Visual collage of an illustration of a guitar with two figures playing and posing with guitars.

Aspiring Guitarists, Take Note

By Julie Riggott

USC Thornton brings back its pre-college summer program that preps young musicians for success; the Guitar Seminar boasts alumni with multiple degrees and amazing careers.

Molly Miller (BM ’11, MM ’13, DMA ’16) started her educational journey at the USC Thornton School of Music a bit earlier than most students. In high school, she spent four weeks in a summer program called the “Guitar Seminar: Jazz, Rock and Beyond.” It was a chance to try on the life of a music student at USC, where she was immersed in studying music, performing with peers and enjoying concerts in Los Angeles’ iconic music venues.

“I loved being there so much because it was like starting to live my dream,” Miller said. 

“From the time I was 15, USC was my No. 1 school, and my No. 1 program was the Studio Guitar department. I knew I wanted to go to USC, and the program gave me a better feel for it and the faculty,” she said. “I have all of these wonderful, vivid memories of going to the Hollywood Bowl and all these field trips, being surrounded by people who are on the same page as you, who are obsessed with the guitar and want to further their love and study of it.”

Miller went on to earn three degrees at USC Thornton: her bachelor’s and master’s in music and her doctorate in musical arts. While enjoying a multifaceted career — including her own Molly Miller Trio; recording and touring with artists like Jason Mraz and the Black-Eyed Peas; performing with pop, country, R&B and jazz artists; and doing session work for albums and commercials — she also became an adjunct instructor at her alma mater almost two years ago. 

While not all alumni of the Guitar Seminar earn degrees at USC Thornton, Miller is among over 40 who have between 2003 and 2018. Though the pre-college program has been on hiatus for circumstantial reasons, including the pandemic and renovations at the music school, it returns summer 2024, once again inviting young musicians from across the nation and around the world to experience one of the world’s finest music schools.

“It is a great program because it gives students in high school an opportunity to study the guitar at a high level and to see if the study of music in college is something they would like to do,” said Nick Stoubis (BM ’97, MM ’00), chair of the Studio Guitar program and professor of practice. “This gives them an opportunity to spend a month at USC studying guitar and music with faculty that they could potentially be studying with if they enrolled in our program or others at USC.”

The 2014 class on their field trip to The Fender Guitar Factory in Corona, CA. (Photo courtesy of the USC Thornton School of Music)

The Guitar Seminar was created and directed by Shea Welsh (MM ’01), who earned a master’s degree from the Studio Guitar program. A guitarist, songwriter, producer and educator, Welsh has shared the stage with the likes of U2 and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, can be heard on film and TV, and is a Blujazz recording artist who performs jazz regularly. 

“After I earned my Master’s degree from the Studio Guitar program, I was asked by then chair of the department, Richard Smith, to create and run the USC Summer Guitar Seminar,” Welsh said. “The clean template allowed us to design a program that would really give an aspiring young guitarist a true taste of what majoring in music would be like while also filling in gaps of knowledge in theory, sight-reading, improvisation, ensemble performance practices, and an introduction to composing and songwriting.”

In addition to Welsh and Stoubis, exceptional Thornton faculty members Steve Trovato and Tim Kobza have taught annually in the program, and many other faculty and alumni come in for guest seminars or master classes. 

Photos courtesy of Shea Welsh, Nick Stoubis, Steve Trovato; Photo of Tim Kobza by Robin Stark

The primary purpose of the program, Welsh said, is to teach students about music and guitar and to help them develop their playing skills at the highest level possible.

“As high school guitarists can vary wildly in their formal musical education, we always made the main requirement and qualification be a student’s willingness to work hard and tackle the challenges of a rigorous program,” Welsh said. 

For a full month on campus, students attend daily classes and clinics with Studio Guitar faculty and other renowned guitarists and educators. In addition to studying theory, technique, sight-reading and songwriting, students learn about the profession, attend concerts in Los Angeles and get multiple opportunities to perform.  

“It prepares students for studying music and provides them with prerequisite skills, including rehearsing music, working with other musicians, professionalism, common practices in the profession, collaborating with other musicians, collaborating with faculty, and communication of ideas, whether musical or beyond. It serves them well whether they choose to apply to USC or any other music school,” said Stoubis, who had just received an email from a seminar alum who had earned a DMA. 

He added that other seminar alumni were currently in Thornton’s DMA program. And, like Miller, many alumni of both the seminar and USC have built successful careers. 

Tim Kobza in the studio classroom with a student. (Photo by Robin Stark)
Steve Trovato with a student at USC Thornton. (Photo by Ian Evenstar)

For example, after earning his bachelor’s degree in Popular Music, singer-songwriter-musician Alec Benjamin (BM ’10) had a 2018 hit, “Let Me Down Slowly,” on the top 40 in 25 countries; it garnered 1.4 billion listens on Spotify. His 2020 album climbed to No. 8 on Billboard’s Top Album Sales chart. 

Or consider Studio Guitar/Popular Music alumna Emily Rosenfield (BM ’11). She is a guitarist, producer and arranger whose career highlights include appearances on “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon” and “Late Night with Seth Meyers,” producing music for the Disney Channel and being the first woman to play guitar for the hit Broadway musical “Hamilton.” Most recently, she’s performed with Olivia Rodrigo and Post Malone.

“It’s been amazing to watch my Instagram feed and see our Guitar Seminar alumni first matriculate into USC, or another great music school, and then to also go onto amazing careers,” Welsh said. “It was a pleasure to run the program for the first 18 years, and I’m excited to be part of it as it starts its next 18-year run.”

From that summer in 2006 when she attended the Guitar Seminar until today, Miller says she has spent half of her life with USC.

“It’s just crazy!” she said. “I started when I was 17, and I’m 34 now.”

Miller, who taught a masterclass for seminar students in 2018, will join the faculty teaching in the program next summer. 

“I’m really excited for it,” she said. “The fun part is working with all these inquisitive, brilliant young musicians.”

Stoubis said, “It’s amazing to have worked with Molly since she was a student in the summer program. And now, with her degrees and DMA, seeing her go out into the world and have success as an artist, a musician, an educator, an author, and having her join our faculty and be a colleague is very rewarding.” 

Miller said one of the biggest advantages of the Guitar Seminar was learning from and starting to build relationships with the guitarists — faculty, alumni and students — who were a major reason that she chose USC Thornton as her dream school as a teen. 

“I noticed that the guitar players in Los Angeles and beyond who were doing things I wanted to do were connected to USC, and specifically the Studio Guitar department,” she said, adding that the location in Los Angeles and the opportunity to acquire a liberal arts education sealed the deal. 

During her degree programs, she studied with “literally every single person on faculty,” soaking up different perspectives on classical, jazz and pop and creating her own voice.

“All the USC guitar professors here are like family to me,” she said. “They were so generous with their time, and I learned so much from all of them. They helped me grow up and achieve my dreams of being a professional guitar player.”

Thinking back on her eclectic career, she said practically every session, every gig, even her position as chair of the Guitar Department at Los Angeles College of Music, ties back to USC.

“I can trace back like 90% of my work to the people I’ve met and studied with at USC,” she said. “The community is so strong. It really comes down to the people, the faculty and the students — they got me to where I am today.”


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