1 Music, Ink.: What I Learned in Boating School Is


Sunday, May 7, 2017

What I Learned in Boating School Is

(Just kidding. I go to music school, ya loons! But if you know what I'm referencing, please find me at Thornton for a high-five and maybe some loose candy in my backpack if I'm feeling generous.)

So. Another year under my belt. It feels insane that this is true, that I'm halfway done with college, that two of my four years in the popular music program are over and done with.

This year punched me in the stomach. It knocked the wind all the way out of me -- I got my heart broken, I doubted my ability, I doubted my love of the art, I fell back in love with music, I fell in love with some more people (who also broke my heart), I strengthened my friendships into the most meaningful connections I've ever made, I wept with my friends on election night, I closed the fall semester out with a song by The Who and finished the year with a Katy Perry tune, I started my own funny little record label, I met John Mayer, I ushered a new generation of pop kids into the madness of our program, I did it, I did it, I did it.

And so did you. Whether you just finished your last year in pop or your first, whether you're majoring in something else entirely, whether you don't go to USC or you don't go to college, you did it. Regardless of the things that have happened to you before this moment, they delivered you here, and you did it, and I'm proud of you, and you don't hear that enough. But especially you, the pop kids of the Class of 2020, I'm so proud. You took my advice and you passed the trials of this year with flying colors. You opened your hearts to each other. You opened your hearts to me. At a party towards the end of the semester, I remarked to one of my closest freshman pals that I'm glad he is my friend, and he thanked me for making his year so special. It warmed my heart in the best way. I always wondered if I was welcome in their circles or just this weird old crony looming above them and spouting Pearls of Wisdom. Turns out they like having me around.

So it goes.

To the popular music Class of 2021: get $@&$#! ready. But fret not: I love to give advice. ;)

When I wrote my open letter to the Class of 2020, I didn't know anyone was going to read it. But they did, and it gave me a platform to speak to a lot more people about what it means to be a popular music major at USC's Thornton School of Music. It's crazy and it's heartbreaking and it's the worst thing I've ever done and it's the best thing I've ever done and when I told my songwriting and performance professor that I cry three times a day I wasn't kidding because I just. Feel. So. Much.

You don't have to cry thrice daily in order to get something out of this program. But you have to keep your head up and your eyes open. You have to let the tears fall when they come. You have to let people in and you have to be willing to learn.

In keeping with the first post I wrote, here are things I learned after completing my second year in the program.

1. This is a logistical thing more than anything, but you guys know the women's bathroom in The Music Complex? As of this writing, the only stall other than the handicapped ones that is guaranteed to lock is the fourth stall from the door. Surviving sophomore year means paying attention to the little things.

2. Make friends with kids who can write horn charts. You're better off shelling out for a "thank you" cup of coffee than muddling your way through a chart you have no business writing. Ask your classmates. Heck, ask the older kids, there are more of us that know what we're doing (though, regretfully, I am not one of them). You're here to learn, and you should take full advantage, but you should recognize when you're out of your depth and need to ask for help.

3. You can play that second keyboard part, I promise.

4. Pop theory is easier than classical theory, but you still have to do the work. Capital wins the title of "professor who most wants you to pass his class," but you still have to show up, and you still have to do what he asks of you. Here's the deal, though: all the things that didn't make sense to you this year will suddenly click. I have no idea why or how. It just happens.

5. You have to try a lot harder in performance class this year. Look, I trust you. I believe in you. But with few exceptions, you probably didn't push yourself to your absolute limit this year. You might THINK you did, but you didn't. You didn't practice every day. You didn't listen to the songs on the treadmill, in the shower, on your walk to every class, for hours before you went to sleep. You didn't ask your individual instructor for help every week on your part. You did the work well. Sophomore year, you have to be better. Ya just gotta. This isn't going to make sense until it does.

6. Sometimes the only way to save your voice is to not use it for a while. Read into this as you will, but on a literal level (at least for singers), take a few days of vocal rest scattered throughout the year. Also, drink water, get 8 hours of sleep on nights when you don't have to stay up, warm (but not hot!) tea is your friend. Thank me later.

7. If you want to gig, expect to play for single-digit audiences. I have a blog post about this from a few months back, but I reiterate: this is the time to gig, and you will have to play for literally two people. It's okay and it's still fun and if you like performing, this is the only way. You will get performance opportunities for crowds of hundreds or even thousands, but if you're playing Genghis Cohen on a Thursday in the midst of pop rehearsing szn, don't count on more than a handful of extra-supportive friends in the audience.

8. Only go to parties where you personally know the host and the house. Okay, this is not a catch-all rule--if you're an extroverted person who loves going out, it doesn't really matter who's hosting it or where the party is. But if you lean towards the introverted side, or find yourself wondering what the point in all this Turning Up really is, then follow this rule. I go to my friend's apartments and kickbacks (or even, dare I say it, ragers) at Su Casa because it's fun to party at a place when you know where the bathrooms are. Literally and figuratively.

9. You might--read, will--have to miss Fun College Times for your career. This year, I started writing pop music professionally, and because the god of scheduling does not have time for my requests, my sessions have almost ~all~ been on Friday nights. Because of this, I have missed many a party, a hang, a jaunt to the roller disco. Most of those Fridays, I really didn't care, because I love being in the studio. A couple of times, I got out early enough to catch the second half or tail end of whatever activity was going on. But a couple times, I was seriously bummed that I was missing out on Typical Teen Experiences to advance my professional well-being. My advice to you is: go to the session. Play the gig. There will be more parties, more opportunities to talk to cuties of the preferred sex(es), and more late-night runs to McDonald's. I promise.

10. Shame is a social construct and you should not be ashamed of yourself. If you're not hurting anyone, you shouldn't feel ashamed of yourself. Whether it's what you eat, what career opportunities you're taking or not, or who you love, you have nothing to be ashamed of. Eat cake with your friends on the lawn in the back of the cinema school. Don't say "yes" to that house party show you know will be a disaster. Tell your crush how you feel regardless of how horribly it might go. As a person who struggles with anxiety, this mantra helps me a lot--shame is not mandatory.

11. You should have a meeting with Sean Holt. Maybe you're taking lessons with him, maybe you're in songwriting with him, maybe you only have him for performance, but--you should really sit down with him and have a meeting about your life/career. He knows what the $*@&#! he's talking about, and he cares about you already, even if you've never spoken to him. This goes for people outside this niche little program, too: talk to the Sean Holt in your life. And hell, talk to the Patrice Rushen, too.

12. Sometimes you won't be able to hear your part until you listen through different speakers. Take from that what you will.

13. Don't say "yes" to everything. This might run counter to the advice that some of our professors give--sorry!--but as a person who is both highly ambitious and highly anxious, I have a tendency to agree to things before I think about whether or not I actually want to do them. We're told we have to hustle, to grind, and it seems like the only way we're gonna make it in this industry is to say "yes" to every single offer we get. You might be the kind of person who can do this, but I am of the camp that you should wait an hour before responding so you can think about it. Do you want to sing background vocals for your friend on the night you were supposed to catch up on all your other work? Do you want to drive for three hours to a session so you can play a guitar solo that might not get used? Do you want to put together a band and find rehearsal times for a last minute gig at Parkside? There are no right answers to those questions, because it really depends on your personality. But for me, there are definitely times when the right answer to a job offer, however cool it may sound, might still be "no."

14. I think I gave some variation on this advice last year, but: go to sleep. I have a lengthy blog post about staying up late and what it means symbolically, but really what I mean to say is: skip the party. Leave the party early. Leave the party and keep hanging out with your friends but go to sleep before 2am. I know what you're doing. You're chasing some ideal night you had long ago that probably wasn't even as good as you remember it. Let go of the idyll. Get some rest, champ.

15. Keep a journal. If you know me in person, I've probably already given you this advice, but: PLEASE start keeping a journal. In 5, 10, 20, 50 years, you are going to want to look back at this time when you were young and beautiful and living the #college #life. But really, keeping a journal is an asset for so many reasons. Read entries from the previous months, weeks, and even days to find patterns you need help breaking. Cull unusual soundbites and concepts to write music, poetry, fiction. Transcribe stimulating conversations. Scribble over a whole page in dark ink until it bleeds through when you're pissed. Draw a big ol' pink heart with your crush's name in the middle. Worry and pour out all your circular thinking when you're having a panic attack (this works so well, trust me). I'm about to fill up my third journal, and my only regret is not starting sooner.

16. What you're feeling might not be love. Listen, I'm first in line to call every single infatuation "love at first sight." I write songs about people I see for three seconds in elevators. I have cried over boys I pass at crowded parties. I tell my friends excitedly that this new, sparkly person might be "the one." But so far, I've (almost) always been wrong. The elevator doors open, and they get off on their floor. The boy I was too scared to talk to leaves the party before I do. "The one" kisses somebody else. You, too, will get off the elevator, and leave the party early, and kiss somebody else. I can promise you that.

17. You have to forgive. You're going to make so many mistakes this year, over these next few years, throughout your godforsaken 20s. And your friends are going to make mistakes, too. Please don't hold a grudge. Please don't miss out on what could be a lifelong friendship because of a misstep, a single breach of trust, one drunk night. Protect your heart. Redefine the relationship. But don't cut people out of your life too quickly. Forgive other people. Maybe, when you screw up--and I promise that you will--they'll forgive you, too.

18. You can do this. No, really, you can. Sophomore year is hard. They don't call it the slump for nothing. If you had a great freshman year, this might be the time when things you thought you knew are called into question. If you had a bad freshman year, this is your next big shot to change the narrative, to make good on the as-of-yet-unfulfilled promise of college. But you have to keep reminding yourself that you're here for a reason. Your admission was not a fluke; you were chosen. You are not getting worse; you're just realizing that you were never the best to begin with (also, you're getting better, I promise). Hold onto your friends, your significant other, your family, however geographically distant they may be. Hold onto your mentors and your professors and your RA, for God's sake, if you've got one. You are gonna make it. This is your moment.

That's all I've got for you this time around. I learned a lot my first year, but I learned way more my second year. I can't wait for a long and restful summer, because after that, I'm a junior in pop...and I've heard season 3 is where things really heat up. ;)

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