Pop Goes the Music Program
When the inaugural class of the USC Thornton School of Music’s popular music program began last fall, Luke Walton was among the most visible of the 25 select students from across the nation. A singer-songwriter from San Diego, Walton documented his acceptance to the school in his widely viewed YouTube series “Six Months to Make It.”
“I graduated a semester early from high school so I could work on my music and started documenting things on video for the next six months,” Walton said. “It was a lot of fun and a lot of things ended up happening, from USC to some national radio stuff.”
Walton received national media interest for one video in particular. Sitting in his bedroom with an acoustic guitar, he covered Taylor Swift’s song Love Story in an attempt to convince the Grammy Award-winning pop star to go on a date with him. The video went viral and spread across the Internet. “In San Diego, I talked to NBC, Fox and CBS,” Walton said. “I hit all of the local TV stations, did little things on radio and played a series of shows in Nashville as a result of the Taylor Swift thing.”
A recent video traces Walton’s transition to USC. His San Diego suburb has been replaced by the University Park campus, and instead of a solo performance, he’s backed by a band of fellow students in the popular music program.
He raves about his first semester at USC. “It’s been perfect. At first, I wasn’t sure how the program was going to work and the overall vision for it,” Walton said. “Then, when I got in and actually started doing it, I saw how incredible the program is. I’d say the core of the experience, at least for me, has been the performance class.”
The popular music performance class divides the students into a series of rotating groups with the goal of learning foundational popular music styles.
“We rehearse three to four times a week and have to learn new tunes every week, completely in detail,” Walton said. “We got through Motown. Now we’re doing Joni Mitchell and Sly and the Family Stone.”
He’s not alone in being happy about his decision to attend the program. “It’s pretty crazy what I’ve already done this first semester,” said Sarah Ames, a singer-songwriter from Orinda, Calif. “I’ve been able to meet with producers and professional songwriters. I’m already making a lot of connections.”
One of those connections is with famed guitarist Steve Miller. A month after arriving on campus, Ames opened for The Steve Miller Band in a performance at Bovard Auditorium. “It was amazing. I’ve never performed in that big of a venue before,” she said. “I was nervous, but it went really well.”
Rozzi Crane, a singer-songwriter from San Francisco, was another student chosen to open for Miller’s band. “It was such an honor and so much fun,” Crane said. Before she started at USC, Crane already had worked with high-profile musicians from Tower of Power and Credence Clearwater Revival. “It was just wonderful timing that this program started this year,” she said. “I was really considering taking a year off because there wasn’t a place like this where I can do exactly what I want to be doing. It was absolutely my first choice,” she said.
Her decision to enroll has paid off. Last month, four of her songs were included in the Lifetime Movie Network film Sins of the Mother. Upon arriving on campus, Crane put a band together of USC Thornton students and musicians from Los Angeles. When keyboardist Ben Bram, a senior in the school’s music industry program, was asked to submit songs for the film, he recommended Crane. The producers choose three songs from Crane’s EP and asked the two to write a fourth song specifically for the film. In a review in the New York Post, the music is singled out for its quality.
“The program feels like a condensed version of everything a musician would learn out in the world being a musician, but instead we’re learning in a much safer environment in the classroom,” Crane said. “The first semester was awesome.”
“It’s been exciting to see the students’ development over the past several months,” said Christopher Sampson, associate dean and director of the popular music program. “The curricular plan is producing the results and the learning outcomes we hoped for. While observing our students establish their artistic and creative foundation, I have even greater confidence that they will make a significant impact within the profession eventually.”
With their first semester behind them, the students of the popular music program continue to challenge themselves and dream big.
Speaking of dreaming big, how is Walton’s campaign to get a date with Taylor Swift going? “I have not given up,” he said with a laugh. “I still believe.”
On Monday, March 1, the popular music program presents a showcase at the Grammy Museum at L.A. Live featuring student performances of classic tunes by James Brown, Earth, Wind & Fire, Sly & the Family Stone, Janis Joplin, the Rolling Stones and more.
The Popular Music Program Showcase will be held at 7:30 p.m. at 800 W. Olympic Blvd. in downtown Los Angeles. Admission is free; RSVP to (213) 740-3224.