University of Southern California Sees Success With Songwriting Program

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Chris Sampson, director of Popular Music at USC’s Thornton School of Music

University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music began offering a Songwriting major in 2009. The program caters to a wide variety of USC songwriters and encourages students to discover their own unique method to songwriting.

The university cleverly links songwriting students with students of other music majors to allow for collaboration and learning. For example, songwriting majors work with Audio Engineering students to create demo recordings of their original songs. While the students are instructed on specific genres, they are encouraged to find their own style.

As a city, Los Angeles has a lot to offer budding songwriters, with students finding themselves surrounded by film, TV, and music industries.

We recently spoke with Chris Sampson, associate dean and director of Popular Music at USC’s Thornton School of Music, to learn more about the university’s new program.

How long has the Songwriting Program existed at USC?

Students have been able to major in Songwriting (through our Bachelor of Music – Popular Music Performance degree) since 2009. We launched a minor in Songwriting in 2007 (e.g. majoring in Music Industry with a minor in Songwriting is a popular combination at USC Thornton) and we have been offering elective courses in Songwriting since the mid-80’s.

Have you found it to be a successful program so far?

It has exceeded my expectations. We have now established a consistent track record of students having professional success to know that the program gets results.  Also, the talent level of the students in each entering class continues to astound me – they seem more focused and dedicated than ever before.  I think knowing that a music major such as this exists has given many young songwriters a great deal of motivation and direction.

How are the students responding to the program?

Very well.  The program promotes collaboration and the songwriters really thrive being immersed in a community of musicians that help them realize the potential of their songs. We have a diverse and tremendous community of bands that have formed from the program. These bands provide a significant amount of music on campus and they have created a true and vibrant “music scene” on campus that I’m very proud of.

What specific genres are targeted in the program?

I’m pleased to say that the resulting songs from our students fall into a wide range of styles and genres. While our instruction strives to provide students with insights and techniques from the various songwriting traditions and genres (i.e. from Great American Songbook to Beatles to Nashville all the way to top-line/producer based pop), our intention is that students will leverage these traditions as a platform and transform them into something original and their own.

What types of courses are offered in the program?

We offer three levels of Songwriting classes (Songwriting I, II and III) designed to sequentially build skills and nurture creativity. We also offer a Poetry Workshop course for lyricists (in partnership with the Dept. of Creative Writing) and a Songwriting for Musical Theater course (in partnership with the School of Theater.)  After these courses are completed, students enroll in one-on-one Individual Instruction in Songwriting.  Also, other courses such as Harmony for Popular Musicians, Arranging, instrumental lessons and performance classes are also directly applicable and highly valuable to our songwriters.

Are students in the program required to know how to play an instrument?

Yes – all Songwriting majors in the Popular Music program play an instrument.  Non-music majors who enroll in our Songwriting courses as electives do not have to play an instrument, but have to be willing to sing a melody and collaborate.

Would you say that students are taught a specific method to go about writing a song? Or are they freer to be creative with the process?

In terms of process, we do not offer, nor have I discovered, a “one-size-fits-all” approach. This makes teaching songwriting incredibly fun and challenging at the same time. While students will be given plenty of assignments designed to teach them craft, challenge them and build skills – how they go about completing the assignment is entirely up to them.  Almost all songs written during class will include a written reflection describing their own creative process. Hopefully, this allows students to arrive at a deeper understanding and further cultivate their own creative process.

The program description mentions that songwriting students collaborate with Music Industry students to produce demo recordings. Can you elaborate on how this process works?

It’s not limited to demo recording and there are a number of collaborations with Music Industry students that are part of the curriculum.  For example, industry students from our Sound Reinforcement class have weekly opportunities to mix during performance classes; students in the multi-channel mixing classes will use tracks from sessions by our songwriters as class projects; students in the Live Music Production class will organize, promote and run shows for our performing songwriters; students in the Music and Internet class collaborate with writers to develop branding strategies and a web presence; and every Wednesday evening, our Junior year class is in tracking sessions (engineered by Industry students) to develop arrangements and session techniques.  Of course, much collaboration between our songwriters and music industry students happens organically outside of class to produce a wide range of projects.  These non-curricular collaborations are very important and highly encouraged.

Can you tell us a little about the songwriting department’s faculty?

I believe our faculty brings a wide-range of perspectives and experiences to our students.

Our artist-in-residence is Lamont Dozier.  Professor Dozier is a member of the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame and helped craft the Motown sound with an incredible string of #1 hits.  Professor Dozier is on campus four times a semester to teach private lessons and master classes.

As for myself, I began teaching songwriting at Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU). I inherited the USC Songwriting program in 2002 and have since written the curriculum for the Songwriting Minor and the Bachelor of Music in Popular Music Performance.  In addition to teaching songwriting classes and private lessons, I’m the Associate Dean and Director of the Popular Music program.  Some of my students have had number one hits, are among the most subscribed musicians on YouTube, have secured numerous recording contracts and have successful touring careers.

Andrea Stolpe has worked as a staff writer for EMI, Almo-Irving, and Universal Music Publishing with songs recorded by such artists as Faith Hill, Daniel Lee Martin, Julianne Hough, Jimmy Wayne, and others. Her book Popular Lyric Writing: 10 Steps to Effective Storytelling, describes how to apply a unique process for uniting the artistic voice with the commercial market.

David Poe’s solo recordings include his eponymous debut, produced by T-Bone Burnett; The Late AlbumLove Is RedDavid Poe Live & Solo; The Copier: Music for Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, Shadowland: Music for Pilobolus, and a live performance for PBS, David Poe Onstage at World Café.  David is also a composer fellow at the Sundance Institute.

To what extent does the city of Los Angeles cater to songwriters?

Los Angeles offers great resources for songwriters, but can also present some challenges. Los Angeles offers multiple outlets for songwriters to have placements in the recording industry, film and television and new media such as video games, in addition to a diverse club scene for live performances. Los Angeles, however, is very spread out – geographically and socially. This can present a challenge in trying to locate and network within a professional music community because it is so dispersed. We’ve had the good fortune of cultivating relationships with record labels, publishing companies and performing rights organizations that have definitely helped in creating valuable relationships that can often bridge these challenges.

Do you believe that the location (in this case, Los Angeles) affects the style and genre of songs that USC songwriting students are writing?

Absolutely.  It would be difficult not to be influenced by your musical environment.  I think students get insights into current trends in the industry, they observe what moves audiences, and they take in the artistic landscape of Los Angeles and it shapes their music making.

How would their songs would differ from those written in Nashville?

Yes, there often are differences – and I think this speaks to the previous question about how location can affect songwriting style.  I have observed differences in lyrical aesthetic, vocabulary and musical approach.  I wouldn’t want to overly generalize, however, because there can be plenty of similarities from a craft perspective. I receive plenty of songs from students that would be at home in Nashville. And, I’m sure there are songs from Nashville students that would resonate in LA.

What is the ultimate goal for students graduating from the USC Songwriting Program?

As an educator, my first interest is to graduate productive, thoughtful and creative human beings that will positively impact society regardless of their chosen field – and I believe the study of songwriting is a wonderful vehicle to gain insights into our world.  In the music profession specifically, the USC program aspires to train songwriters and musicians who will lead through the quality of their work, be able to compete in the market place, and perhaps even become innovators who shape new directions in music.  Success comes in many different forms – from selling out arenas, to self-releasing music that is rich in honesty and integrity, to producing the next club hit.  The USC Songwriting program aspires to give students the necessary tools and nurture their talent so they may have this success, however they may define it.



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