American keyboard player and vocalist Greg Phillinganes looking into the camera.

Mentorship: ‘The Secret to Success’

By Julie Riggott

USC Thornton’s revamped mentorship program connects even more students with industry professionals across all genres.

For USC Thornton School of Music students, Los Angeles isn’t just their backyard, it’s their classroom and their lab. In the heart of one of the world’s entertainment capitals, students have seemingly endless opportunities to engage with the dynamic L.A. music scene. They study with faculty who are principals in the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Grammy-winning artists and producers. Students record in the famous Studio A at Capitol Records and perform at the Academy Awards. They intern at major record labels and with the engineers and producers behind their favorite albums.

Among the many ways USC Thornton connects music majors with industry leaders is the newly revamped USC Thornton Music Mentorship Program.

USC Thornton Dean Jason King believes mentorship is a vital component of professional development and has made this program one of the signature initiatives of the Dean’s Office.

“Mentorship is a really important thing for every student to have access to,” King said. “Most professionals in music were mentored by somebody. I would say even beyond music, in the arts in general, having a trusted mentor is what I call the secret to success for working professionals.”

USC Thornton offers a top-ranked curriculum and unprecedented location for students seeking mentorship opportunities, including immersive experiences at such legendary studios as the famous Studio A at Capitol Records.

Students are paired with mentors in a customized way based on their applications in order to receive productive feedback, advice and guidance on their creative or entrepreneurial work, their scholarship and their future careers.

“The USC Thornton Music Mentorship Program is a professional development opportunity that allows students to achieve success in tangible, meaningful ways through direct connection with industry professionals with significant accomplishments in their fields,” King said.

The primary goal was to expand the program school-wide, making direct professional development and guidance accessible to as many undergraduate and graduate students as possible across all divisions and departments.

Last year, 22 students were matched with 22 mentors. This year, Thornton increased the number of mentors from 22 to 56, and the mentors have been paired with more than one student.

“We have four times the number of applications, so there’s clearly a demand and a desire for it, and we’re trying to meet that desire as much as possible,” King said. “The fact that the program has increased almost three times since last year is significant and symbolic of some of the changes that we’re making.”

An image collage of three smiling faces.
2024 USC Thornton Music Mentors from left to right: Nicole Plantin, owner of Soeur Agency (entertainment consulting, A&R, creative strategy, project and talent management), Willie Murillo, producer/trumpeter/vocalist/writer (Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band, The Brian Setzer Orchestra), Ruth Eliel, arts manager; former executive director of LACO and Colburn Foundation. [Photos courtesy of the mentors]

“One of the most exciting aspects of the mentorship program,” King noted, “is Thornton’s ability to draw from the well of creativity and accomplishment that defines the Los Angeles music scene.”

“We are curating a list of music mentors who are industry professionals across all genres and styles and idioms of music, who have significant, recognizable professional experience or accomplishments, and who have the eagerness and the willingness to want to share their expertise with students and to support those students professionally.”

With strong representation in the program from the classical world already, many of the new mentors recruited by King are from the contemporary or popular music field.

For example, John Ehmann is EVP and head of A&R at Gamma, the new label founded by former Apple executive Larry Jackson and record executive Ike Youssef. Ehmann was formerly an A&R executive at RCA and Interscope. He’s been responsible for the careers of artists like Lana Del Rey and Carly Rae Jepsen, among many others.

“He is an incredible A&R visionary, and we are so happy to have him on board,” King said.

Tina Farris is one of the great tour managers who was recently feted by Pollstar for her contributions and impact in the business. She’s worked with the Roots, Nicki Minaj, Chris Rock and Queen Latifah, to name a few.

“Tour management is still an industry that has yet to become fully inclusive or accepting of women at high levels of professional accomplishment,” King said. “Given how many students we have interested in the music industry, and particularly touring, I thought it was a great opportunity to bring her in.”

Keyboardist and arranger Greg Phillinganes has also joined the roster of mentors. Originally in Stevie Wonder’s band, he has recorded and toured with an impressive variety of artists, including Patti LaBelle, Paul Simon, David Gilmour, Aretha Franklin, Quincy Jones, Paul McCartney and Eric Clapton. For three decades, he worked with Michael Jackson and the Jacksons, playing on albums like Thriller, the top-selling album of all time, and acting as musical director for the Bad and Dangerous tours. He is currently on the road with Toto as a keyboardist.

“I have described him as the greatest living keyboardist,” King said. “He’s worked with a who’s who of everybody in the business, and to have his presence and his expertise with us at the Thornton School is really special.”

The current list of mentors reads like a who’s who of the music world, including mezzo-soprano Suzanna Guzman; conductor Grant Gershon; Dorian Jose Holley, backing vocalist for Michael Jackson; BMI’s Brooke Morrow; A&R executive Harley Wertheimer; film and TV composer Matthew Wang and more.

An image collage of three smiling faces.
2024 USC Thornton Music Mentors from left to right: Rob Cavallo, Grammy-winning producer (Green Day, My Chemical Romance), Tina Farris, tour manager (The Roots, Chris Rock, Nicki Minaj, Queen Latifah), Vince Womack, music director of James A. Foshay Learning Center. [Photos courtesy of the mentors]

Rob Cavallo, three-time Grammy Award winner and one of the biggest-selling record producers ever, has been a mentor at Thornton for years. He worked in A&R at Warner Bros. Records, signing Green Day and the Goo Goo Dolls, for whom he produced platinum-selling albums, and then became SVP of A&R at Hollywood Records before moving to Warner Music Group where he became chief creative officer and then back to Warner Bros. Records as chairman. Named Producer of the Year at the 1998 Grammy Awards, he also made No. 45 in Billboard Magazine’s 2012 Power 100 rankings.

A 1985 USC Dornsife graduate with a degree in English, he is on Thornton’s Board of Councilors. When King reached out to him about the revamped mentorship program, Cavallo was excited to be a part of it.

“He mentioned to me how he had formed these really amazing relationships with students through the mentorship program, and that he maintained these connections with students even beyond the close of the mentorship program,” King said. “And so, he was very eager to do more, to work with as many students as possible. And given his enormous professional accomplishments, that was really exciting to hear.”

Cavallo was paired with four students for mentorship this year. They’re interested in learning about everything from songwriting, touring and recording to artist development and management.

An electric guitar player performs on stage under red lights in the dark.
“As a guitar player, I am interested in expanding my skills and knowledge into those areas of production and business,” says Popular Music major Julia Levin. (BM ’25) [Photo: Julia Levin performing at the Moroccan Lounge on March 7, 2023. Credit: Kris Loew]  

Lauren Rintoul (BM ’24) has been competing in songwriting competitions and writing with fellow artists at USC. She wants to expand that work and make a career out of songwriting for others.

“I have been writing songs my entire life but only more recently started seeing it as a viable career option,” she said. “Through this mentorship I would love to hear about how best to position myself for success in this area.”

Popular Music major Julia Levin’s (BM ’25) short-term goal is to play guitar with an R&B or pop artist and gain production skills. Her long-term goal is to collaborate with songwriters as a co-writer and producer.

“I am most interested in learning about how Rob made a career out of not only producing and playing but also working in A&R,” she said. “As a guitar player, I am interested in expanding my skills and knowledge into those areas of production and business.”  

From their first meeting, Levin was impressed: “Rob is very generous with his knowledge and resources. I was also given a tour of the studio and shown all the amps, guitars and other gear that he used on his iconic projects with Green Day, Paramore and more, which was extremely exciting for me!”

“The mentorship program connected me to a mentor that I see myself having a lasting relationship with,” Levin said. “I appreciate that Thornton offers this program to us because I would not have this opportunity otherwise.”

“This is actually very consistent with what I’ve been hearing,” King said. “Students at the Thornton School who had gone through this mentorship program, or a previous version of it, found it to be one of the most rewarding aspects of their time at the School.

“And then our mentors felt the same way in terms of their own relationship to the School, that the highlight for them was being part of this program. So, that struck me as very important to note and also important to try to cultivate the program even more given how important it is from both sides.”

Featured photo of USC Thornton Music Mentor Greg Phillinganes, courtesy of the artist.

TAGS: Composition, Keyboard Studies, Music Industry, Music Production, Popular Music, Screen Scoring, Strings, Winds and Percussion,

Never miss a story

Subscribe to USC Thornton’s e-newsletter