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Songwriter David Foster’s advice to students: Don’t compromise

David Foster kicks off the Songwriters Hall of Fame Master Sessions, one of the unique learning experiences for students in USC Thornton's Popular Music program. (Photo by Adam Irving)

Aspiring singer-songwriter Morgan St. Jean raised her hand from the front of the audience to ask a timeless question: How can artists collaborate without compromising?

Rather than tell her, master songwriter David Foster beckoned the USC pop music student to the stage. Seating himself at the grand piano, Foster rolled out some torchy chords.

“You and I are going to write a song,” said the 16-time Grammy winner and three-time Oscar nominee. He commanded St. Jean to start singing — assuring her that the particular words didn’t matter, only the vowel sounds. Soon they were deep in improvisation before a crowd of more than a hundred USC Thornton School of Music popular music majors, faculty and music-industry leaders.

We are not shattered, we are not broken … ” St. Jean’s voice cried with raw emotion.

“That’s great lyrics to me,” Foster praised. “And I don’t think either of us compromised. So it was a good day.”

Foster visited USC’s Carson Sound Stage in April to kick off the Songwriters Hall of Fame Master Sessions, part of a new partnership between USC Thornton and the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Each quarterly session at USC will feature a legendary songwriter, said Chris Sampson, founding director of the Popular Music Program.

Big names coming

The new master sessions dovetail with the Popular Music Forum, a centerpiece of the Popular Music Program that already brings industry leaders to the Carson Sound Stage every Friday afternoon. But the Songwriters Hall of Fame sessions will draw big names like Foster, who composed such songs as “After the Love Has Gone” for Earth, Wind & Fire.

Foster, who is now chairman of Verve Music Group, kept his remarks brief.

“I get tired of hearing myself talk,” he said. “I want to hear some people perform and sing.”

When student Barry Harris asked a question about “The Best of Me,” an early Foster hit for Olivia Newton-John, the composer admitted he couldn’t remember the chords anymore.

“Can you play it?” Foster asked.

Harris, a senior in the Popular Music Program’s first graduating class, sprang to the piano.

Too much banging, Foster opined, after listening politely. “Put the soft pedal on and play it delicately. It’s a love song.”

Each student who asked a question got an invitation to perform and a taste of Foster’s blunt-yet-affable critique.

When pop and opera singer Manny Sanoja asked about repertoire choices for crossover artists, Foster asked to hear the tenor’s “money notes.” A minute into Sanoja’s rendition of a Josh Groban tune (and still no high notes), Foster got impatient.

“Cut to the chase,” he commanded, asking for a repertoire change too. “Do you know the finale of ‘Nessun dorma’?”

Sanoja hesitated. “I’ll teach it to you,” Foster said, moving to the piano. “It’s only one word: ‘Vincero.’ ”

Needing no further prompting, Sanoja belted out the soaring finale to Puccini’s blockbuster aria from Turandot.

“You have a really nice voice,” Foster praised him at last, adding some practical advice. “If you want to impress anybody, don’t sing that Josh Groban song. Sing ‘Nessun dorma.’ It’s the best song ever written for tenor.”

A professional endorsement

While most students posed questions, Brett Fromson’s was the most direct. “Can I play you a song?” he asked.

With Foster’s nod, the student songwriter dashed to the piano and launched into a bluesy ballad he’d been finessing for three years. After the first chorus, Foster interrupted. Shooing Fromson from the piano bench, Foster ruthlessly rearranged his song.

“I hate that chord,” Foster said, coming up to the bridge. “Repeat the verse,” he ordered, as Fromson kept singing. “Now you come in with the E minor. What were you thinking?”

Foster concluded the session on an upbeat note.

“I am very moved and deeply encouraged by what I saw today,” Foster told the crowd. “The record business is in great peril, but the music business is thriving. You guys are proving that with the attention you’re giving me and the talent that you’re showing me. The talent was way, way, way above average. It’s encouraging to have institutions like this that can promote good and make it great.”

Closing words from the Hitman

Foster offered Popular Music Program students lessons from his musical career, some of which were featured in his memoir, Hitman. Among the take-home messages:

  • Always go with what you love.
  • If you’re going to go wrong, go wrong big.
  • Cut to the chase.
  • Keep the blinders on — the road to success is straight, not full of curves.

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