Christopher Sampson 
Founding Director of Popular Music Program / Professor of Songwriting, USC Thornton School of Music, Los Angeles (USA)

In 2008 Christopher Sampson launched a program that’s so different compared to the typical traditional classical and jazz offerings at most schools. He presented a program that addresses the dynamic and changing landscape of the music profession.

The Popular Music Program at USC offers you a creative environment to develop musical skills required for the successful, professional 21st century musician. Through the examination of the various eras and forms of popular music repertoire, students are taught the various techniques and nuances of feel and groove. The Program offers a curriculum which include performance, songwriting and arranging, recording studio efficiency, music production, and entrepreneurship.

I got the opportunity to sit down and talk with the creative mastermind behind this popular program.


Music is part of my DNA

At a very young age Chris started playing music and knew he didn’t want to specialize, so he did a little bit of everything. He believes that is the base for the program.

“I attended a High School for the Arts where you can actually declare major. I was a classical bass major, but played in jazz bands on the weekends and toured as a rock drummer. I loved doing music and wanted to do every facet of it. That could have slowed me down a little bit, cause I never got to be really excellent at one thing, but it gave me an insight into everything. I knew what each music scene was like and started to get this holistic view. I always liked that sort of broad approach.”

“I picked classical guitar, cause that was the only thing in College that I could study even though most of my experience was as a rock drummer. Specialized in that and really appreciated the level of detail, rigger and demand it got me exposed to the classical world. Yet it always made me wonder what would happen if we took that level of rigger, that standard and apply it to other genres, to other disciplines maybe even multi-instrumentalist. That always lingered in my head.“


A non-existing profile

During that time Chris was still moonlighting in bands which he had to keep very quite, cause the classical world didn’t want him playing in the clubs. A lot of the ideas he had stem from this notion of let’s do music and not from a specialist perspective.

“I just think there was a type of musician that wasn’t being served. I definitely noticed that if you fell into a certain category like classical guitar or classical vocalist or jazz sax then you were fine, cause there was a prescribed program. However if you didn’t fall into any of these boxes and you’re a multi-instrumentalist or you wanted to be in pop styles, there was just no option for you. That was actually my profile.”

For many years Chris was the Dean of Admissions at USC and organized all of the auditions which gave him a great bird’s eye view of what students were and weren’t being served. He feels very lucky this was early in his career, auditioning and admitting students, this way he could definitely see that there was a gap.

“I was starting to see a bit of the shortcomings and thought; “I think I can do this.” In 2002 I moved to Milwaukee where I got a job as the Vice President for the Wisconsin Conservatory at a small community school. That was my first opportunity to hire the faculty I wanted and develop the programs. I wasn’t there for very long, cause I got offered a job back at USC and was given the opportunity to start new things that would move the school further as Associate Dean for New Initiatives, so that was perfect for me. I did outreach programs, career programs, international exchange programs. Along the way I inherited the songwriting program and I started to do that.”


Reverse engineering

Jumping into the songwriting program was a big break, cause all of a sudden Chris got to see the possibilities of the ideas that he had in mind, realizing he could actually train these songwriters, almost by-design multi-instrumentalist.  

“It was difficult to get the right people on board, cause nobody asked for a popular music degree program at the time. There was a lot of skepticism. I definitely received resistance and hesitancy, so it took many years for it to go through. A lot of people thought that it would ruin the school which caused me great frustration, cause I was like COME ON LET’S JUST DO THIS. The reason they were so resistant is that they wanted to make sure that the quality was as high as everything else and for that I appreciated it.” 

Eventually Chris found a way to convince everybody about the quality. The type of music making would be delivered differently, so he started to write the curriculum.

“I did what I consider reverse engineering when I wrote it. I thought about what the outcomes would be, what we specifically wanted. What would be the definition of success if we actually have graduates going out and truly make a living in this field which is very competitive. You never know how it really is going to work. I felt that if we could truly prepare students for that field and get them the skills, that would be our indicator of quality.”


Community is key

Being in Los Angeles and still working in the scene the first step was to approach the people in the industry.

“I had lunch with a bunch of well-known and not so well-known professional musicians and basically asked them what went into their career, Patrice Rushen being one of them. I took that information and started asking myself how can we actually built classes that would give these ingredients back. That’s what I mean with reverse engineering, I started with the professionals and then worked back into how you can actually train musicians to do that, so that’s how I built the curriculum.”

Chris is satisfied with the way the program is evolving. It actually exceeded his expectations.

“I am humbled and completely amazed about how many people are indeed working in the field and how much the industry notices the students who come out of our program. They are particularly well-trained, so now we have a reputation that has come up. I love that sort of recognition. The demand for our program, the numbers of students that apply, the quality of the students keep going up. Part of our strength is the fact we’re in Los Angeles, cause this is a program that was built based on it’s environment. I don’t think you can expect to have the exact same dynamic somewhere else. Ofcourse there are many great programs all over the country, each with their own regional flavor of music. I think that’s cool and gives strength to a program. Without question this has turned out better than I’ve could imagine, because I always thought that there was a need for training these types of musicians but it’s not like I had marketing data or anything to go on because it didn’t exist. It was just a hunch and it was very reaffirming that my hunch was correct.”


Work ethic

From the very beginning it was clear what type of student would fit the program and they were ready to accept students that didn’t necessarily fit into a single category or box.

“We were the only program that I knew of, that if someone auditioned as a multi-instrumentalist we were fine. I had set that up right from the very beginning, that if they showed that kind of diversity in their music-making that we would welcome that. The type of student where you could almost sense if they’re a good fit for the profession, It’s their attitude, their demeanor, it’s their work ethic. Those are the types of things that almost take priority for us over virtuoso playing. We’ve definitely had people who could play their instrument like crazy, but we could sense that they weren’t quite ready for the collaboration and we would pass on those students. Great players, but probably not a good fit for our program, because our experience is so based on the community which was again part of the original concept that people learn from each other. Therefor that community has to be really well curated otherwise it’s a disaster, cause if you get a bunch of people who don’t want to participate or anything it just goes dead. Music is a very competitive industry, but in this business you’ll find out that working together is key.”

“I actually got that from Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. During my meeting with him I asked: “So Flea how did you do this?” And he goes: “I don’t know, I just know that I got better from playing with people.”  “That’s all he had to say and that’s what I needed to hear. In a lot of ways that really shifts the paradigm in music education, in classical or other genres. And for him to say that, spoke volumes to me.”


Open for change

In the program’s 10 years existence they do notice the way of teaching is changing, due to the fact the music as well as the industry keep developing.

“Without question we had to respond. With this type of student, our teaching actually had to be open and ready for what I call the unexpected outcome. When a student comes in at the beginning of the program as let’s say a singer, but during the program all of a sudden finds out that they are a great producer or writer, we as faculty actually had to be open to adjust to that student’s change. When I was studying classical guitar, you started as a classical guitarist and you ended as a classical guitarist. You just dealt with that and the outcome was very linear. One of the things that I really preached was we have to be OK with the idea that these students might go into various and different directions. That takes a lot for a teacher because all of a sudden the student might go in a direction that we actually don’t know anything about. So instead of getting threatened or saying NO you say OK well let’s talk about that, let’s get you the support you need. That to me has been the biggest change in our teaching dynamic, being open to that unexpected outcome and it’s so exciting. I love when a drummer comes out as a film scorer, because that’s the music business, it’s never one thing.

Not only does this program ask a lot from the students. The faculty has to work just as hard, maybe even harder to get the job done.

“Traditional faculty kinda teach what they know and it creates this cycle. But I always wanted a very dynamic learning environment in which the faculty learns just as much from the students. I once told the faculty: “One of the most powerful things you can say to a student when they ask you a questions is I DON’T KNOW.”  Because the real response is: “I DON’T KNOW, LET’S GO FIND OUT.” That to me nurtures musicians way better than; “I don’t know, now stick to what I know.” It’s a different teaching approach and it takes a lot of courage from the teachers to go down these unknown paths and get challenged and get into places that they don’t know about and that’s great. What’s beautiful about our faculty is that it’s constantly a work in progress. We keep asking ourselves how can we do things better. Right now our students are creating enough of a buzz that they are impacting the profession. And I want to make the transition from impacting the profession to now leading the profession. That’s not a small goal, but I want our students to eventually as they mature, as they become seasoned in the profession then to be looked at as leaders so therefor it kinda creates this feedback into the program. I have no reason to think that it couldn’t happen. Five years from now I like to be able to see our students in leadership-rolls taking our ethos and actually shaping a new music industry. That would be exciting.”

City of Dreams

At the moment Chris is fulfilling a completely different role at USC and is working on a curriculum to train teachers.

“Currently I’m the director of Popular Music Pedagogy. Instead of writing the curriculum to train the musicians, I’m going to be writing the curriculum to train the teachers right now. It’s going to be an enormous documentation, cause we’re going to be drawing from all of these experiences and outcomes. It’s actually forwarding the strength of the program and for me it’s the next logical step. What we’re seeing now since we’ve created this movement is that programs are starting to pop up, but nobody is qualified to teach. In the curriculum I’m going to try and capture the ingredients that went into training these students and pass this on to other teachers.” 

“In the end music is joy and I never want to loose sight of that even-though I want the students to work really hard at the same time it’s so important for us to make sure they know this is fun. They’ll get challenged and sometimes they forget the joy in music making, but as long as we’ve got constant reminders this is really intended to express joy not punishment, it is rewarding.”

“Music is not easy but a very real profession.”