An Open Letter to the Popular Music Class of 2020 (Part 2)

By Jensen McRae

Jensen McRae

No one offers better insight into the experiences of USC Thornton students than the students themselves. Jensen McRae, a sophomore in the Popular Music program, shared her experiences of student life back in August and returns at the end of another amazing year with a second round of life lessons.

So. Another year under my belt. It feels insane that this is true: I’m halfway done with college, and two of my four years in the Popular Music program are over and done with.

This year punched me in the stomach. It knocked the wind all the way out of me. I got my heart broken, I doubted my ability, I doubted my love of the art, I fell back in love with music, I fell in love with some more people (who also broke my heart), I strengthened my friendships into the most meaningful connections I’ve ever made, I wept with my friends on election night, I closed the fall semester out with a song by The Who and finished the year with a Katy Perry tune, I started my own funny little record label, I met John Mayer and I ushered a new generation of pop kids into the madness of our program. I did it, I did it, I did it.

And so did you. Whether you just finished your last year or your first, whether you’re majoring in something else entirely, whether you don’t go to USC or you don’t go to college, you did it and I’m proud of you. You don’t hear that enough.

But especially you, the pop kids of the Class of 2020, I’m so proud. You took my advice and you passed the trials of this year with flying colors. You opened your hearts to each other and to me. At a party towards the end of the semester, I remarked to one of my closest freshman pals that I was glad we were friends, and he thanked me for making his year so special. It warmed my heart in the best way. I always wondered if I was welcome in their circles or just this weird old crony looming above them and spouting pearls of wisdom. Turns out they like having me around.


Performing at the Second Year Popular Music Showcase in April – from left to right, guitarist Reilly Martin, Jej Millanes, Jensen McRae, Madeleine Meyer, and drummer Elliot Siegel. (Photo by Erin Offenhauser/USC)

In keeping with the first post I wrote, here are things I’ve learned after completing my second year in the program:

1. This is a logistical thing more than anything, but you know the women’s bathroom in The Music Complex? As of this writing, the only stall other than the handicapped ones that is guaranteed to lock is the fourth stall from the door. Surviving sophomore year means paying attention to the little things.

2. Make friends with kids who can write horn charts. You’re better off shelling out for a “thank you” cup of coffee than muddling your way through a chart you have no business writing. You’re here to learn, and you should take full advantage, but you should recognize when you’re out of your depth and need to ask for help.

3. You can play that second keyboard part, I promise.

4. Pop theory is easier than classical theory, but you still have to do the work. Jonathan Patterson wins the title of “professor who most wants you to pass his class,” but you still have to do what he asks of you. Here’s the deal, though: all the things that didn’t make sense to you this year will suddenly click. I have no idea why or how. It just happens.

5. You have to try a lot harder in performance class. I believe in you, but you probably didn’t push yourself to your absolute limit this year. You didn’t practice every day. You didn’t listen to the songs on the treadmill, in the shower, on your walk to every class, for hours before you went to sleep. Sophomore year, you have to be better. This isn’t going to make sense until it does.

6. Sometimes the only way to save your voice is to not use it for a while. Read into this as you will, but on a literal level (at least for singers), take a few days of vocal rest scattered throughout the year. Also, drink water, and get 8 hours of sleep on nights when you don’t have to stay up. Warm (but not hot!) tea is your friend. Thank me later.

7. If you want to gig, expect to play for single-digit audiences. You will get performance opportunities for crowds of hundreds or even thousands, but if you’re playing Genghis Cohen on a Thursday, don’t count on more than a handful of extra-supportive friends in the audience.

8. Only go to parties where you personally know the host and the house. This is not a catch-all rule—if you’re an extroverted person, it doesn’t really matter who is hosting. But if you lean towards the introverted side, then follow this rule. It’s fun to party at a place when you know where the bathrooms are, literally and figuratively.

9. You will miss out on fun times for your career. This year, I started writing pop music professionally, and my sessions have almost all been on Friday nights. I have missed many a party, a hang, a jaunt to the roller disco. A couple of times, I was seriously bummed that I was missing out on Typical Teen Experiences to advance my professional well-being. My advice to you is: go to the session. Play the gig. There will be more parties, more opportunities to talk to cuties of the preferred sex(es), and more late-night runs to McDonald’s.

10. Shame is a social construct, and you should not be ashamed of yourself. Whether it’s what you eat, what career opportunities you’re taking or not, or who you love, you have nothing to be ashamed of. Eat cake with your friends on the lawn in the back of the cinema school. Tell your crush how you feel regardless of how horribly it might go. As a person who struggles with anxiety, this mantra helps me a lot—shame is not mandatory.

11. You should meet with Sean Holt. You should really sit down with him and have a meeting about your life and career. He knows what the $*@&#! he’s talking about, and he cares about you even if you’ve never spoken to him. This goes for people outside of this niche little program. Talk to the Sean Holt in your life. And hell, talk to the Patrice Rushen, too.


The sophomore class concludes the 2016-17 academic year at their showcase concert in April. (Photo by Erin Offenhauser/USC)

12. Sometimes you won’t be able to hear your part until you listen through different speakers. Take from that what you will.

13. Don’t say “yes” to everything. This might run counter to the advice that some of our professors give—sorry!—but as a person who is both highly ambitious and highly anxious, I have a tendency to agree to things before I think about whether or not I actually want to do them. I am of the camp that you should wait an hour before responding so you can think about it. There are definitely times when the right answer to a job offer, however cool it may sound, might still be “no.”

14. I think I gave some variation on this advice last year, but go to sleep. Leave the party and keep hanging out with your friends, but go to sleep before 2:00 am. I know what you’re doing. You’re chasing some ideal night you had long ago that probably wasn’t even as good as you remember it. Let go of the idyll. Get some rest, champ.

15. Keep a journal. You are going to want to look back at this time when you were young and beautiful and living the #college #life. But really, keeping a journal is an asset for so many reasons. Read entries from the previous months, weeks and even days to find patterns you need help breaking. Cull unusual soundbites and concepts to write music, poetry and fiction. Transcribe stimulating conversations. Draw a big ol’ pink heart with your crush’s name in the middle.

16. What you’re feeling might not be love. I’m first in line to call every single infatuation “love at first sight.” I write songs about people I see for three seconds in elevators. I have cried over boys I pass at crowded parties. I tell my friends excitedly that this new, sparkly person might be “the one.” But so far, I’ve (almost) always been wrong. The elevator doors open, and they get off on their floor. The boy I was too scared to talk to leaves the party before I do. “The one” kisses somebody else. You, too, will get off the elevator, and leave the party early, and kiss somebody else.

17. You have to forgive. You’re going to make so many mistakes this year and over these next few years, and your friends are going to make mistakes, too. Please don’t hold a grudge. Protect your heart, redefine the relationship, but don’t cut people out of your life too quickly. Maybe, when you screw up—and I promise that you will—they’ll forgive you, too.

18. You can do this. No, really, you can. Sophomore year is hard. They don’t call it the slump for nothing. If you had a great freshman year, this might be the time when things you thought you knew are called into question. If you had a bad freshman year, this is your next shot to change the narrative and make good on the promise of college. You have to keep reminding yourself that you’re here for a reason. Your admission was not a fluke; you were chosen. You are not getting worse; you’re just realizing that you were never the best to begin with (also, you’re getting better, I promise). Hold onto your friends, your significant other, and your family, however geographically distant they may be. Hold onto your mentors and your professors and your RA, for God’s sake, if you’ve got one. You are gonna make it. This is your moment.

That’s all I’ve got for you this time around. I learned a lot my first year, but I learned way more my second year. I can’t wait for a long and restful summer, because after that, I’m a junior in pop, and I’ve heard season 3 is where things really heat up. 😉

— Jensen McRae

You can learn more about Jensen’s life, music, adventures on her personal blog.

TAGS: Class of 2020, Contemporary Music, Contemporary Music Division, Popular Music,

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