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Trojan Tales: The groundbreaking Popular Music Program at USC

USC’s cutting edge Popular Music Program at the Thornton School of Music started on a napkin and has since grown into a trailblazer.

In today’s Trojan Tales, a unique degree program at the Thornton School of Music has already made significant waves throughout the music industry. Here’s Kai Grady with the story.


What if I told you one of the most unique and cutting-edge music programs in the country was started on a napkin?

PATRICE RUSHEN: We hit it off and he said, can I take you to lunch? And I said, sure.

That’s Patrice Rushen, chair of the Popular Music Program at USC talking about the program’s founding director, Chris Sampson.

RUSHEN: And he whipped out of his pocket on a, a piece of paper about the size of a napkin. And he showed me the scaffolding for what could be this popular music program. Well, you know, I was knocked out.

CHRIS SAMPSON: I literally just took the napkin, and I drew out sort of the large pieces of the curriculum to show her. And, um, yeah, that was a pivotal moment.

Sampson remembers how excited Rushen got by his napkin scribblings.

SAMPSON: Basically, we came away from that lunch and she told me she wants it. She wants to be a part of it. And um, you know, when you get that kind of commitment from somebody like Patrice, of course, you know, you’re, you’ll want to make the most of it.

Sampson is an expert songwriter, performer, and educator. He was able to marry his skills to create a groundbreaking program -- the first of its kind.

And Rushen is one of the most decorated musicians in the industry but she’s also an accomplished composer for film and television scoring.

RUSHEN: A lot of times people make the leap that the students are at the lower end of the food chain. Ours is flipped where the students are at the top of the food chain. Our dealings with them are such that we want them to, we want to provoke careful thought.

SAMPSON: We’ve got situations that if you were actually to look at it with, with an untrained eye you’d go, “That is craziness.” It’s like chaos going on, but what is happening is very important, very important learning.

It didn’t happen overnight. It took a lot of time and effort to get the program where it is today.

RUSHEN: And you know, the first class, you know, met with some skepticism, in terms of the rest of the school because it was different.

The pop music program started in 2009 and Sam Wilkes was a member of that first class.

This is some of Wilkes’ music he credits the program and its faculty for his musical versatility.

WILKES: I got to kind of ask people I was fans of like Patrice and Dougal Alfonzo. I got to ask them and seek their guidance on how to be the best musician I could be.

Following the success of the pop music program, it may be only a matter of time before something similar is offered at music schools across the country.

RUSHEN: The evolution of our methods and the continuation of evaluating that, the effectiveness of, of that, I think if that’s, that is a big part of the secret sauce, I guess that allows for us to continue to be excited about the program and to continue to offer an environment which has yielded and continues to yield results.

Wilkes and many other pop music grads are living proof of those excellent results.

For Annenberg Media, this is Kai Grady.