-plus-hour master songwriting class for a select group of six Berklee students, in front of a crowd of some 500 students, faculty, and staffers, in the college’s auditorium Friday.

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Mayer is in town this weekend to play two shows at Fenway Park with Dead & Company — but if he ever retires from that gig, he has a solid backup career as a professor.

“I love teaching,” Mayer, 39, told the Globe in an interview after the clinic. The son of an English teacher and high school principal, he added with a laugh, “I would 100 percent rather teach at Berklee than do ‘American Idol’ or something.”

John Mayer and Berklee student Danny Silberstein.

Kelly Davidson

John Mayer and Berklee student Danny Silberstein.

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Each student performed one original song, either on guitar or piano, with their lyrics projected on a screen behind them. Mayer responded in real time, often contemplating with hand on chin, at times boring holes into the ground, listening, thinking, tapping his fingers, or nodding his head at certain turns of phrase.

He often had a student play a song two or three times over: “Just one more time. We’re going to crack it.”

After Callie Sullivan performed her song, “The Sinner,” Mayer suggested she try one line in a different key. The change was noticeable, and left Sullivan smiling and the crowd cheering.

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At other points, Mayer offered pointers and comments like:

“You’ve got these great couplets . . . mixing colloquial speak with poetry.”

“Are you in A minor? There’s something about A minor that there’s really nice to write in . . . but there can be real emo feel to it.”

“This is where songwriting is like a crossword puzzle. It’s a code. It’s math. That’s why I always write with a whiteboard.”

“The song is so abstract — there’s room to grow the lyrics to be just as freaky.”

“See this line? There’s a whole other song there behind that line.”

Mayer told the Globe after the show, “I wish we could’ve [broken] for lunch, and gone back out there. I love this.”

As for why he held the class?

“I see myself as a product of Berklee. I understand them so well because the school is a part of me. And kids trust someone who is in the real world doing it,” he said. “These kids are 20 years younger than me, playing music with the same heart and soul I was playing with in this same building 20 years ago. We’re all panning for gold in the same location. This is a building based on wild hope.”

Lauren Daley can be reached at ldaley33@gmail.com.
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