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USC Thornton School of Music Announces New Popular Music Performance Program

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Tue, Oct 21, 2008 at 4:41 PM

Wanna be famous as a superstar musician? Learn how to bed groupies by the sheer force and magnetism of your stage strut? Find out which hallucinogens will help best develop the plot of your career-defining Concept Album? Before now, you'd have bang your head against your snare a few times, have to slum it at the Viper Room for year after dreadful year in a Blind Melon cover band to fund your cocaine habit. But this morning USC's Thornton School of Music announced the formation of its new Popular Music Program, which will offer a bachelor degree that teaches budding pop stars, punkers, electro-tards, rappers and whoever fits into the broad descriptive “popular music” the best ways to navigate from bedroom to Billboard charts.

You, yes YOU, can now learn how to be as charismatic as Mick Jagger -- if you've got the SATs and skillz to back it up.

“This is a bit unusual for a music program,” acknowledges Chris Sampson, associate dean at USC’s Thornton School of Music and the new director of the program. “Traditionally, performance programs have been limited to jazz and classical styles. There has been very little opportunity to offer programs like this. So we saw a real wonderful opportunity.”

The school is designed for instrumentalists, singers, and songwriters looking to develop their skillz in an academic atmosphere, and will offer a broad umbrella of courses and programs to school budding Jaggers and Bjorks looking to learn about, in the words of the press release, “pop/rock, folk-rock, R&B/Urban, Latin/Salsa and other popular styles.”

For example, singer/songwriters looking to build on Tori Amos's advances will not only be able to take voice and phrasing classes, but also study the poetry of Emily Dickinson as a way to understand the writing process. “A singer might use his or her electives to take theater classes in order to get comfortable on stage,” adds Sampson, “to learn about stage presence. Maybe learn some choreography. Another student might want to be a music director like Rickey Minor. That student might take conducting and arranging classes.”

Sampson stresses that Thornton already offers highly respected classical and jazz performance programs, so this new discipline must specifically focus on what he calls “a music style that has normally been taught through the oral traditon.”

Thornton's program will teach you to have the presence of Diana and the moves of her Supremes. If that doesn't work out you can be one of the dudes in the back.

Those teachers will include, among others, drummer Peter Erskine (Weather Report, Joni Mitchell, Steely Dan, Diana Krall), drummer Ndugu Chancier (Frank Sinatra, Herbie Hancock, John Lee Hooker -- and most important, Michael Jackson's drummer on Thriller and Bad), guitarist Richard Smith, Anne Farnsworth (piano/vocals), and the school’s songwriting Artist in Residence Lamont Dozier (of songwriting and production team Holland-Dozier-Holland, who wrote, among many others, Marvin Gaye's "Can I Get a Witness," the Supremes' "Come See About Me" and "You Can't Hurry Love" and the Four Tops' "Reach Out I'll Be There.")

Students interested in pursuing the degree must meet the standard USC admissions requirements, and then participate in an auditioning process that on paper vaguely resembles the American Idol tryouts. First you must submit a videotape that best captures riffs/screams/bass-fills/drum solos/mic skills/techno riddims. The chosen finalists will participate in an audition in front of a panel. Those selected will then be one step closer to superstardom – because they have a diploma.

Which is, of course, the rub here. Will a fancy diploma from Thornton get you indie cred at the Smell?

“That’s a lot of what these musicians are going to wrestle with,” acknowledges Sampson. “We’re providing this as an option. Obviously, going in and getting your band together and hitting the clubs and learning that way is also a necessary path. We’re training people for, and having people come together, to study and perform music that’s rooted in rebellion and is against the establishment. So I can see the paradox that we’re bringing that into the establishment. But there’s now such a tradition and body of work and body of research that I do think we could add to and elevate the quality no matter what the musician is doing. The trick for us is to be extra cautious that we’re not squeezing the life out of this music. I grew up with all of this music, and the idea of us sanitizing it and buffing it to a sheen would not be the purpose of this program.”

(But, for the record, the school of course will not be teaching about hallucinogens and cocaine, nor will there be classes on hotel room destruction. You'll have to hit rock bottom all by yourself.)

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