Trojan helps musicians with autism showcase their talents

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USC Price School alum helps musicians with autism showcase their talents
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In 2014, Ifunanya Nweke met a middle schooler named Ruben who’d change the course of her career.

Nweke, an alum of the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy, was training to be a behavior therapist at the time. As part of her instruction, she spent the day following Ruben – a seventh grader with autism – from class to class. Nweke noticed the boy usually kept to himself in the corner of classrooms, where he was the only student on the autism spectrum.

But when Ruben entered music class, he transformed into a leader. He played piano and sang with a beautiful, velvety tone. He corralled the rest of the class behind him. One student joined him with a guitar, another on bass. With his presence and musical talent, Ruben had influenced his environment and communicated with his classmates. Nweke was blown away.

“I couldn’t unsee that,” Nweke said. “I figured there must be other individuals who are on the autism spectrum that music may be at least one way for them to connect to their peers, build community around themselves and eventually be leaders of that community.”

That unforgettable moment proved to be the beginning of Jazz Hands for Autism, a nonprofit Nweke launched later that year. Nearly a decade later, the Culver City-based group has provided music training, vocational development and job placement for more than 150 musicians with autism. Jazz Hands has become an advocate for neurodivergent people in the music industry, getting the attention of Billboard magazine.

Jazz Hands winter concert showcased musicians with autism

The nonprofit recently hosted its 18th concert, where musicians with autism performed in front of friends, family and the community.

“It helps us change the way that autism is perceived in our social landscape,” Nweke said of the winter concert that featured 19 musicians. “When you see somebody on stage performing and they’re having the time of their life – singing their heart out and having so much stage presence – something powerful happens in the way that you perceive them.”

“You see them as more able, more capable,” she continued. “It creates inclusion by allowing the general public to see individuals with autism as people who have something to offer.”

Leadership skills learned at USC Price School transformed nonprofit

If the idea and inspiration for Jazz Hands came from that moment in the middle school, the tools and network needed to run the nonprofit came from the USC Price School. Months after launching Jazz Hands in 2014, Nweke enrolled in the Master of Nonprofit Leadership and Management program. She learned how to manage a budget, recruit board members, form partnerships and evaluate programs. Her time here was a “life-changing experience,” she said.

“Jazz Hands pre-Price and post-Price are very different organizations,” Nweke said. “Jazz Hands post-Price is a lot more structured, a lot more targeted, a lot more strategic, a lot more impactful and just a lot more connected in the community, so that we can bring resources for those we are supporting and those who need it the most.”

Nweke, who is pursuing a Doctor of Education degree (with a focus on Educational Psychology) from the USC Rossier School of Education, has stayed connected to the USC Price School: She’s a co-chair of the Curriculum Subcommittee within the USC Price School’s Diversity, Equity & Inclusion task force.

And she isn’t the only USC Price School connection to her nonprofit, either. David Horn, the USC Price School’s director of data analytics, has volunteered at Jazz Hands for five years, playing music with the students during training sessions.

“What’s unique about Jazz Hands is the emphasis on music as this vehicle for self-expression, self-actualization and community building,” Horn said. “A lot of the musicians are able to express themselves and communicate with one another through music in a way that they might not be able to otherwise.”

Musician with autism: “I just wanted to sing my heart out”

One of those musicians is Felipe “Phil” Juarez, a 25-year-old singer from Hollywood. Growing up as a fan of heavy metal, Juarez longed to learn music and start a band. A few years ago, his mom discovered Jazz Hands and signed him up. Juarez has since learned to control his breathing while singing, play the drums and guitar, and understand music theory and editing software.

“It’s helped me a lot with my confidence,” Juarez said, noting that he didn’t want to disturb neighbors by singing at home. When he goes into Jazz Hands, “I just want to sing my heart out. It’s helped me improve a whole lot.”

The hard rock fan’s taste in music has evolved too, and in November he was able to give his parents an early holiday gift. For Jazz Hands’ winter concert in Culver City, Juarez picked a song just for them: “Feliz Navidad.”

“They’re from El Salvador, and they’ve been wanting me to learn how to speak Spanish,” he said. “I figured it’d be a nice song.”

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Researchers find music education benefits youth wellbeing

The latest USC research on the impact of music education shows that for adolescents, the benefits appear to extend beyond a surge in neural connections in their brains. It actually boosts their wellbeing.

The study published Wednesday by the journal Frontiers In Psychology comes just weeks after voters statewide approved Proposition 28 to increase funding for arts and music education in California public schools.

A USC Thornton School of Music researcher said the results are especially meaningful amid a nationwide mental health crisis.

“We know that the pandemic has taken a toll on student mental health. The many narratives of learning loss that have emerged since the start of the pandemic paint a grim picture of what some call a ‘lost generation,'” said Beatriz Ilari, a USC Thornton associate professor of music education and corresponding author of the study. “Music might be an activity to help students develop skills and competencies, work out their emotions, engage in identity work and strengthen connections to the school and community.”

The work was supported by grants including one from the Fender Play Foundation, a nonprofit organization that places instruments in the hands of youth who aspire to play and reap the powerful benefits of music education.

Evidence of those benefits continues to mount, although many states and school districts have reduced the amount of class time, faculty and curriculum dedicated to the arts amid budget crunches and changes in curriculum standards.

Ilari contributed to prior studies, including a longitudinal one by the USC Brain and Creativity Institute, that demonstrated children who learn a musical instrument have enhanced cognitive function. Other research also has shown music education contributes to improved creativity and confidence, better mental health and emotional stability, and student performance, according to a paper published last year by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

Music education and hope for the future

For the study, researchers examined the impact of music on “positive youth development,” a measure of the strengths of adolescents and their potential to contribute to society developed by scholars from Tufts University. Researchers also included measures for school connectedness and hopeful future expectations.

The researchers administered anonymous, online surveys to 120 students from 52 Los Angeles Unified School District middle schools. The survey questions covered the key domains of positive youth development including competence and confidence. Past research shows that adolescents who manifest these attributes are more likely to make positive contributions to society and less likely to engage in risky behaviors later in life.

Ilari and her fellow researchers, including USC Thornton alumna Eun Cho, found many positive effects. They found that students who started music education before age 8 were more hopeful about the future, and younger students who received musical training scored higher in key measures of positive youth development.

The research team also found that younger students scored higher in key development measures than their older peers. Sixth-grade students, for example, scored higher for overall positive youth development than eighth graders, and scored higher in the confidence domain than both seventh- and eighth graders. Seventh grade students also scored higher in overall positive youth development than eighth graders.

In completing the study’s survey questions, students were invited to choose from multiple gender categories beyond the usual binary gender options, including “non-binary” and “prefer not to answer,” to identify themselves. Non-binary students scored lower in overall positive youth development and connection than girls. They also scored lower in confidence and connection than boys.

Our study can be used to inform the development of programs and policy for all young people.

Beatriz Ilari, USC Thornton

“Given the high levels of depression and suicide ideation among LGBTQ+ and non-gender-conforming students, it is crucial that research examining adolescent well-being move beyond the gender binary,” Ilari said. “In addition to filling critical gaps in the existing literature, results from our study can be used to inform the development of programs and policy for all young people.”

The study included students of diverse backgrounds. However, students participating in a virtual music education program primarily came from poor neighborhoods, indicating disparities in access to formal music education.

In addition, the study explored students’ engagement in different music programs, including the Virtual Middle School Music Enrichment (VMSME), a tuition-free, extracurricular program that focuses on popular music education and virtual learning. The program is available through a school district partnership with the Fender Play Foundation. Researchers found that students participating in multiple forms of music education and for longer periods of time scored higher in measures for competence and hopeful future expectations. Some participants in these groups were also enrolled in private lessons and/or playing in small ensembles that offer more individual attention than large group classes. In contrast, students in the extracurricular enrichment program came from low-income neighborhoods and participated in fewer extracurricular activities.

“By expanding access to instruments and music classes for students from low socioeconomic areas – a population that is often left out of school music programs – VMSME contributed to the democratization of music education,” Ilari said. “Throughout the pandemic, students in public schools, especially in urban areas, were disproportionately impacted by the lockdowns that deprived them of physical and social contact with peers. VMSME brought together students from different neighborhoods and at a time when forming peer groups is essential to social identity development.”

More research is needed to better understand disparities in access to formal music education, Ilari said, but she said programs that give student agency in their learning and allow them to engage with peers from other schools, like VMSME, have the potential to promote learning and well-being.

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Cochlear Implant Music Hour strikes a chord

Music can soothe and inspire. But for those with a cochlear implant — a neuroprosthetic that attempts to restore sound to the deaf and hard of hearing — enjoying music is a challenge.

The devices don’t pick up subtle nuances, melodies and timing that can make music enjoyable, says cochlear implant recipient Raymond Goldsworthy, associate professor in the USC Caruso Department of Otolaryngology — Head and Neck Surgery at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.

Goldsworthy lost his hearing at age 13 and, while a cochlear implant helped him regain hearing, it has left a lot to be desired when it comes to appreciating music. His research focuses on re-creating sound, so that he and others can recapture and rediscover the feelings one gets from listening to music.

“As an engineer and a neuroscientist, a lot of my thinking has to do with how technology works — how the signal processing on the device works, how you turn the sound into electrical stimulation,” Goldsworthy says.

This challenge, plus the desire to promote overall well-being through music, is what led him to found the Cochlear Implant (CI) Music Hour Collaboration program in 2019.

Cochlear Implant Music Hour: a collaborative project

The program is a partnership between the Keck School of Medicine’s Bionic Ear Lab, the USC Thornton School of Music’s Community Engagement Program and the Neighborhood Music School in Boyle Heights, and is a 2022-23 recipient of a USC Good Neighbors Campaign grant.

The program looks beyond technology and has enlisted the expertise of USC Thornton graduate students Chrysa Kovach and Julianne Papadopoulos.

“The CI Music Hour is about promoting well-being through music collaboration,” says Kovach, co-facilitator of the music hour.

It connects cochlear implant recipients with local musicians to gain or regain an appreciation for music and all its wonderful nuances. Getting recipients together in one room and putting an instrument in their hands to create and hear music is the payoff, and since the program started participants have connected to musicians from around the world — even as far as Poland — for virtual jam sessions.

“Our participants tell us that this is their way to connect with similar hearing individuals and to discuss very specific experiences with people who are going through a similar situation,” says Kovach.

Now that the program has moved from virtual to in-person, Goldsworthy and his team are facing new challenges — including finding convenient locations, scheduling musicians and of course navigating Los Angeles traffic.

Despite those challenges, the results will be worth it. Doing the program online, Goldsworthy says, “you can’t really do music making the way you would like to.”

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How USC Thornton trains the next generation of music teachers

Three music teachers at Manual Arts are Thornton alumni, including Megan Adcock ’17, Jesse Berent ’03, and Josh Gronlund, MM ’22.
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Meeting the Demand
USC Thornton grads are music teachers bringing popular music into the classroom.

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As USC Thornton unveils a new master’s degree in popular music teaching and learning, Thornton graduates who are already teaching are adapting to the growing demand for music instruction beyond band, choir and orchestra.

Alumni like Courtney Fortune, who teaches at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts (LACHSA), and Josh Gronlund, who teaches at Manual Arts High School in South Los Angeles, are finding that offering high school courses in guitar, rock ensembles and music production is attracting new students.

As graduate students at Thornton, both Fortune and Gronlund enrolled in a pilot course for the new master’s degree.

Gronlund, who has been teaching at Manual Arts High School for seven years, created two courses in music production and had students compete in a city-wide music production competition, The Battle of the Beats, judged by experts from Spotify and Soundtrap. After hearing about VH1 Save the Music grants in one of his Thornton classes, he applied for and was awarded a J Dilla Music Teaching Grant, allowing him to secure $55,000 worth of music technology equipment for the school.

A 2022 graduate with a master’s in community music who has undergraduate degrees from Michigan State in voice performance and choral music education, Gronlund established four choirs at the school, including a small pop ensemble that has performed with established pop stars such as Jennifer Hudson and Camila Cabello.

“It helps that we’ve been getting grants, winning awards and been recognized,” he said. “And once people started hearing our vocal pop ensemble, we started getting all these gigs and kids bought into it more and the community bought into it more.”

The school’s administration and counselors are supportive of his efforts, Gronlund said, and the school just hired a third Thornton grad, Jesse Berent, who earned a BM in studio jazz guitar in 2003, as a fulltime guitar teacher. Berent was a touring musician for 15 years, and is exactly the sort of musician who should be attracted to the new master’s degree, which helps translate career expertise into non-traditional music education. (The third Thornton grad teaching at Manual Arts is Megan Adcock ’17, who teaches classes in percussion/keyboard, modern band and advanced band.)

Thornton double grad (Music Industry ’12 and an MA in Arts Leadership ’21) Courtney Fortune was recruited in 2021 by LACHSA to teach the songwriting class and help develop a new pop music program.

Fortune, an established touring and recording singer who is also a professional songwriter and writing and performing coach, says her varied career demonstrates to students that if they are adaptable and versatile, they can enjoy a lifetime in music. She has written music for TV, film and cartoons, jazz big bands, boy bands – and was even the subject of a Japanese reality show. She has taught workshops and done one-on-one coaching, and is currently touring with contemporary jazz pianist David Benoit’s holiday show.

“I never had a pop songwriting class growing up,” she observes. “For a 15-year-old girl navigating life, songwriting can be a perfect place to check in.” LACHSA is trying to get students thinking early about careers in pop music, she says, and having coaching and mentors for high schoolers is important.

“LACHSA takes these students seriously,” she said. “It respects where they are musically, and what they’re listening to.”

Fortune says: “There is no linear path for a musician these days. A strings player in Los Angeles may be scoring movies, playing with the LA Phil, recording on a hip-hop album, and playing in a band at the GRAMMYS.”

Fortune teaches part-time, which allows her to continue the other aspects of her career, including running her own program of songwriting and recording workshops for teens and adults called Songmaker Sessions. “Working in this field, you have to be able to do it all,” she says. “It’s important to me that my students feel empowered and have the skills to make songwriting a part of their artistic career, if they choose.”

Gronlund of Manual Arts, says that many people wrongly assume that music production is simply re-arranging previously recorded beats. Although students do work with existing music, they also learn how to create their own chords and baselines to compose original music.

In his advanced music production class one morning, students were working on a written song proposal for one of the school’s small modern bands. He asked them a barrage of questions they needed to consider for the proposal. Would the music be pre-recorded or live? Would it would have percussion, guitar or vocals? Would there be perhaps a flute solo? What should the key signature or time signatures be? How often should the chords change? What about the lyrics – are they written in verse and chorus form? How would you delegate tasks to each member of the production team?

These are all things that producers need to figure out in advance, he tells them.

Gronlund, who has nonstop energy, is full of enthusiasm about popular music education. “It provides more personal creativity for students and more culture-responsive teaching for me,” he says. “It’s grounded in theory, but it can be messy and not tied up in a bow. I excel in that messy space.”

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Trojan’s new hit app Instafest brings music fans together

Just last month, Anshay Saboo was relaxing at his family’s home in Orange County, enjoying his Thanksgiving break. He was using that downtime to launch his app, Instafest, which showcases Spotify users’ top artists in a Coachella-like poster. He hoped to launch it, share it with his friends and watch the app steadily grow.

A little over a week later, Saboo said his Google Analytics for the site showed more than 16 million users.

“My goal when I was building the app was to hit a million users, and I thought it would take me a month or two to reach that number, with ad campaigns and a lot of social media posts,” said Saboo, a computer science major in the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.

“What ended up happening was I just posted on my story, had a bunch of my friends post it, and the app just caught on like wildfire.”

Instafest provides a shared experience

Much like Spotify Wrapped, which allows users to see their top artists, songs and genres, and then share them on social media, Instafest pulls data from users’ Spotify accounts to create a dream lineup that can be shared with friends. From there, users can customize their posters with various themes — “Malibu Sunrise,” “L.A. Twilight” and “Mojave Dusk” — and change the lineup based on the most popular artists in their last four weeks, six months and all time.

The idea came to Saboo earlier this year when the spring and summer music festival season was just starting. As he scrolled through TikTok one morning and saw content for all the festivals, he thought about who his ideal lineup would be. The second-year Trojan knew that Spotify’s application programming interface — which allows him to pull information like users’ top artists — was relatively easy to work with. From there, he built his first version of the Instafest app.

“Music has an incredible power to bring people together,” Saboo said. “It’s just super cool to see everyone engaging with the app and engaging with each other online about music.”

Early designs and winding path to USC and Instafest

Instafest isn’t the first app Saboo has designed. As a student at University High in Irvine — which shares the Trojan mascot — Saboo created an app called Grades that allowed students to check and calculate grades in a user-friendly way. The app grew to a quarter-million downloads within a two- to three-year span.

It was definitely my first taste of making something that people really enjoyed, and something that worked.

Anshay Saboo, Instafest creator

“It was definitely my first taste of making something that people really enjoyed, and something that worked,” Saboo said. “It gave me some experience that I could build off of into the future with projects like [Instafest].”

Both of Saboo’s parents are USC alums, having met in graduate school. He said USC was always on his radar, but after not being accepted as a freshman, Saboo decided to attend the University of Washington in Seattle. As much as he said he loved UW, Saboo knew that he wanted to return closer to home and follow in his parents’ footsteps at USC. He applied again, was accepted and transferred into USC for the fall 2021 semester.

“There are so many first-year transfer students at USC, so it was incredible to find that community,” Saboo said.

Taking Instafest beyond Spotify

Though Saboo is overjoyed at the popularity and support Instafest has received so far, he still wanted to add even more features to the app to promote it to a wider audience.

“I never took the mentality that since it blew up, this is it, and now I can kind of sit back and relax,” Saboo said. “I really just want to make it as big as possible.”

He already added a “Basic Score” feature that grades the uniqueness of the user’s lineup, and recently expanded the app into other music streaming platforms like Apple Music and Last.fm so those users could “join in on the fun.”

“Spotify users are a little too spoiled, I think,” Saboo said with laugh. “But in all seriousness, having everyone included and just having a good time was what I was looking to do.”

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Studying for finals? Let classical music help


This story was first published on Dec. 5, 2014.

As the season of cramming and finals approaches, Trojans can get help with a healthy, easily accessible study aid — classical music.

It’s a solution available 24/7 at Classical KUSC in Los Angeles or Classical KDFC in San Francisco. Listen either on the radio or live-streamed at kusc.org or kdfc.com. There’s a new version of KUSC’s free app and one for KDFC to use on mobile devices.

A number of academic studies recently zeroed in on classical music, showing that listening benefits the brain, sleep patterns, the immune system and stress levels — all helpful when facing those all-important end-of-semester tests.

Face the music

University research in France, published in Learning and Individual Differences, found that students who listened to a one-hour lecture where classical music was played in the background scored significantly higher in a quiz on the lecture when compared to a similar group of students who heard the lecture with no music.

The researchers speculated that the music put students in a heightened emotional state, making them more receptive to information.

“It is possible that music, provoking a change in the learning environment, influenced the students’ motivation to remain focused during the lecture, which led to better performance on the multiple-choice quiz,” they wrote.

According to research from the Duke Cancer Institute, classical music can also lessen anxiety.

Researchers gave headphones playing Bach concertos to men undergoing a stressful biopsy and discovered they had no spike in diastolic blood pressure during the procedure and reported significantly less pain.

But make sure you are listening to classical music, because not all music aids blood pressure, a University of San Diego study found.

Scientists at the university compared changes in blood pressure among individuals listening to classical, jazz or pop music. Those listening to classical had significantly lower systolic blood pressure when compared to those listening to other musical genres or no music at all.

??Just relax

Classical music helps you relax even when you don’t pay attention to the music, a Russian study published in Human Physiology found.

Children who listened to classical music for one hour a day over a six-month period exhibited brain changes that indicated greater levels of relaxation — even when the children were not asked to pay attention to the music.

If testing anxiety causes sleepless nights, classical music can help soothe insomnia. A team of researchers at the University of Toronto found that tuning into classical music before bedtime helped people fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer. Works by Brahms, Handel, Mozart, Strauss and Bach were effective sleep aids because they use rhythms and tonal patterns that create a meditative mood and slow brainwaves, the study found.

(KUSC and KDFC make it easy to access quality classical music all night, every night. The California Classical All Night program airs on both stations from midnight to 5 a.m., seven days a week.)

Cut out the cannons

So what selections do classical music experts favor for listeners trying to absorb new information?

KUSC host and producer Alan Chapman suggested pieces that are more restrained to provide a nice aura in the background. Skip over large orchestral pieces, particularly those with a dynamic that ranges from whispers to booming cannons.

The 1812 Overture would not be a good study aid, unless you were studying to be a demolitions expert,” he observed — a sentiment echoed by KDFC host and assistant program director Rik Malone.

Chapman suggested choosing solo piano pieces, perhaps Mozart sonatas or French piano music by Poulenc, Debussy or Faure. Mozart string quartets are also good choices, he said, for the regularity of phrase structure in classic period pieces.

Guitar music is gentle enough to study by, as is lute music, which has enjoyable, dulcet tones. Sample Bach lute suites, Chapman suggested.

Elizabethan consort music from the late 16th century, played on viols, was intended to create a pleasant atmosphere at court without demanding attention, Chapman said, and is another good candidate for music to study by.

So before turning to the books, turn on Classical KUSC or Classical KDFC.

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100 years of ‘Fight On!’: Legendary USC fight song nears a milestone

It’s the fight song that begat a motto for an entire university — and this year it turns 100.

This Saturday, the Trojan Marching Band will celebrate the centennial of its iconic fight song, “Fight On!,” at USC football’s regular season finale at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Although now considered one of the greatest college fight songs, when the song’s composers entered it into a campus song contest in 1923, it came in second.

The story of “Fight On!” dates back a year earlier, to 1922. Vaudeville-performer-turned-dental-student Milo Sweet was playing the song’s melody on a piano at USC’s on-campus YMCA when religious studies major and USC band saxophonist Glen Grant passed by. Listening in, he told Sweet the tune would make a great fight song. Grant helped Sweet write the lyrics, and “Fight On!” was born.

Most traditional fight songs are written in a straightforward 2/4 or cut-time meter, suited to musicians marching down the field. “Fight On!” was uniquely composed in the compound 6/8 time signature. This provided more opportunity for rhythmic and melodic variation and gives it its jaunty lilt.

Traditionally, three choruses of the song are played. The first chorus has the trumpets leading the melody, the second chorus is led by the sousaphones and drums keeping time and the third chorus hands the melody to the trombones with high brass and woodwinds playing flourishes underneath.

In November 1923, “Fight On!” was entered into a song contest held by USC’s Rally Committee. Thirty songs were evaluated by the committee, including “Cardinal and Gold” by Al Wesson. Earlier that year, Wesson had written what would be become the university’s official alma mater, “All Hail,” and was on the committee to find a song that would “generally represent the school, one that will be adaptible [sic] for all occasions and not characteristic of a season or single game,” according to the Daily Trojan.

Wesson’s entry ended up winning the contest and the $100 grand prize, but he later confessed the best song didn’t come out on top. Wesson, who went on to be USC’s first sports information director, admitted as much in a 1965 letter to the Los Angeles Times.

“To show how nuts people can be, the music committee awarded first prize to my song and second to ‘Fight On!’ ‘Fight On!’ has become probably the equal of the Notre Dame fight song in the country,” he wrote. “As a campus musician, I was on the committee, and I’m glad to say I had sense enough to vote for ‘Fight On!’ over my own piece.”

Within a few years of its composition, “Fight On!” had become USC’s most popular fight song and a rival nationally to older, more established anthems like the “Notre Dame Victory March,” “On, Wisconsin!” and Michigan’s “The Victors.” Unlike those songs, “Fight On!” transcended its musical origins to become a motto for USC students and alumni. USC’s sports teams had been nicknamed Trojans in 1912 because of their athletes’ “fighting spirit” against teams who were “bigger and better-equipped,” according to Los Angeles Times sportswriter Owen Bird. Accompanied by fingers formed in the shape of a V for victory, a verbalized “Fight On” became a greeting, an expression of encouragement and a farewell in the Trojan Family vernacular, one that captured the reputation of the ancient Trojans as fighters no matter the odds.

USC fight song goes to war

In 1943, “Fight On!” became legendary outside the university when it inspired U.S. troops to capture an island in the Pacific theater of World War II. As the task force motored ashore to Attu in the Aleutian Islands, music suddenly rang out over the waves. Capt. Hubert D. Long, a USC alumnus, described the scene in a 1944 letter.

“On the deck of our transport our commanding officer had ordered the band to play,” he wrote. “I could hear a cheer in some of the other assault craft, but I could not identify the song until the wind changed. Then I heard, and never again will I ever have such a lump in my throat. Over the waves there came the song that I, that none of us who ever spent our school years at S.C. will ever forget. It was our ‘Fight On’ song. Many, many of us were from California. As all the men heard it, a tremendous roar went up, for here was something tangible. Here was something American to the core, something that pictured to us that for which we fight, and that which we love above all else. We won the island.”

Sweet was proud of his contribution to the war effort and even after he established a successful dental practice in South Pasadena, he continued to write fight songs for other schools. Sweet Music publishing still exists and holds the copyright to numerous songs. After graduating from USC, Grant became an ordained Methodist minister and was serving in the U.S. government as national supervisor of recreation when he passed away in New York in 1941.

In the 1950s, as college football began airing on TV, “Fight On!” became recognized around the country. It was the soundtrack of sunny California at Rose Bowl games on New Year’s Day while the rest of the country was blanketed in snow. It also was featured numerous times in movies and on TV. “Fight On!” was famously included on the soundtrack to Disney’s 1973 film Robin Hood and has been recorded many times over the years.

USC fight song: Part of the band’s ‘choreography’ at football games

When Arthur C. Bartner became director of the Trojan Marching Band in 1970, he incorporated the song into the band’s “choreography” of football games, tailoring musical cues to corresponding action on the field. “Fight On!” became the song that punctuated USC’s offensive drives.

The copyright to “Fight On!” has stayed in the Sweet family through three generations of Milo Sweets. Sweet Music has protected the song and carefully chosen which productions they allow to use the song in media. Milo Sweet III is now the custodian of Sweet Music and also a parent to daughter Sydney, a senior at USC.

USC’s fight song is not only iconic for its meaning to this institution but is as thrilling a march as any composed by John Philip Sousa.

Jacob Vogel, band director

“Every time I’m with her and we’re walking around campus and we’re seeing all the ‘Fight On’ stuff and I’m always like, ‘Hey, without your family, that wouldn’t have existed,'” says the senior Sweet. “I think she’s starting to understand it at this point that it’s a big deal.”

Milo Sweet III and his daughter will be recognized by the Trojan Marching Band on the field at halftime during Saturday’s Notre Dame game. Band Director Jacob Vogel, like his predecessor, is cognizant of the importance of “Fight On!” to the university.

“With any collegiate job, there are traditions and elements that you inherit when you take over a program as lasting as this one,” says Vogel. “I truly am lucky that USC’s fight song is not only iconic for its meaning to this institution but is as thrilling a march as any composed by John Philip Sousa. We’re excited to honor its centennial this Saturday.”

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Multiple USC Thornton grads, faculty among 2023 Grammy nominees

Multiple USC Thornton Grads and Faculty Nominated for 2023 GRAMMY Awards
Portrait of USC Thornton nominees for 2023 Grammys
First-time nominees include Louis Cole, Moonchild, and Bear McCreary. (Design: Mingmei Li)
Alumni and faculty from the Jazz Studies program lead a lengthy list of USC Thornton nominees, most of whom have been honored before.

An impressive list of alumni and faculty from the USC Thornton School of Music received nominations for the 65th GRAMMY Awards, announced Tuesday, Nov. 15. In addition to at least 18 named nominees, many faculty and alumni from across the school were included in nominations as part of ensembles and orchestras, as members of an album’s production, and as music industry professionals representing nominated artists.

First-Time Nominations

While most USC Thornton nominees have received nominations in past years, several alumni received their first nominations. These nominees included four alumni from the Jazz Studies program: Louis Cole (’09), Max Bryk (’11), Amber Navran (’12), and Andris Mattson (’13). Artist and multi-instrumentalist Cole received his nomination in the category of Best Arrangement, Instruments and Vocals for “Let It Happen.” Bryk, Navran and Mattson, who make up the alternative R&B group Moonchild, were nominated for Best Progressive R&B Album for “Starfruit.”

Noted film composer Bear McCreary (’02), who most recently scored The Lord of the Rings series, “The Rings of Power,” received a nomination in the category of Best Score Soundtrack for Video Games and Other Interactive Media for “Call Of Duty: Vanguard.”

Round Two

Several alumni received their second nominations, including classical guitarist Mak Grgic (MM ’12, DMA ’16, GCRT ’20), who earned his second nomination in as many years for Best Classical Instrumental Solo for “A Night In Upper Town – The Music Of Zoran Krajacic.”

Composer Austin Wintory (’07) received his second nomination in the category of Best Score Soundtrack for Video Games and Other Interactive Media for “Aliens: Fireteam.” He joins Bear McCreary in this category.

Show Stoppers

Award-winning composer and producer Ludwig Goransson (GCRT ’08), an alum of the Screen Scoring program, is included in the nomination for Album Of The Year for Adele’s “30.”

A host of USC Thornton faculty and alumni are included in the category of Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album for Michael Buble’s “Higher.” Jason Goldman (MM ’02), chair of the Jazz Studies program, produced, arranged, and orchestrated “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” as well as the album’s bonus track, “Pennies From Heaven,” while Buble’s longtime musical director, alum Alan Chang (’02), produced the song, “Smile.” The album features performances from a long list of USC Thornton Jazz Studies alums.

Joining Buble in the category of Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album is a capella group, Pentatonix, nominated for “Evergreen.” The group is led by Scott Hoying, who formed the celebrated group as a USC Thornton student with Music Industry alum Ben Bram (’10).

Will Kennedy at Bovard Auditorium
Will Kennedy of the Yellowjackets performing with the USC Thornton Winds in Bovard Auditorium on April 1, 2022. (Photo: Ryan Miller)
Jazz Studies Faculty

Two different ensembles of Jazz Studies faculty were nominated in the category of Best Jazz Instrumental Album. The Peter Erskine Trio received a nomination for “Live in Italy.” The group features USC Thornton faculty members Erskine, Darek Oles and Alan Pasqua.

The Peter Erskine Trio will be competing against their colleagues, as celebrated jazz-fusion supergroup Yellowjackets was nominated in the same category for “Parallel Motion.” The group features USC Thornton faculty members Bob Mintzer and Will Kennedy, recently retired faculty member Russell Ferrante, and bassist Dane Alderson.

Jazz Studies faculty member Vince Mendoza joins alum Louis Cole in the category of Best Arrangement, Instruments and Vocals. Celebrated arranger Mendoza received a nomination for “Songbird (Orchestral Version)” with Christine McVie. Cole, mentioned earlier, was nominated for arranging “Let It Happen,” which he also performed.

Alumni Trumpeters Shine

Alum Ambrose Akinmusire (MM ’07) received a nomination in the category of Best Improvised Jazz Solo for “Rounds (Live),” while trumpeter Bijon Watson, who was the drum major for the USC Trojan Marching Band as a USC student, was nominated in the category of Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album as part of the Generation Gap Jazz Orchestra.

Orchestral Performances

Photo of Seth Parker Woods smiling indoors.
USC Thornton faculty member and cellist Seth Parker Woods, a member of Wild Up. (Photo: Grittani Creative)
Rounding out the list are two ensembles nominated in the category Best Orchestral Performance. The Los Angeles Philharmonic, which features a significant number of Thornton faculty and alums, was nominated with conductor Gustavo Dudamel for “Dvorak: Symphonies Nos. 7-9,” while noted new music ensemble Wild Up received a nomination for “Eastman: Stay On It.” The ensemble features, among others, Strings faculty member Seth Parker Woods and alum Sidney Hopson (’08, GCRT ’10, MM ’12).

Notable Mentions

Joining Mak Grgic in the category of Best Classical Instrumental Solo is a composition by acclaimed composer Michael Abels (’84), “Isolation Variation,” as part of a nomination for violinist Hilary Hahn.

Music Industry Faculty Represent Nominees

More notable mentions include Music Industry faculty who represent nominated artists. Faculty member Jonathan Azu, founder of management firm Culture Collective, represents client Cory Henry, who earned his second consecutive nomination for Best Progressive R&B Album.

The 65th GRAMMY Awards will take place at 5:00 pm (PT) Sunday, Feb. 5 at Crypto.com Arena. The ceremony will air live on CBS, and stream live and on-demand on Paramount+.

Alphabetical List of Named USC Thornton GRAMMY Nominees for 2023

Ambrose Akinmusire (MM ’07)
Max Bryk (’11)
Louis Cole (’09)
Peter Erskine, Jazz Studies faculty
Russell Ferrante, recently retired Jazz Studies faculty
Ludwig Goransson (GCRT ’08)
Mak Grgic (MM ’12, DMA ’16, GCRT ’20)
Scott Hoying (non-degreed alumnus)
Will Kennedy, Popular Music faculty
Andris Mattson (’13)
Bear McCreary (’02)
Vince Mendoza, Jazz Studies faculty
Bob Mintzer, Jazz Studies faculty
Amber Navran (’12)
Darek Oles, Jazz Studies faculty
Alan Pasqua, Jazz Studies faculty
Bijon Watson (non-degreed alumnus)
Austin Wintory (’02)

(In addition, many faculty members and alums were part of ensembles, orchestras, and productions that received nominations. Check back as this list will likely grow.)

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Acclaimed composer Andrew Norman to return to USC Thornton School of Music

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Coming Home to USC Thornton
Acclaimed composer Andrew Norman will return as associate professor of composition in Fall 2023.
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Andrew Norman (’02, MM ’04), alumnus and former faculty member at the USC Thornton School of Music, will return as associate professor of composition in Fall 2023. One of the most acclaimed composers of his generation, Norman is a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in music whose work has been championed by eminent conductors such as John Adams, Marin Alsop, Gustavo Dudamel, Simon Rattle and David Robertson.

“I love the Thornton School, and I am deeply connected to that place and that community,” Norman said. “It is my home. I got two degrees there; I taught there for seven years. And I am really excited about returning. The Thornton School has an amazing faculty and an amazing composition department specifically, and I’m incredibly honored to be part of that community again.”

“We are absolutely delighted that Andrew Norman is returning to the composition faculty at Thornton,” said Donald Crockett, chair of the USC Thornton Composition program. “Andrew is a gifted composer with global reach, and is known especially for expanding the scope and sound world of symphonic music in works such as the Grawemeyer Award-winning Play and his major work for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Sustain. His delightful opera, A Trip to the Moon, performed internationally, is community-minded, involving hundreds of musicians and singers of all ages. In the realm of chamber music, Andrew’s very significant The Companion Guide to Rome for string trio has become a staple of the repertoire. All of this makes Andrew one of the most influential mentors for our current generation of students, and we are very happy to have him back guiding young composers at Thornton.”

Norman earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at USC Thornton and an Artist Diploma from Yale University. From 2013 to 2020, he was assistant professor of composition at USC Thornton. Norman was then appointed to the composition faculty at Juilliard in 2020. Beginning with the 2023-2024 academic year, he will transition to an ongoing role as visiting faculty at Juilliard.

His work as an educator is an important part of his life as a composer, he says, deepening his musical sensibilities and refreshing his creativity.

“One of the things I really love about the Thornton School is that it is a very open and creative place, and it’s a place where people are asking some really big questions: What is music? What is art? What is creativity? And what does that mean in the 21st century? We’re always asking new questions about how we teach, why we teach and what we teach. And those are all really exciting questions,” Norman said. “Thornton is a place that is always challenging our notions of the art form and pushing it forward, and I really want to be part of that conversation.”

“And I love that the Thornton School is part of a big, exciting university with all kinds of brilliant and creative people working in so many different fields,” Norman added. “It’s pretty much an ideal environment in which to teach and to create and to be involved.”
Norman looks forward to his continued affiliation with Juilliard as a visiting faculty member.

“It’s been a fantastic couple of years,” he said. “Juilliard is an astounding place with a rich tradition, incredibly talented people, and a lot of creativity — in many ways, it reminds me of USC Thornton.”

But the decision to return to Los Angeles was also a personal one. Born in the Midwest in 1979 and raised in Northern California, Norman noted that he’s spent 14 years of his adult life in Los Angeles.

“It feels very natural to come home to Los Angeles,” he said. “My husband and I both realized that L.A. is our home and the place where we want to raise our kids. We are looking forward to re-engaging with the civic and social and artistic life in Los Angeles. I find L.A. to be an enormously creative city, and it feels like a place that’s filled with a lot of possibility and potential.”

Norman has collaborated with leading ensembles worldwide, including the Berlin, Los Angeles and New York Philharmonics; the Philadelphia and Minnesota Orchestras; the London, BBC, Saint Louis and San Francisco Symphonies; the Orpheus, Saint Paul and Los Angeles Chamber Orchestras; the Tonhalle Orchester; the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra; the Orchestre National de France; and the Ensemble Intercontemporain.

He has served as composer in residence with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Opera Philadelphia, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and the Utah Symphony. He was Carnegie Hall’s Debs Composer’s Chair for the 2020-2021 season.

Among his many honors, Norman has won the Rome Prize (2006), the Berlin Prize (2009), a Guggenheim Fellowship (2016), Musical America’s Composer of the Year (2017) and the Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition (2017). His orchestral work Sustain earned Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic a GRAMMY Award for their Deutsche Grammophon recording.

A dedicated educator, Norman has held educational residencies with various institutions across the country. He currently serves as the director of the L.A. Phil’s Composer Fellowship Program for high school composers.

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USC’s new, student-led mariachi band brings back a Trojan tradition

Rehearsal spaces near the USC Thornton School of Music are full on weeknights. Walk by and you’ll hear an oddly pleasing dissonance. Classical music and jazz compete with a sax player riffing on the intro to “Careless Whisper.”

On a recent evening, blasts of vihuela, guitarron, violins and trumpets soared into that mix. The traditional mariachi melodies stopped and started, getting tighter with each run-through of tunes that swing from celebratory to melancholy.

“El Rey,” “Si Nos Dejan,” “Aca Entre Nos” and “Hermoso Carino” are some of the many standards in the repertoire of the three-dozen-plus USC students who make up Mariachi Los Troyanos de USC.

“Mariachi is the most beautiful music in the world, and being in the heart of Los Angeles — such a diverse space, Latino-centered — it’s important to find a way for students to express themselves culturally and creatively,” said Eduardo Cardenas, the group’s president. “We bring a lot of fun, a sense of inclusiveness, and we’re all professionals, so we bring great music.”

Cardenas is a mechanical engineering student at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering from Bell, who graduated from East College Prep Charter High School in Lincoln Heights. He’s a fourth-generation mariachi, and his extended family includes dozens of professional musicians. Cardenas gigs with his father and uncle on weekends, something he never envisioned as a young boy.

“I always wanted to step away from that,” Cardenas said. “School was always my calling, and after a while my parents stopped trying to force me to learn mariachi. I went through a rock phase in middle school. When I got into high school, I started to realize how beautiful mariachi actually is. I was lucky enough to have a teacher right at home. My dad gave me the discipline to be the best, and the best decision I’ve ever made was picking up the violin.”

USC mariachi group: building a band

When she accepted admittance as a classical guitar major at the USC Thornton School of Music in the fall of last year, Daniela Santiago took up residence at El Sol y La Luna, USC’s residential college Latinx special interest floor. It was the best place for Santiago and co-founder Jose “Pepe” Romo to form a mariachi ensemble.

We connected and said, ‘We’re gonna make this happen. We’re going to start rehearsing.’

Daniela Santiago, group founder

“As I introduced myself, I recruited people,” Santiago said. “I spread the word through the girls’ floor, then I moved down to the guys’ floor. We connected and said, ‘We’re gonna make this happen. We’re going to start rehearsing.'”

The band practiced in the Cardinal Gardens parking lot and later at the Latinx Chicanx Center for Advocacy and Student Affairs (La CASA) before moving into a rehearsal space at USC Thornton. Momentum picked up last spring when Mariachi Los Troyanos de USC took top honors at USC Songfest. Multiple shows of all sizes followed, from the big El Grito Mexican Independence event at the East Los Angeles Civic Center to the Lululemon store at USC Village.

Appearances on television came next. Mariachi Los Troyanos de USC was the featured act on NBC’s regional show California Live during Hispanic Heritage Month. Days later, the band’s story was told on NBC News Los Angeles affiliate KNBC-TV.

Performing rubato: USC mariachi group

The ensemble flexes like an accordion depending on the venue, event, budget of the host and availability of musicians. A group of five — with a guitar, a viola, two trumpets and a violin — is a common setup, but the number of musicians can easily expand to double digits.

Mariachi Los Troyanos de USC has a roster of about 40 players. Band members have turned out in big numbers for campus events, such as the closing ceremony of Latinx Heritage Month.

Cardenas, Santiago and Romo recruit, lead rehearsals, arrange transportation to concerts and manage the band — all while holding down full course loads.

“We just want to share mariachi with everyone,” Santiago said.

A founder’s determination to scale up

A native of Austin, Texas, and the daughter of immigrants from Mexico, Santiago grew up loving music of all kinds. Her ears were often tuned to radio.

“I always wanted to learn how to play an instrument, but I just didn’t have access to it growing up until seventh grade,” Santiago said. “I enrolled in a music program, started as a violist, and I’ve been playing mariachi ever since eighth grade.”

Santiago went on to study classical guitar but stuck close to mariachi, taking part in a music camp at the University of Texas at Austin, as well as regional competitions.

“I was able to get into all of the colleges and conservatories I applied to, USC being one of them,” Santiago said. “UT Austin has one of the best collegiate mariachis. They’re very competitive, they’re at an elite level. I got a free ride there and I knew the faculty, but USC just felt right.”

But one thing was missing from USC as far as Santiago was concerned: There was no mariachi band.

“I was shocked to find out USC didn’t have a mariachi,” Santiago said. “UCLA has one; UC Berkeley has one; USC has to have one.”

USC mariachi group: the best anywhere

Santiago, who describes USC Thornton’s guitar faculty as the best anywhere, turned to guitar professor William Kanengiser, who serves as faculty adviser.

“I told Bill, ‘I’ve grown up listening to it, played in competition and big events, I love sharing the music with everyone,” Santiago said. “There are going to be many people who have the same interest as me.’ Bill was even more excited than I was.”

Kanengiser led a USC Thornton effort to outfit the band with instruments. The school’s classical guitar department dipped into a fund established by author Jonathan Kellerman and bought a guitarron and a vihuela.

“The moment you meet Dani, you’re struck by her drive, passion and love of music,” Kanengiser said in an interview with USC Annenberg Media. “Although she’s a small person, she can fill up a room with her smile and energy. Her dream is to create a group at USC that will represent the Hispanic culture of USC students, not only when she’s studying here, but continuing for generations.”

Santiago, who shares credit with her fellow mariachis, sees major gigs ahead.

“The Hollywood Bowl, performing with the marching band, football games,” she said. “We’re thinking big.”

The band that skipped a beat

Mariachi Los Troyanos de USC is not the first Trojan mariachi ensemble. The university’s last mariachi band formed in 1996. It was called Mariachi Sur de California but was often referred to simply as the USC Mariachi. Esau Perez played guitarron in the student-run organization.

“We weren’t necessarily accepted by the general population at USC,” Perez said. “We didn’t have a whole lot of resources. But I’m so proud of my heritage, proud to have graduated from USC. For me to be able to share my heritage at a campus I grew up loving, that was a big deal.”

The group Perez was part of continued in various incarnations for about a decade, but it struggled with longevity.

“As soon as the leaders would graduate, it was almost like the group had to start all over,” Perez said. “Mariachi has never been a course offered at the university. That was something we were hopeful could be done given the popularity of the music and USC’s location. It’s such a hotbed for that type of music.”

Thanks to a personal connection with one of the members of Mariachi Los Troyanos de USC, Perez got involved with the new band last year and attended its performances more than 20 years after he graduated.

To see mariachi return, it’s kind of emotional.

Esau Perez, member
of USC’s previous mariachi band

“To see mariachi return, it’s kind of emotional,” Perez said. “Seeing how bright these kids are, I was incredibly impressed by the quality of young people that I saw. I got to speak to and got to know them personally. As an alum, I was immensely proud because of the music and because of what they’re creating, but even more so the quality of students that USC is recruiting.”

Prelude, allegro, coda

Cardenas and Santiago smile softly as they play, while cantante Alberto Gonzalez musters the operatic energy mariachi demands for its songs of love, loss or devotion.

The musicians seem to be more attuned to each other with each rehearsal. Like all things linked to the college experience, though, the ensemble in its current form is ephemeral.

“A lot of my Latinx friends go into STEM,” Santiago said. “A lot of them leave music behind eventually. Not me.”

Cardenas, who will graduate with his engineering degree in two and a half years, reflects on his family’s mariachi heritage as he ponders his future.

“My dad said, ‘Once you graduate, you never have to pick up the violin again, but if you ever want to come back you’re always welcome,'” Cardenas said. “Every time I play, it’s a timeless memory.”

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