An Open Letter to the Popular Music Class of 2020

By Jensen McRae

Jensen McRae

No one offers better insight into the experiences of USC Thornton students than the students themselves. Today, we introduce one such student voice, Jensen McRae, a sophomore in the Popular Music program, who will be sharing her experiences throughout the school year as part of an ongoing series.

To the next generation of pop kids:

First off, congratulations! It was a huge accomplishment just getting here.

You are in excellent company. This much, I can guarantee you. Your 20-30 classmates are all wildly skilled vocalists, instrumentalists, and/or songwriters. Over the course of your first year, you will become really close with them. It might not seem like that the first time you meet. It might be awkward or scary; after all, many of you have never been around this many hyper-talented, ambitious musicians at once. But don’t be scared. They don’t bite. 😉

You are going to be exhausted. A lot. I compared my class schedule with a neuroscience major on my floor last year. We spent the same amount of hours in class (and, in my case, rehearsal). Yep, that’s right, you have as many hours of classes as the premed kids. The difference is that your 22+ hours of class will be spent making music, listening to music, or learning about how it works. Plus, you’re suffering through it with a crazy cast of characters that will ultimately see right through to the most fragile parts of your soul. Ain’t life grand?!

Probably the most important thing I can tell you is that you belong here. During your freshman year, you are going to doubt this. When Andy roasts you during performance class, or you bomb a theory exam, or you don’t practice enough for individual instruction and you can’t fake your way through your pieces, you’re going to wonder if you made the right choice. You’re going to think fondly of high school, middle school, any time prior to this when music was just a hobby instead of your job. But in those moments, I will urge you to reach inside of yourself for the hot, bright will to create that brought you here. I want you to think about how much music has hurt and healed you. I want you to reflect on the exploding days and empty nights where all you could think about was the soundtrack to what you were feeling. And I want you to remember that you are one of the people with the unique blessing/curse to make the music for someone else’s soundtrack. You are good enough to do it. You owe it to yourself to try your best.

At the Jan 29, 2016 Songwriter’s Showcase. (L to R): Jensen McRae, Elizabeth Gobbo, Nick Stone, Madison Douglas, Sabrina Teitelbaum, Baek Hwong, Caroline Hisel, Ben Mironer, Jessi Mason, Zubin Mitra, Craig Pirtle, and Christine Meisenhelter. (Photo/Jensen McRae)

Here are some tips, pieces of advice, and pearls of wisdom that I gathered during my first year of college as a Popular Music major at USC:

1. Everyone is having a breakdown, just had one, or is about to have one. Don’t trust anyone who doesn’t have a breakdown their freshman year of college.

2. Your professors are only hard on you because you have the potential to get better. No teacher has ever bothered yelling at a lost cause.

3. Your classmates are going to get cool opportunities, and you are going to be jealous of them. This is okay. There is more space for you to succeed than you think.

4. Do your theory and aural skills homework. Please just do it. Okay? You don’t even have to go to office hours or study for tests. But just do it. Please. All right. Good talk.

5a. You are probably going to fall in love with someone in your pop class, or in one of the other pop classes. You are probably going to write songs about them. Play those songs at your shows, even if they’re in the audience; I guarantee they will be some of your best.

5b. As an addendum to the above: They probably won’t even know you wrote it about them, unless you say your name or something. So seriously, go for it.

6. You are going to be tempted to collaborate with literally every person in your program. Do it. They’re definitely talented, and whether or not you get along, you will learn something from the experience.

7a. Ask your teachers a lot of questions, both in and out of the classroom. Pretty much all of them have had a foot in the door of the industry, and they’re going to have great advice.

Popular Music students Mackin Carroll, Jensen McRae, Daniel Dávila, and Adam Yaron (Photo/Jensen McRae)

7b. As an addendum to the above: Ask the same question to 10 people, and you will get 10 different answers. You get to pick which one you use.

8. Make friends with people outside the pop program. There’s a great big world out there, and you’ll lose sight of it if you spend all your time talking about Father John Misty and how underrated the minor five is as a chord.

9. If you’ve never heard of that album/artist/song, don’t pretend that you have. Trust me, whoever you’re talking to is gonna notice.

10. Don’t be intimidated by the older pop kids. Believe it or not, they were not always the smooth-talking musical geniuses that they are today. Once, they were timid freshmen, as uncertain about their taste in music as they were about their sexual preferences. Make friends with the older kids so you can get out of your dorm every once in a while.

11. Go to pop forum. I swear, the one class you miss will be the one where Linda Perry interviews your friends and makes them cry onstage (and yes, that happened first semester). So even though it’s oh-so-easy to skip, you really should go.

12. The performance finals are exactly as much fun as they look, if not a million times more so. So no matter what time slot you draw, no matter what song Andy gives for your solo, no matter how much you and your band mates fought during the quarter, don’t forget to have fun up there. This is what you’ve been waiting for. And you only get four shots at it freshman year, so don’t screw it up. 😉

13. Me and my classmates got Andy guitar picks with our class picture on them. You will not be able to top this gift, but don’t forget to show your professors how much you care about them. Freshman year is all about laying foundations; they’re putting you on a long road to success.

14. Learn your part for performance class. Your band mates will understand if it’s a little rocky at the first rehearsal, but if you’re messing up changes or rhythms on Tuesday, it’s not gonna be pretty. You’ve got a week. Learn the part.

Sophomores Christian Vieyra, Caroline Hisel, Jessi Mason, and Ben Mironer in a Fall 2015 Songwriting 1 class. (Photo/Ian Evenstar)

15. It’s okay to cry onstage. Whether you’re rehearsing in TMC Auditorium or doing a run-through at Carson during performance class or hitting the last chord of your last song during the midterm at Ground Zero, you can let tears the roll. You’re not a robot, after all.

16. No one has any idea what they’re doing for the first couple weeks, so, for God’s sake, TALK TO EACH OTHER. None of you are going to survive this if you all pretend like everything is fine. Make friends. Go get coffee. Hang out in each other’s dorm rooms, eating Mega Stuf Oreos (you’re welcome, people who didn’t know those existed). Laugh and cry and bond. This business is crazy. You need as many friends as you can get.

17. Go to your friend’s shows, even if they’re in weird coffee shops off-campus. I get that you won’t be able to go to everyone’s gigs. But if you don’t have anything else to do, get a group together and split an Uber four ways to Alhambra. You have no idea how much it means to the person performing. Plus, going off-campus guarantees non-dining hall food. And how can you turn THAT down?

18. It’s okay to feel like you’re not enough. But don’t worry. You are.

Okay, you’re ready now. Enjoy your freshman year. Remember all the things I’ve told you. Be good. Be safe. And as always, fight on.

Stay tuned! And to read more, check out Jensen’s blog.

TAGS: Contemporary Music, Contemporary Music Division, Popular Music,

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