Student Recital at the World Famous House of Blues in Hollywood!

Not too many kids can return to school on Monday morning bragging about how they played the House of Blues on the Sunset Strip last Saturday, April 20th.  But the kids who took part in the Action for the Arts “Onstage” concert can do just that.

Youth ranging in age from elementary through high school had the unique opportunity to perform on the big stage complete with professional stage lighting, formal introductions, and a sound man, all made possible in part by the International House of Blues Foundation’s Action for the Arts Initiative who provided most of the instruments (as well as cash grants) to make this great day possible.

As part of the USC Thornton Outreach Program, the Foshay Middle School Rockers took the stage to start the day with a killer piece titled “Killer Joe” by Benny Golson, and quickly turned things up a notch with their rendition of Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water”.

HOB_Foshay Band

Next up, and also part of the Thornton Outreach Program, was the Los Angeles Youth Jazz Ensemble who with a bank full of horns, brought a huge sound to fill the room with a couple of jazz tunes that fit this varied bill quite nicely.


And USC Thornton Outreach didn’t stop there as the next group to the stage was its 32nd Street & Murchison Elementary Guitar group which consisted of a long row of guitars and a long row of smiles.  These young up & comers nailed a two song set complete with vocals which was moving enough to incite goose bumps and make you want to run out and pick up the nearest 6 string for a day-long sing in the sun.



During a quick break in the action, USC Thornton School of Music Outreach Programs Director Susan Helfter had just made the comment that one of the program’s main goals is to offer variety in every discipline at every level, and the next band to take the stage did just that.  We moved from a stage full of acoustic guitars and elementary students to the Reseda High School Rock Combo.  Reseda High gracefully made their way through a couple of classic rock tunes by Cream and Paul McCartney.

And to close out the day, Willowbrook Middle School Concert Band brought traditional instrumentation to contemporary sounds as they covered everything from Adele, to Kool & the Gang and Snoop Dogg, which had audience members moving in their seats.  What a great way to engage youth musicians in the learning process of music.

A sign high above the House of Blues stage read, “Unity in Diversity. All are One”.  And today we definitely met that pledge.

To learn more about the USC Thornton School of Music Outreach Program, including upcoming events, and how you can be involved, please visit:

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Meet the Instruments

“Okay, guys I’m going to play some music for you,” says Colleen Gilligan, a senior USC student, balancing her bass in front of a class of 2nd graders at 32nd Street School in Los Angeles. There is an audible “Yessss!” from the students, and some crane their necks and shift in their seats so they can see Colleen better as she begins a jazz song. One boy pretends to conduct.

When she finishes, the class erupts into applause.

USC Senior, Colleen Gilligan, demonstrates a walking bass line for a 2nd grade class at The 32nd Street School in Los Angeles.

USC Senior, Colleen Gilligan, demonstrates a walking bass line for a 2nd grade class at The 32nd Street School in Los Angeles.

“Meet the Instruments” is a program that brings USC music students into classrooms of local elementary schools where they can give a small lesson about their instrument and their positive experiences with the arts.  In one morning, Colleen gets to meet four different classes of 1st, 2nd, and 3rd graders. They are excited to listen to her play, but also to ask her questions:

“How tall are you?”
“What is that stick for?”
“When did you start playing?”
“Is the bass like a big violin?”
“When is your birthday?”

Colleen answers all of the questions with a smile. At the end of her hour long mini-tour, she says, “Today made me want to go into music education. I was already interested, but that was so much fun.”

After Colleen leaves to go to another classroom, Jesse Freedman, a second year masters student, walks in with his classical guitar.  He takes one of the 2nd grader-sized chairs and sits in front of the kids, looking comically comfortable so close to the ground.

Second year USC grad student, Jesse Freedman plays a selection of classical guitar music that his 2nd grade audience called, "spooky."

Second year USC grad student, Jesse Freedman plays a selection of classical guitar music that his 2nd grade audience called, “spooky.”

Jesse takes some time to describe his guitar and how it makes sound. “The guitar is like a giraffe,” he says. “It has a round body and a looong neck.”  He introduces the song he is going to play, and tells the class that it was written in Spain in the 18th century. “Does anyone know when the 18th century was?” A boy raises his hand. “A long time ago,” he answers. “Before cameras.”

Before Jesse begins his song, he asks the class to close their eyes and think about how the song makes them feel. They immediately put their heads down on their desks.  While Jesse plays, their faces scrunch in thought, and when he is finished, they rush their hands to the air, eager to tell him how they feel about the song.

“It’s so great to see that moment,” says Jesse afterward, “when they get quieter and stop hitting each other and during my song, reach this deeper level of hearing.”

Later, I ask some of the kids what is their favorite part of “Meet the Instruments.”

“I like the flute because it is the leader of the woodwinds,” says one little girl.
“I like to hear music in real life,” says a boy sitting near her.
“Yeah,” his friend agrees, “And to see the instruments in real life!”

Everyone in the class gets excited by this answer. It’s pretty obvious that “Meet the Instrument” has been a huge hit.

To get involved with “Meet the Instruments,” contact USC Thornton Outreach at

Christina Wolfgram is a Master of Professional Writing student at USC. She writes for her own blog at and can be contacted at

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Jazz Master Class with Bob Mintzer

USC jazz faculty member Bob Mintzer has a long jazz bio. His name is well known in many jazz circles from his work with The Yellowjackets, which released their first album in 1991 and now has a total of 17 releases to date. He is also well known as a writer, arranger, and band leader for his own Bob Mintzer Big Band. This explains why all eyes were fixed on Mr. Mintzer when he took his solos before the students of the Los Angeles Youth Jazz Ensemble.

The ensemble kicked off the day by performing a Mintzer composition titled “New Rochelle” which brought the bright outdoor sunshine right into the room. The tune is very crisp and light with what Mintzer described as a “shuffle-funk groove”, and was a very nice selection to start the day. Mintzer noted how there seemed to be some incorrect chord changes being played on the piece, and coached the students in the right direction to bring the tune intact.

Mintzer also spoke of dynamics and the importance of holding a note to create shape and style to a note with crescendo.

After these slight adjustments, the ensemble sailed right into another Mintzer composition title “Christopher Columbus”. In this tune, Mintzer provided insights on the importance of listening to other players around you and took the time to speak about practice and transcribing music, while he demonstrated with a Sonny Stitt solo.

All in all, Mintzer summed up what he was hearing from the band as “nice…good energy…really nice solos…”. And I think that all in attendance would agree.

The Los Angeles Youth Jazz Ensemble (LAYJE) is one of the many USC Thornton Outreach programs offered in the local community. In LAYJE, Los Angeles area high school students have the opportunity to further their experience in jazz music. For more information, including how to audition, please visit

For more upcoming USC jazz events, please visit

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Drum Day 2013

The day started with hand stretches to warm up the crowd and get them ready for USC Thornton Outreach Program’s annual Drum Day. And the stretches proved necessary as the activities stretched into the late afternoon on a day filled with audience participation.

To kick off the event, the USC Trojan Marching Band drumline blasted into high gear and quickly got the attention of anyone who may have missed their morning coffee. The loud, rhythmic attack of the drums brought all eyes front and center and instructor Tad Carpenter followed the demonstration with points about the importance of stick selection, practice, and how drumming can be it’s own social network in a world where much of our time is spent online.

High school students practicing drills with Tad Carpenter and the Trojan Marching Band Drumline.

High school students practicing drills with Tad Carpenter and the Trojan Marching Band Drumline.

USC Jazz Studies faculty member, Aaron Serfaty, made a smooth transition to the second part of the day when he demonstrated how what he heard in the drumline could be easily converted over to a traditional jazz kit. Serfaty went on to demonstrate samba and Afro Cuban styles of drumming with numerous types of drums and percussion instruments.

Aaron Serfaty, USC Jazz Studies faculty, demonstrating on the drum set.

Aaron Serfaty, USC Jazz Studies faculty, demonstrating on the drum set.

Several sponsors including Innovative Percussion, Yamaha, and Remo helped to make this day possible, and Remo Drum Circle Facilitator John Fitzgerald brought the day to a roaring close. The entire room was filled with the sounds of djembe’s, cowbells and shakers as participants traded off drum patterns in a call & response style that could be heard out the doors and onto the USC campus.

John Fitzgerald leading a thunderous drum circle.

John Fitzgerald leading a thunderous drum circle.

With many students leaving the hall with a new pair of drumsticks that they had won via raffle opportunities over the course of the day, the rat-a-tat-tat of sticks clicking away on outdoor makeshift drum surfaces filled the air and the rhythm carried on into the late afternoon sun.

Stay tuned for Drum Day 2014 on Sunday, March 2, 2014!


For information on more USC music events, be sure to visit USC Music Events Calendar at, or sign up for the weekly events e-mail at .

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Hooray for Foshay!

The sounds of celebration started early in the evening as festive music played in the parking lot leading up to the red carpet entrance of the newly renovated James A. Foshay Learning Center Auditorium.

What had been a long time coming was finally a reality. The journey for a new auditorium began over 12 years ago, and based upon the smiles throughout the evening, this was truly the celebration of a dream come true.

Vince Womack conducting the Foshay Concert Band

Vince Womack conducting the Foshay Concert Band

Vince Womack, the Foshay Music Director and leader of this long journey to a new auditorium space, kicked of the night and led the evening’s festivities with the Foshay Concert Band. The evening was filled with numerous types of art and sound including poetry, chamber music, choir, and even a Deep Purple rock number by Middle School Rocks.

Foshay Learning Center is one of the many “USC Family of Schools” that the USC Thronton School of Music Outreach program works with on a regular basis, so it was quite a privilege to have the USC Los Angeles Youth Jazz Ensemble under the direction on Ryan Kienstra, share the stage for this wonderful evening of all things performance art.

Los Angeles Youth Jazz Ensemble

Los Angeles Youth Jazz Ensemble

The evening came to a close with a rollicking number by members of the Foshay school faculty that had people on their feet and dancing in the aisles.

Eventhough Mr. Womack mentioned that there are still a few things to iron out such as a nagging problem with pigeons in the ceiling that existed before renovations and continues to haunt the space, this was truly the start of something new, fresh, and longstanding…and a celebration of all things art in L.A.

For more information on the USC Family of Schools and information on ways in which USC builds local community, please visit

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JazzReach Winter Concert – December 16, 2012

Who thought up this crazy idea called “stage fright”? 

Because one would have never known it existed by the way the students of the 32nd Street School and Science Center School JazzReach Choirs strutted out onto the stage, heads held high with huge smiles on their faces, waving to friends and family members in the jam packed Alfred Newman Recital Hall on the campus of USC.

And apparently there’s no such this as “audience fright” either, because proud friends and family members happily waved back to those on stage and held their cameras high in the air to get a snapshot of their favorite performer.

The choirs were a welcome part of the annual JazzReach Winter Concert and were positioned between two jazz ensemble bookends of the James A. Foshay Jazz Ensemble and the Los Angeles Youth Jazz Ensemble. 

32nd Street JazzReach Choir performing "Dry Bones"

32nd Street JazzReach Choir performing “Dry Bones”

Singers from 32nd Street School and Science Center School lead the audience in a sing-along

32nd Street and Science Center JazzReach Choirs lead the audience in a sing-along.

The lively evening jumped around between a selection of traditional holiday tunes such as the audience participation sing-along’s of “Jingle Bells” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” to standard jazz selections such as Duke Ellington’s “Harlem Airshaft”.  What started as a cold and rainy evening on the outside, quickly transformed into a warm, fast-paced evening of fun and lively music on the inside.

Ryan Kienstra directing the Los Angeles Youth Jazz Ensemble

Ryan Kienstra directing the Los Angeles Youth Jazz Ensemble


At the conclusion of the evening, Science Center parent Juana Flores noted that her daughter’s first year in the choir has simply been “…a great experience.  She really loves it and now wants to sing when she grows up.”

Tenor saxophonist Alec Wigginton’s mother Vicky also had nothing but great things to say about the evening’s concert, as well as what she has seen with her son’s involvement in the Los Angeles Youth Jazz Ensemble.  “I am very grateful for the program.  Alec seems to have an even greater enthusiasm for the music…it’s at a whole different level.”

The Science Center School JazzReach Choir summed up the evening of music quite nicely with their lyrics of “It don’t mean a thing, all you got to do is sing”…and sing they did, to the delight of all.

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Master Class with John Thomas

With Bill Evans and John Coltrane in the room, looking on from framed photographs lining the walls of the performance space, jazz was clearly in the air as notes bounced from every corner of the acoustically enhanced room, and the Los Angeles Youth Jazz Ensemble (LAYJE) was warming up for an afternoon of music and education.  On November 18, a master class, free and open to the public, being taught by trumpeter and USC professor John Thomas was about to begin.


Not only were the greats looking on, but the event’s educational handout was proof that the Carson Television Building on the campus of USC was talking jazz.  “Slur everything until you have a really good legato tongue” and “Use tongue stops:  cut off all notes with the tongue.  The cut off is as articulated as the attack”…all words clearly spoken by an accomplished veteran of his craft.

Professional trumpeter and USC professor John Thomas was able to share stories of his years playing with the Count Basie Orchestra and Chick Corea to name a few.  Thomas first listened, then critiqued, and moved through the horn section one by one stressing the importance of legato tonguing.  He then moved on to the importance of rhythm, noting, “You always have to stay engaged with the music…you have to be ‘on’…a good drummer makes you want to dance with him.”  The exercise led to the entire ensemble playing cymbal patterns with their pencils.


Guitarist Julian Apter, a Santa Monica High School student in his first year playing with LAYJE, and member of local jazz quartet “Half-diminished”, noted how impressed he was with the experience.  Apter enjoyed experiencing Thomas’ “culmination of experience, mixed with his skill…he hears things that other people may not hear.”  Apter also noted how Thomas’ experiences playing with jazz legends bring to light “the difference between someone simply loving the music, versus actually living the music.”

The audience was just as engaged as the players.  The parents of Daniel Cole, a student of Millikan High School in Long Beach and trombone player with LAYJE, spoke highly of the LAYJE experience.  “The program seems to challenge him more than the high school band.  Today’s experience seemed to transition from learning, to feeling, the music.”  Daniel’s take on the day was more concise, “I loved it!  Awesome!”

LAYJE Musical Director Ryan Kienstra stressed the importance of the master classes, by adding, “The students get the viewpoints of someone who has played with different styles of jazz; who has lots of experience.  It’s nice for the students to experience someone who can demonstrate vocally, and then play that on the instrument.”  LAYJE Assistant Musical Director Liz Palmer adds, “With the master classes, music can be said in a variety of ways.  And with a third party instructor involved, it might all of a sudden click.”

The master class experience is all encompassing.  It combines musical skill, education, and an interaction with the local community.  Palmer sums it up nicely, “It’s great that Thornton has a relationship with local schools to keep arts going.  Master classes show the academic side of the music, not just as entertainment… it’s part of who we are as a culture.”

For more information on LAYJE and other Thornton Outreach Programs, please visit:

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