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Pop music pros share their stories

Ben Folds meets a USC Thornton student at the school's "Popular Music Forum" class. (USC Photo/Kylie Nicholson)

On any given Friday, students in the USC Thornton School of Music’s Popular Music Program hear from the likes of Lindsey Buckingham, Chaka Khan, John Fogerty or Ben Folds. Or they may interact with renowned behind-the-scenes figures in the music industry, such as songwriter-producer Glen Ballard or music director Michael Bearden.

The weekly lectures delivered at the “Popular Music Forum” class, which include critiques of student performances and demonstrations, are a centerpiece of the groundbreaking program.

“We’re ‘lucky by location,’ benefiting greatly from being able to easily reach out to LA’s professional music community,” said Christopher Sampson, vice dean of the USC Thornton Division of Contemporary Music and assistant professor of practice of popular music and music industry. In 2009, he founded the program in collaboration with Dean Robert A. Cutietta.

Under the new leadership of program chair and multi-Grammy nominated artist Patrice Rushen, the program provides detailed training in popular music, an offering not found in the music departments of other research universities nationwide. To bring real world experience to the training, Sampson spends the majority of his professional time  networking within the music industry and following up on USC Thornton faculty recommendations and local contacts in the field.

 “A lot of magic moments happen in our guest speaker series — unique dialogues with students, candid talks about the industry and spontaneous performances,” Sampson said. “For example, Randy Newman jumped behind the piano and gave us a little concert, while David Foster pulled students out of the audience, created a band and started spontaneously writing a song.”

Overall, he is proudest of the environment that’s fostered in the weekly sessions.

“We aim to break down any myths or fantasies about careers in the music industry and have students see that these are hard-working people,” explained Sampson, who added that he’s never been turned down by a pro, except for scheduling reasons. “Students are rarely starstruck, but rather really want to know how they came to be who they are.”

He also said that the program has “built a reputation for cultivating up-and-coming talent, so professionals are eager to come to campus and get introduced to artists whose paths they may cross in the future or whom they may want to call upon when they have a specific need.”

To illustrate that point, Sampson mentioned veteran producer Mike Elizondo, who contacted the school looking for an assistant to help produce tracks after his visit to the class. USC Thornton student Matias Mora followed up with Elizondo and wound up working with him in the studio.

The 21 students in the first class recently received their bachelor of music degrees, an occasion chronicled in a Rolling Stone article about the program. The story, which described the Popular Music Program as “the cutting-edge department that’s become the site of one of Los Angeles’ most productive new music scenes,” noted that some of the new grads have landed plum jobs.

Among them is Rozzi Crane, who signed a record deal with Adam Levine’s 222 Records, sang with Levine’s Maroon 5 band on the Hunger Games soundtrack and is now on tour as the opening act for the band. Sampson also pointed to saxophonist Justin Klunk, who is currently on tour with singer-songwriter Ariana Grande.

For the 2013-2014 academic year, guest speakers will include Mike Love of the Beach Boys, Smokey Robinson and Songwriter Hall of Fame member J.D. Souther, who wrote for the Eagles and Linda Ronstadt.

In the future, Sampson plans to create a network across all contemporary music styles in the program’s new Division of Contemporary Music.  He sees this as carrying out the school’s mission “to reflect the artistic landscape of LA, which not only has a vibrant classical, jazz and film music communities, but also rock, hip-hop and urban traditions.”


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