Now more than ever it is possible to "do your own
thing" in a college music program. By Richard Smith.
5 albums as solo artist, all won top five honors for airplay, and award best new group, Radio & Records magazine), a nomination for record of the year (Ad Lib Magazine, Japan). Average 100 concerts a year, many with Capitol / Bluenote Saxophonist Richard Elliot, RCA Saxophonist Warren Hill, Pianist Dan Siegel or with own group. Studio work in film, records and television for New World, Capitol, Bluenote, RCA, Sony, CBS, Mesa Bluemoon, Brainchild, BET, VH1, and PBS. Associate Professor, Chairman - Studio/Jazz Guitar Department, University of Southern California (L.A.) - ranked by N.A.S.M. as one of the top music conservatories in the U.S. Attended The University of Oregon and North Texas State University (B.S. '84) and U.S.C. (MM '87) Masterclasses at The Musicians Institute, Hollywood, National Guitar Summer Workshops, Musicians Academy of London, International Musicians Academy of Malaysia, University of Northern Texas, etc.
By the time I turned 17 I was completely obsessed with the guitar.
To be honest, the obsession was with music in any form. I played guitar in a
band that gigged at high school dances, had a Jazz/rock band that gigged in
nightclubs (I passed for 21, or made arrangements with the management), studied
classical guitar, played in the big band, sang in the choir, and played string
bass in the orchestra(!). It is almost unbelievable to me that many high schools
now days have no music program whatsoever, and if they do, nothing of substance
for a guitarist. If it weren't for this wonderful environment that I immersed
myself in as a teenager, I believe life would have turned out much differently!
The problem here was that the music profession is incredibly tough, and the timeline for training in it is very short. For someone who aspires to succeed in a music career (be it classical, jazz, rock, alternative, metal, grunge etc..) time is of the essence
My family is very college oriented, so I received a lot of encouragement to
audition for music schools (I wanted to hit the road, but that was not an
option). I also felt that if music was to be my life and career, I should
probably see how they have been teaching it in college for 400 years, and see if
that was for me. The University of Oregon (in Eugene) was within walking
distance of my home, so when the time came, I auditioned for the school of music.
Luckily,beaause I had learned some classical pieces and had been studying with a
good teacher, I squeaked by at the audition.
At the time, the U of O was like many music schools in that there was no degree offered even in classical guitar,
much less contemporary, studio, or jazz guitar. The curriculum was 99.9%
classically oriented and once people got the idea that I was a) a guitarist b)
an electric guitarist and c) played blues, jazz and rock n' roll (god forbid!),
I got the distinct impression from some faculty and most students that I had
somehow come to the wrong place. (Since then, I am happy to say that the U of O
has developed an excellent jazz studies program and faculty, which welcomes
electrically inclined guitarists). Probably because of a variety of flaws in my
own personality, I took the cold shoulder as a great challenge and pledged to
learn everything I could about classical music - theory, history, analysis and
performance, and most importantly to relate it back to, and have it influence my
music. I learned to speak the language, understand and appreciate the music, and
learn some fascinating things about the history of this profession. I did this
while getting little training or positive reinforcement in the area of my real
love and intended profession, which was contemporary jazz and commercial music.
The problem here was that the music profession is incredibly tough, and the
timeline for training in it is very short. For someone who aspires to succeed in
a music career (be it classical, jazz, rock, alternative, metal, grunge etc..)
time is of the essence, and there must be a sense of urgency and focus that puts
learning the tools of the trade on the front burner with all of the other
important, essential gifts of a traditional music education. I didn't completely
realize it at the time, but while I was learning a lot of valuable lessons about
music in general, I was missing the important training that is specific to my
instrument and genre. I was rapidly losing ground in preparing for a
professional career. This eventually became clear to me and in my Jr. year I left
and enrolled at North Texas State, which was the Jazz school at the time. One
semester later I left school to go on the road a with a jazz/rock recording
artist. I eventually returned to school, finishing at Oregon and earning a
Masters degree in Guitar Performance at USC, but never again straying from
I still balance a very busy performing and recording schedule with teaching and running one of the largest guitar departments in the
country. It seems the two worlds of academia and music business will never be
far apart for me. Times have changed a lot since I entered music school.
Although music schools are still quite conservative in comparison to other
university departments (where do you think the term "conservatory" came from?)
and are quite conservative compared to professional, popular and jazz culture,
there are now many more schools which offer courses of study for
electric-contemporary guitarists who are into most all musical forms, provided
their basic musicianship is sound. However, because you must not waste time at
this stage in your training, choose the college wisely, it could mean the
difference between success and failure in your music career.