This past fall, recent USC Thornton alumnus Derik Nelson completed his “Take Chances” tour. Far more than a typical performance tour, “Take Chances” was designed to raise thousands of dollars for high school arts and music programs across Washington, Oregon, and California. The unique combination of masterclasses and fundraising concerts not only bolstered the budgets of school music programs, but gave high school students the rare opportunity to engage directly with music industry professionals. Wendy Gragg, Assistant Director of Advancement and Alumni Relations at USC Thornton, spoke with Nelson about his experiences on the tour and how his years at Thornton made it possible.
What were your goals of the “Take Chances” tour? Did you accomplish them?
The mission of the Take Chances Tour was to tour high schools on the West Coast with an educational, motivational, and inspirational masterclass presented by working industry professionals in an effort to enlighten and prepare students for career opportunities in the entertainment industry. Coupled with the masterclass was an evening live concert component which acted as a risk-free fundraising opportunity for the school’s ASB/Arts/Music programs, thereby advocating and enforcing the importance of the arts as a foundational pillar of public education. I would say we definitely reached our goal: We toured nearly 30 schools, reached close to 10,000 people, and left a positive impression of excitement and inspiration at every single school we attended.
What experience during the tour impacted you the most?
The experience during the tour that had the biggest impact on me was seeing how much of an effect we had on the students. Our route included multiple small towns and communities, and for a majority of young people, this was their first real concert experience. I have an even greater respect for the power of music now that I have seen what it can be capable of firsthand: I received a note from a student after one of our concerts thanking me for coming. “You make me want to try so much harder in singing and playing piano. Also, you have taught me not to give up,” the note read. “So now, I promise you in this letter to stop cutting.” Below those words, a small razor blade was taped to the piece of notebook paper. The fact that this student felt empowered through my music to make a change in their life and stop hurting themselves — and then was brave enough to communicate that to me — was extremely moving, and serves as a constant reminder of the joy, power, and poignance that music possesses.
What was the most important thing you wanted to share with the students you met during the master classes regarding a career in music?
The most important thing that I wanted to encourage students to think about during each masterclass was to focus on creating “your own definition of success.” Too often we set our goals based on what is expected of us by our parents, by our teachers, by society, or by the industry, instead of defining what we expect of ourselves. Each person on our panel of six presented a unique story that spoke to “defining our own success” and “what taking chances means to us” to convey to students how the chances we took led us to our current careers in the music & entertainment industry.
How did your training and education at USC Thornton uniquely prepare you for your own career in music? and/or this tour specifically?
USC Thornton embraces and promotes outside-the-box thinking and well-roundedness as a musician, both of which are essential themes that have shaped my career and directly inspired my tour. Music Industry classes at Thornton constantly encouraged me to seek new business models and new ways of doing things. Songwriting classes taught me how to structure my ideas in ways that would engage an audience. Performance classes reminded me of the importance of human interaction and connection, and taught me how to be a better bandleader and collaborator. The skill sets I developed during my time at USC have provided me an outlet to sustain a career in music, and have inspired the confidence and creativity necessary to assemble a previously unseen touring model. This tour not only gave me the gift of playing live music every night, but it gave high schools across the west coast an opportunity to raise significant funds for their music and arts programs. Not to mention, it also created jobs for some of my fellow USC Thornton Alumni! The invaluable network of the Trojan Family is not to be overlooked!
What piece of advice would you give current Junior/Senior students about their USC Thornton education or career path ahead?
I would advise current USC Thornton juniors and seniors to start assembling a “circle of trust,” or a small network of true supporters who believe in your talent, drive, and vision. Surrounding yourself with like-minded people who hold you accountable for your goals is one of the best ways to stay on your path. And speaking of your path, what is your path? What is your definition of success? Control your own dreams, create your own opportunities, and be brave enough to take chances!