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Wednesday, September 28, 2016

So...What Do You Do?

The title of this blog post is a question I get a lot as a popular music major.

I don't really blame anyone for asking it. The pop music program at Thornton is relatively new - the first graduating class was in 2013 - and for people who aren't dedicating their lives to the pursuit of such an unusual career, it can be hard to fathom what it is we do all do.

"Oh, you're a pop major? So like...you just sing all the time?"

Yeah, not exactly.

As a popular music major, our course load is substantial. There are aural skills and theory classes to help you master the...well, theoretical side of things, songwriting, music history, individual instruction on our primary instruments, proficiency classes for instruments we can't play yet, music technology, arranging, and...popular music performance.

I don't mean to make it sound ominous, but truth be told, performance class is exhilarating and fulfilling and terrifying and in general way more than I (or any of my classmates) bargained for when we enrolled here.

Every quarter, the class is divided into four bands, each one equipped with a lead guitarist, a drummer, a bass player, a keyboardist (maybe), and handful of vocalists and singer-songwriters to cover lead vocals, backing vocals, second keyboard and guitar parts, and handheld percussion. The first class of the quarter, we figure out our biweekly rehearsal times, and get assigned our first week of material. And that's when it gets crazy.

Twice a week (or probably more...vocal rehearsals are a great way to bond over how hard it is to hear backing vocals on recordings from the 1960s), we meet up and try to replicate some of the most significant popular music in recorded history. We go to performance class and, despite our best efforts during the week, we get roasted by your professor. We get behind on your charts and stay up really late the night before they're due trying to finish them. We get stressed out and curse the powers that be that this class--this class that you dedicate double-digit hours to every week--gets us a whopping two units closer to our degrees.

But then, in the middle of October, something incredible happens.

We have our performance midterm.

Freshmen perform on a Wednesday night at Ground Zero, the milkshake kingdom of the University of Southern California. The blenders don't stop whirring for anyone, not even the sweaty 18-year-olds belting 50s pop like their lives depend on it, and even though it's the middle of the week and the dead of midterms season, you can bet that GZ will be packed with friends and family of the froshpop cult clan. Adrenaline races as Andy calls for the freshman pop kids to huddle up like a championship basketball team. The first pep talk is always the most inspiring. It's hard to remember exactly what he says to hype us up that night, but rest assured, the energy spikes even more as the house lights come down and the show begins.

Sure, we'd been playing those songs for weeks. Sure, three bands sing "The Great Pretender" even though no one was that big a fan of that song in the first place. Sure, the keyboard does that weird thing where it spits out a synth beat for like forty-five painful seconds while the keys player looks for a piccolo sound. And sure, one of the singers trips on a wire and curses really loud and a stage mic picks it up.

But you know what else happens?

The guitarist absolutely NAILS the "Johnny B. Goode" solo. The vocalists soar on the tough backing harmonies. The drummer's stick goes sailing into the audience right after the last crash of the last song and the crowd goes wild. And right in the middle of the set, everyone looks at each other and smiles with giddy disbelief, communicating without saying a single word: I can't believe this is a midterm.

Because this is what we do. We spend hours, days, weeks, months perfecting music that laid the foundation for modern pop. We perform with the musicians that we'll be working with for the rest of our lives. We live the dream.

I haven't had a sophomore performance exam this year, so I can't speak to the differences yet. We perform on Fridays instead of Wednesdays. The material is harder. The expectations are higher. The venue is the massive, newly renovated Carson Soundstage instead of the gritty milkshake café we all came to love last year. But I know a few things will remain the same--the last-minute crazy outfit choices. The giggly, anxiety-ridden run-throughs of lyrics to confusing funk songs. But more than anything else: forming unshakable bonds during the most exhilarating final exams in the world. And then, when that crazy night is over, we show up for performance class the next Tuesday. We get assigned new bands and new songs.

And we do it all again.

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