Photo of radio host and performer Suraj Partha.

A Life in Music

By Danielle Jones & Evan Calbi

Sharing stories of USC Thornton alumni whose passions evolved into multifaceted careers, creating something that is uniquely their own. 

“Musicians need to become creative strategists to build their careers,” says LaMarcus Miller (DMA ’20) who turned to USC Thornton for a doctoral degree that allowed him to focus on voice, music business and arts leadership. Increasingly, this is the norm at Thornton. Students arrive with multiple interests, and they graduate into a life in music that flourishes in multiple directions.

From the moment they step foot on campus, students are encouraged to follow their passions, pursuing an interdisciplinary education, or zeroing in on excellence in their chosen field, or both. As Suraj Partha (BM’19) said, this openness among Thornton faculty “comes from a genuine teaching philosophy about wanting us to use music to make an impact.”

This collection of profiles highlights alumni who have found careers by exploring their diverse passions. It’s often in the intersection of interests that a life in music becomes truly enriching. 

A radio host smiles with their guest in the recording studio.
Suraj Partha with composer Frank Ticheli, former professor of composition at USC Thornton. (Photo courtesy of Classical California KUSC)

Jazz Studies alum Suraj Partha (BM ’19) hosts a radio program on Classical California KUSC that spotlights the Thornton School among other arts organizations. What started as a pandemic project turned into an opportunity to join the No. 1 classical music radio network in the country. His new show at KUSC lends a voice to the musicians in the USC community who have inspired and impacted him.   

“I hope I convey to the audience not just things about the music, but also about the people who are involved, whether that’s the composer or the performers, and then try to give the listener a sense of what it’s like to be making music in Los Angeles.”

Partha enrolled in the Jazz Studies program at Thornton for the opportunity to study with a musical hero, Peter Erskine, a professor emeritus at USC and former director of Drumset Studies at Thornton. In his early lessons, he was exposed to the intersection of performing arts, theater, dance, music, and the many opportunities off the stage to develop interests and careers. 

“I think USC is focused not only on the books and the music but also what you are going to do after school,” he says. “Because so many of our faculty members are out in the community, those connections become very easy to make, but it also comes from a genuine teaching philosophy about wanting us to use music to make an impact.”

A classical guitarist sits on the floor with their instrument.
Concert artist, educator and co-founder of the tech company Notey, Mak Grgić. (Photo by Anthony Avellano)
A classical guitarist performs in a church.
Mak Grgić performs at the European Guitar Teachers Association, Slovenia. (Photo courtesy of the artist)

Grammy-nominated classical guitarist Mak Grgić (MM ’12, DMA ’16, GCRT ’20) went outside the confines of his celebrated career as a performer and co-founded the tech company, Notey, which received the InnoVision Award for Education and Technology a year into its launch. 

“We are so grateful to receive this award because we believe it will eventually help millions of people to experience the wonder of playing musical instruments,” Grgić said in a statement.

Boasting an international career as a concert artist, the Classical Guitar and Arts Leadership alum has long possessed an interest in immersive media and technology as it relates to music. With the music education app Notey’s World, he turned his vision of creating the “ultimate interactive global collaborative experience” into a reality. Combining AI with expertise from music teachers, Notey’s World aims to make music lessons more fun and accessible for young students around the world.

Grgić launched the award-winning app while his career as a performer flourished. He opened for celebrated singer k.d. lang on a North American tour, was nominated for two Grammys, and commissioned several new works for guitar, all while holding a full-time teaching position at the University of South Carolina. 

He’s never done just one thing. At 14, the Slovenia native was a guitar prodigy and a world champion in karate. He was one of the first students to enroll in USC Thornton’s Arts Leadership program where he launched music festivals from Zagreb to Downtown L.A.

“I feel the more you do, the more energy and stamina you get,” he says. “One becomes stale and sluggish when the tempo is slow. When a plate is full and you’re containing it, it’s great.”

A radio host sits in the recording studio.
(Photo courtesy of Classical KING)

Michelle Maestas Simonsen (BM ’06, MCM ’12) earned her bachelor’s degree in Saxophone Performance and master’s degree in Communication Management. Interning at KUSC as an undergraduate inspired her to pursue a career in radio, later introducing audiences of Seattle’s Classical KING FM 98.1 to women composers and composers of color. In addition to her role as a radio host, she now serves as the station’s chief content officer.

“By emphasizing diversity and inclusion in our programming, we can help to make Classical KING a more welcoming and inclusive space for all listeners,” she says. “Classical KING has already done some fantastic work in promoting diversity and amplifying the voices of women composers and composers of color, and I’m excited to continue that work in my new role.”

Her path to her current position led her from Wasilla, Alaska to USC. Here she earned two degrees and worked as Thornton’s director of operations and production for many years while still working as a professional musician. She was involved in university service, serving on the boards of the Thornton Alumni Association and various USC alumnae organizations fundraising for scholarships, and was honored with the Widney Alumni Award in 2013. 

“USC Thornton was an incredible experience for me because it allowed me to explore different aspects of the college experience beyond pure performance,” Simonsen says. “I studied saxophone performance, but I also had the opportunity to play with jazz ensembles and take lessons from many different teachers, including composition and jazz. Additionally, I was able to study entrepreneurship with the Marshall School of Business, which ultimately inspired me to start my own contracting company with my husband, a fellow Thornton alum.”

An opera singer shakes the hand of a conductor on the stage of a symphonic concert.
LaMarcus Miller performing with Maestro Julius Williams – conductor of Berklee Contemporary Orchestra. (Photo courtesy of LaMarcus Miller)
Two popular music educators on the campus of a university smile at the camera.
LaMarcus Miller with Berklee College of Music Associate Professor Keli Nicole Price at a back-to-school conference on campus. (Photo courtesy of LaMarcus Miller)

Award-winning singer LaMarcus Miller (DMA ’20) sought a Doctor of Musical Arts degree to create an impact beyond performance by becoming a creative strategist akin to an entrepreneur. While studying at Thornton, Miller discovered an intersection between classical music and the contemporary music world: music supervision, a role that required more than just artistic skill. 

The opportunities there led him to work on projects like The Wonder Years, RapCaviar Presents, and Los Angeles Film School’s 50 Years of Hip-Hop. Now a professor of contemporary voice at Berklee, Miller’s goal is to lead classical and contemporary music in several arenas.

“This is sort of an onramp to becoming a real influence,” Miller says. “It positions me to educate the next cohort of musicians about what it means to be one. It’s not just playing your guitar or singing. It’s being a strategist. It’s understanding what is possible musically. It’s understanding history, whether that’s jazz or pop or classical, and then aggregating all those pieces to create something that is uniquely you.”

TAGS: Classical Guitar, Jazz Studies, Vocal Arts and Opera, Winds and Percussion,

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