Nexus -- Part II

03/28/2016 01:53 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

In Pt. I, I described what I believe is the new paradigm for the teaching of music in Higher Education represented by USC's Thornton School of Music and looked at its Contemporary Music Division. In this installment, I will detail the cutting edge Popular Music program that I observed on a recent visit.

The more I sat in on classes at USC's Thornton School, and talked with faculty about their approach to teaching the more I came to realize that Dean Rob Cutietta has been quietly encouraging some quite revolutionary new ideas. Vice Dean of the Contemporary Music Division Chris Sampson summed this up for me: "Music Schools train musicians in a linear way. They naturally start at the beginning and you gradually get better. There is merit to this approach. But we have developed a non-linear way of teaching. It's serpentine-like, which the old model does not allow for. My approach can best be described as 'the joy of the unexpected outcome,' which quite simply allows musicians to develop in all directions. There is total flexibility and openness. The success of our students I feel is a direct result of this approach."

Rick Schmunk, Chair of Music Production and Technology, speaks in a very similar way after re-examining the old model of teaching. He advocates a "flipped classroom" approach, which basically changes the traditional role of the teacher completely, from being the main focus in the classroom to one of mediator and producer of materials and videos. Such an approach places the responsibility for learning firmly with an empowered student group. This made me think of all those years I spent at the feet of various academic gurus, then the accepted route for the transmission of knowledge and wisdom, which Schmunk smilingly describes as the "sage on the stage."

Such empowerment extends to
• arranging of internships in the music industry, which is left exclusively to the students. This boosts students' confidence and selling instincts;
• opening doors in the business but allowing the students as young professional artists to manage their own opportunities;
• making musical arrangements from the most chaotic of material with the refinement of new sounds such as string quartets in song writing (George Martin would be delighted I am sure!)
• establishing a new way of teaching Music History in a non-linear way relating it to the student's own musical experience.

Empowerment is also manifested in the School's Community Engagement activities, a program that Cutietta rightly boasts about. The School has 90-110 students volunteering to take part even though they earn no credits and only receive a few small fees. The program has grown to be the largest of its type on campus. It is all part of USC's overall mission to support Social Entrepreneurship by working with the homeless, with chemotherapy patients, people suffering with dementia, and those in prisons. The students receive training specific to these new skills of interaction and connection and they describe their experiences as "transformational" and "life changing."

The Thornton School is part of the massive edifice of USC with its 43,000 students and academic programs ranging from medicine to engineering. The School has about 1000 students at both the Undergrad, Graduate and DMA levels with 435 in the Contemporary Music Program and students drawn from across the States and globally. Tuition is comparable with the best US Schools at $51,442 at the Undergrad level and the School is able to offer scholarship support to many of its students to help with this burden. The Popular Music Program has grown during the brief time it has been in existence becoming even more selective than the School of Medicine and about even with Harvard, with a 6-7% acceptance rate from the 400+ applications that are received every year. This is impressive and shows clearly that Thornton is filling a need nationally for those wanting a new type of musical training plus the full advantages of a university style education.

I was also relieved and delighted to note that the School still allows applications from prospective students who don't read or write music although they will be expected to learn these skills as part of the program if accepted. This means that Paul McCartney and Jimi Hendrix could still get in if we played "Back to the Future."

Given the excellence of the Contemporary Music Program, it is not surprising that the industry is taking careful note of the Thornton School and establishing close working relationships and collaborations with it (the Songwriters Hall of Fame, the GRAMMY Foundation, the Recording Academy, Roland, KORG, ASCAP, and BMI, among others). The chances of students being employed at the end of their formal training are high. The School is well positioned to continue to develop its approach together with the small handful of other Schools in the US and Europe that offer similar training opportunities, such as Berklee School of Music, Berklee Valencia, the Royal Northern School of Music, the School of Music at Leeds University, the ICMP in London and those in the Netherlands and Freiburg.

What effect is this having upon the training of musicians specializing in the classical canon, an area of our culture that many people would argue is far more valued and valuable than the ephemera of the pop music world? It's an interesting question. One part of the music world is expanding and enjoying relevance and a visibility that can only be dreamt of by the classical world, a world that many see as diminishing in importance and significance. The nexus between these two worlds may be at USC and the Thornton School with its balanced emphasis on both. (Berklee School of Music and Boston Conservatory will have a similar opportunity following their recently announced merger). It has already done so much to reinvent its academic training program that it is natural to ask what are the further plans to allow full integration. Students from the two musical worlds meet on campus on a daily basic to chat, argue, attend classes together, have fun, and share experiences and discoveries. It would certainly be an extraordinary achievement to redefine an approach to music education that sees no difference or distinction in the definition of music in the contemporary world.

2016-03-24-1458839967-7959664-USCThorntonSymphonycrPeterShin.jpgBut such an agenda is fraught with challenges. Indeed, how might a reimagined classical training retain the rich fundamentals of the classical tradition while capturing the dynamism of the pop world? How would students develop the necessary mastery of their instruments? How could the studio model of teaching be developed? Could an emphasis on chamber music with its creativity and flexibility replace the traditional focus on large ensemble performance? Could Entrepreneurial thinking and Social Responsibility become embedded in a school's DNA? Could modern technology be incorporated into the training? How might the concert production values of the pop world revitalize the tired world of classical presentation? Would this help rebuild the audience? And how could faculty be drawn in to support this new model?

The Thornton School has already shown itself to be effective in the management of change so maybe it could successfully take on these challenges. If it wants to seriously pursue such a campaign it will need time and tremendous energy and focus. It already has the academic infrastructure and pop world connections in place and those could make for a game changing development in the classical world.

Given the thoughtful and intentional processes that the Thornton School has demonstrated over many years it is probably the best positioned school in the States at the moment to take this forward. It could be very exciting and it could make the difference.