All teachers mentor students, but musicians and their professors develop deep connections. It’s especially true on the graduate level, where music students often decide to come to a school primarily on the reputation of the person with whom they will spend years in close study, practice and rehearsals.
The USC Thornton School of Music, overflowing with renowned teaching and performing talent, is a magnet for accomplished students from around the globe who want to learn from professors they have admired from afar.
Pollack’s global popularity
Vladimir Khomyakov from Moscow, studying for the Doctor of Musical Arts in piano, said that “100 percent of the reason why I am at USC” is because he wanted to study with Daniel Pollack, world-renowned concert pianist and professor of keyboard studies. And how did he hear of Pollack?
“Professor Pollack is extremely famous in my country,” Khomyakov said. “I was very young when I first heard his name, 13 or 14 years old. Pretty much every musician or person who knows classical music knows his name. And not only in Russia, in the whole of Europe.”
Ana Barreiro, a drummer studying for a master’s degree in the jazz studies program, said that when she was at home in Poços de Caldas, Brazil, the one thing she knew about USC was that Peter Erskine, Grammy Award-winning drumming legend and director of drumset studies, was here.
She first became aware of her future mentor as a youngster when a friend showed her Erskine’s signature drumstick. Later, when studying jazz, she discovered his records.
“Peter Erskine is a big name in jazz,” said, “and someone far away that I thought I’ll never get to meet. But when I was looking into Los Angeles, I saw his name connected to USC.”
And that sealed the deal for her. “I said I’m going to USC now.”
Hui Jin from Beijing, a tenor studying for his doctorate in vocal arts — and one of USC’s 2014 International Artist Fellows — credits Gary Glaze, chair of the department, for luring him to campus.
Glaze, who had a celebrated career with the New York City and Metropolitan operas, encouraged Jin, originally a computer science student, to continue his voice studies and come to USC.
“It is a great school, and I really love to be here and study here,” Jin said. “But professor Glaze is very important to my study. Every time I know there is a chance to study with him, I will take it.”
Jin said he first heard of his USC mentor from one of the young professors in the school he attended in China. The professor, who graduated from USC Thornton, recommended Glaze.
“I would say I have never met any professor who cares about students as much as professor Glaze,” Jin said. In the fall, Jin had minor surgery, and Glaze called every day to check on him.
“He even called the doctor at the hospital to make sure I was well taken care of,” Jin said. “I appreciate that a lot.”
These professors recognize the multiple facets of the musician-mentor relationships.
You become their father, their grandfather, their uncle, their best friend.
Said Pollack: “You become their father, their grandfather, their uncle, their best friend.”
Pollack visits his former students all around the globe who are teaching and performing.
“It’s like an alumni association,” said the professor, whose connection with students lasts a lifetime. “When they graduate, there is a whole next step in their career which I hope to help them in, and advise them.”
Said Glaze: “The relationship is very serious, and very professional, and very friendly. Students are in a way like your children. They leave and have their own lives, both professionally and personally. But we invite them back to visit us as much as possible,” as well as visiting them in their cities.
Like a proud papa
“I’m a proud papa. I like to keep in touch with my students,” echoed Erskine. “The whole idea is that we have become friends for life. I’m there for them, and they are spreading the gospel of what I’ve been teaching them.”
Music mentors not only cheer on their students, but they pave their way for jobs. When he can’t play a gig, Erskine often recommends former and current students.
“It’s part of what we do. We prepare them to work and we expect them to work,” he said.
“I recommended one of my students, Jake Reed, to sub for me with the Bill Holman Big Band, and all of a sudden Bill decided he would just keep calling Jake, not me. And I thought that was great. Bill was gracious to say, ‘you really taught him well,’ even though the subtext was, ‘I like his drumming more than yours now.’
“But that’s fine. It’s thrilling to see your students excel. I couldn’t be more pleased.”
See videos of the performers: