Every two years, USC Thornton Studio/Jazz Guitar faculty member Richard Smith accompanies a select group of students from the school’s Contemporary Music division on a 10-day cultural exchange with the Institute of Contemporary Music Performance in London, England.
Led by Smith, the USC Thornton students collaborated with their British counterparts to form new bands and write material during the program. For many of the USC Thornton students who attended, the trip marked not only their first time collaborating with international musicians, but also their first travel experiences abroad.
In addition to writing music, students were also taught industry skills, such as rehearsal techniques, stage direction, tour logistics, and cultural etiquette.
Smith recently spoke with USC Thornton to share more about this unique opportunity available to music students at the school.
How did this program begin?
I spent my senior year of high school in Liverpool. I was a precocious guitarist and became engrossed in the vibrant music scene there. I found my musical stride in Liverpool, and I often see that happen to our students in London. I believe that every one of our students should have an overseas experience while they are at USC Thornton.
Why is London an ideal location for the study of popular music?
Seminal bands such as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the Who were all deeply influenced by the post-WWII Chicago bluesmen. Those English bands in turn influenced generations of American pop musicians. This serendipitous musical relationship between countries exists nowhere else on Earth. I see the magic of that relationship between our rather distinct cultures happen every time I teach the class. It is rather astounding. London is considered the progressive music capitol of the World, and from an aesthetic perspective, our students should be there.
Why is it beneficial for students studying Popular Music to be exposed to the cultures and sounds of other countries?
A creative artist is always looking for new subject matter to work with. Traveling to another part of the world stimulates the senses and triggers a wide range of reactions that, ideally, are percolated into an artist’s work. New sights, sounds, tastes, interesting accents, customs, fashion, smells — even strenuous and less-than-pleasant experiences brought on by travel can inspire an artistic response and fresh trajectory for a piece of music. However, the student’s most valuable experiences are interacting with their peers from other countries. Musical tastes, opinions, attitudes and artistic sensibilities can be utterly different abroad, and this challenges our students in powerful and persuasive ways. It is very rewarding to see how these students collaborate, inspire, argue, create and bond. Many forge lifelong alliances.
What were the highlights from program?
I think the entire program is rewarding and full of highlights from the moment the students hit the ground. A quick lunch with a new English, Italian or Irish friend between rehearsals can hold a revelatory experience for students. To watch them play a concert of original music with a band they have never met within 48 hours of arriving in a foreign country is always a big thrill. I am continually impressed with how the students conduct themselves, and how they all thrive and grow in such a short amount of time.
What did the USC Thornton Popular Music students bring to program in terms of musicianship, performance knowledge and other skills that benefitted their British counterparts?
Our students are very well trained and have a strong idea of who they are as artists and what they want to do in their careers. They are leaders. American popular music is our strongest, most positive cultural export, and our students are very good ambassadors.