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Elton John lights up the stage and sparks students’ musical fire

Between segments with the student bands, Elton John answers questions posed by Grammy Foundation Vice President Scott Goldman. (USC Photo/Dietmar Quistorf)

Dressed in a sparkly frock coat, pink socks and blue shoes, Elton John lit up the stage Sept. 16 at Bovard Auditorium with a seven-piece band and four backup singers — and nearly 40 student musicians from the USC Thornton School of Music.

The Elton John Goes Back to School concert, a Vision and Voices Signature Event, was presented with USC Thornton and was free to USC students selected in a lottery held for the 1,235 seats.

Nineteen string players and a harpist from the USC Thornton Symphony played the first three songs: “Sixty Years On,” “The Greatest Discovery” and “Philadelphia Freedom.” Conducting them was prominent alumnus James Newton Howard DMA ’69, a prolific film composer and former member of John’s band.  Later in the concert, students from the USC Thornton Chamber Singers and Brass Ensemble played on several songs from John’s recently released 30th solo album, The Diving Board. They were directed by USC Thornton’s Jo-Michael Scheibe, chair of choral music.

John called his new album “mature and reflective, the product of a 66-year-old man,” and also “full of inspiration from American jazz, blues, gospel, rock ’n’ roll and country.” T Bone Burnett, who produced the album, received a standing ovation when he spoke about their collaboration.

The concert was John’s idea. He’d performed with student musicians at his alma mater, Britain’s Royal Academy of Music, and decided to continue his support of music education in the United States. The school he chose: USC Thornton.

“Providing this kind of unbelievable experience for students that they can’t get anywhere else” is a strategic goal of the school, said USC Thornton Dean Robert A. Cutietta. “And, our students are fabulous and can live up to these professional opportunities.”

Between segments with the student bands, John answered questions posed by Grammy Foundation Vice President Scott Goldman and a few students. John talked freely about his relationship with the piano (“my friend or enemy all my life”), being inspired by Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis, and how he knew even after five years of conservatory study that he would never be a classical pianist. (“I have very short hands. My fingers look like cocktail sausages.”)

He told students he “was in a band going nowhere” when he pushed past his shyness to answer a record company’s advertisement for songwriters and musicians. At the interview, he was handed an envelope plucked randomly from unopened stacks of submissions from songwriters and told to do something with the contents. They were lyrics from a then-unknown Bernie Taupin, who became his longtime lyricist.

“If that’s not an act of God, I don’t know what is,” John said.

He urged student musicians to play all sorts of music and not dismiss any genres out of hand. If you think you don’t like rap, he told the audience, you should see Eminem or Kanye West at work in the studio. “They’re like free-form jazz musicians.”

John advised students to challenge themselves. “Coasting is dangerous. I can’t just play ‘Bennie and the Jets’ over and over again.”

But he did play “Bennie and the Jets,” as well as “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” “I Guess That’s Why They Call it The Blues” and other megahits, changing them up with jazzy piano breaks or a call and response with a backup singer. He ended with a dramatic solo version of “Rocket Man.”

John was complimentary to the student musicians, telling them they “sound amazing,” clapping for them and blowing them a kiss during the concert. At the afternoon sound check, he walked up the risers to the brass players and vocalists  and shook each student’s hand.

Although USC Thornton has a program focused on popular music performance, all the students on the stage are studying classical music. John said he realized decades ago that rock ’n’ roll and classical strings can mix. The USC Thornton musicians had only to look to the two young classically trained electronic cellists who tour with John’s band to realize that they might have careers beyond a classical repertoire.

Freshman Leah Hansen of Los Angeles, a cellist, called the opportunity to play on stage with John — and the cellists from Croatia — “awesome.”

One of the proudest Trojans in the audience was Adam Chester, a 1985 USC Thornton graduate in composition who’s worked with John since 2005. The rehearsal pianist, he helped on the arrangement of one of the new songs, “Home Again,” with the student musicians. “It’s a small orchestra, but they sound amazing,” he said. Chester said he was thrilled with the expanded offerings such as popular music at USC Thornton. “They are much more hip to doing things like this.”

The choir and brass students will be performing “Home Again” with John on the Emmy Award broadcast Sept. 22, said Chris Sampson, associate dean for popular music and music industry studies at USC Thornton.

Students raved about the concert, and some said they’re longtime fans of John.

“I could listen to ‘Your Song’ for hours — and have,” said Dylan Shapiro of Los Angeles, a junior communications major.

“I grew up listening to him,” said sophomore biology major Andrea Muñoz of Whittier, Calif. “I just transferred in and I think it is so incredible that we were able to have such an icon perform for us.”

Brian Lentz, a senior marine biology major from Iowa City, Iowa, was ecstatic about getting into the concert. “I’ve been to several spectacular Visions and Voices events here, and I’m still so amazed that USC can bring people like this to the students for free. I don’t think you can get this anywhere else in the country.”

As a bonus, after the concert, free copies of The Diving Board were given to everyone in the audience, courtesy of Capitol Records.

Read students’ reactions about the event at

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Elton John lights up the stage and sparks students’ musical fire

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