The USC Thornton School of Music will introduce a new Popular Music Performance major in Fall 2009, providing the next generation of professional musicians with an undergraduate degree program in which to develop their talents.
“Colleges and universities have been talking about the need for a quality program of this kind for decades,” said USC Thornton Dean Robert Cutietta. “We have built the reputation of the Thornton School by focusing on artistic quality, not style of music. I am proud that we are on the cutting edge of offering a program at the highest artistic and academic levels that have made our school famous.”
Several years in the making, the Bachelor of Music in Popular Music Performance required building an entirely new curriculum from the ground up, according to Chris Sampson, USC Thornton songwriting faculty and director of the new program. It is the first university program to eschew the euphemisms “contemporary music” or “American vernacular” to describe popular music.
“People are not listening to music in genre-specific ways,” Sampson says, noting that the same iPod will frequently contain classical music, jazz, rock and Top-10 hits. “We need to train musicians differently.”
USC Thornton, named one of the top five music schools in the country by Rolling Stone, plans to accept no more than 20 Popular Music students for the incoming undergraduate class, with applications due in early December.
"Whether as host of Grammy Career Day for the past 15 years, as one of four college partners that offer scholarships to members of our Grammy Jazz Ensembles or as Grammy Camp's home for 2008 and 2009, the University of Southern California Thornton School of Music has long been an advocate for the Grammy Foundation and our programs," said Neil Portnow, President/CEO of The Recording Academy and the Grammy Foundation. "We applaud the Thornton School for initiating a new degree program in popular music performance — just as the Grammy Foundation's music education programs for young people emphasize excellence and foster knowledge about the range of careers available in music, this degree program will give participating students serious tools for success in our industry."
Students in the Popular Music program will have coursework in several related, but distinct areas, including rigorous performance training on a chosen instrument or voice. Students will also study copyright and entertainment law as part of requirements in music industry, and learn about recording and production techniques in the technology component of the curriculum.
In addition, as undergraduates at USC—a major research university with a number of other top professional schools—Popular Music students will have access not only to a classic liberal arts education, but also to a range of classes that might not be available at a conservatory. For example, a student might score a video game at the USC School of Cinematic Arts or take a class at USC School of Theater to work on stage presence and choreography.
Thus, according to Sampson, flexibility is a key component of the Popular Music program, to help encourage students to seek new directions in the music marketplace.
“A lot of what a young popular musician does is self-initiated, as opposed to the student who was in youth symphony or band. The aspiring musician who starts a garage band didn’t wait for teacher validation. That’s entrepreneurship,” Sampson said.
Flexibility will also help students better reach their individual goals, Sampson explained: “A lead singer is going to have different objectives than someone who wants to be a music director, like a Rickey Minor [the bandleader on American Idol] for example.”
But Sampson realized during curriculum development that all students in the Popular Music program would need to have, for lack of a better term, “groove.” To address this, the Roland Company is building USC a university-based electronic drumlab, to be completed in November 2008. All Popular Music students, no matter their main instrument, will be required to take a drumset class.
“I wish this program was around when I attended school. I would have signed up!” said rock legend Steve Miller, who consulted in the development of the program. “The integration of the whole operation: performance, live sound, recording, business, staging and production. That’s what these students need.”As Academy Award winner Randy Newman said, "The fact that one of the most eminent music schools in this country has seen fit to establish a brand new course of study devoted to popular music is a step that is long overdue. It's a brave thing to do. I hope it works. I know that the students who attend these courses will learn some things that they couldn't learn anywhere else."
In addition to Miller and Newman, other prominent professionals who consulted in the development of the Popular Music program and have already signed on to teach or be a guest speaker include Lamont Dozier, the progenitor of Motown sound; Red Hot Chili Pepper’s bassist Flea; and award-winning producer Glen Ballard. “We are extremely fortunate to be in Los Angeles,” said Sampson. “The opportunities for students to interact with world-class musicians, producers, engineers and industry leaders are almost limitless. There is no substitution for this experience.” Still, despite all the boldface names affiliated with the new program, Sampson insists that he’s not out to create a university version of “Making the Band.”
“We are setting are a very high goal in training students for the future music profession,” Sampson said. “Talented students who diversify their interests and broaden their skill set will have an easier time responding to opportunities.”
All interested applicants should visit www.usc.edu/music/admission for more information. The program is open to instrumentalists, vocalists and songwriters pursuing studies in pop/rock, folk-rock, R&B/Urban, Latin/Salsa and other popular styles.
A select group of applicants will be invited by faculty to the USC campus in Los Angeles for a live audition during the weekend of January 24 – 25, 2009.