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McNally Smith College of Music Students Go Inside the Music Industry in New York City

Broadway’s bright lights, celebrity songwriters, the bustling streets and towering buildings of Manhattan all contributed to an unforgettable trip recently for 20 McNally Smith students hitting New York City for Spring Break. While other college kids flocked to the hot beaches of Florida and Mexico, these college music students were getting a firsthand look into an industry they hope to become part of soon.  They got to spend quality time in mid-March learning about the music business and meeting some key shakers and movers in the city that never sleeps. The itinerary was jam packed, and the trip is still generating excitement!

Highlights of the whirlwind trek included meeting the legendary pop duo, Ashford & Simpson for a generous two-hour songwriting seminar from the couple who wrote such enduring classics as “Aint’ No Mountain High Enough,” “Let’s Go Get Stoned,” “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” and countless other hits.

Earlier that day, Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson received an Honorary Degree from the music college’s cofounder Jack McNally. McNally praised the songwriting team’s prolific output through the years and their longevity in the business. Later that night at the duo’s Sugar Bar, McNally and students — along with Debbie Sandrige, Senior Director, Industry Relations at McNally Smith, and John Brown, an industry insider, who both set up the spring program in the Big Apple — were welcomed as special guests at the nightclub owned by the couple. The entourage even got to enjoy the Open Mic proceedings inside Ashford and Simpson’s private room.

“I could have never imagined that a kid from a suburb of Kansas would have the unique, and rare opportunity to travel to New York and meet with some of the most legendary, iconic, and creative people in the music industry!” gushed music student Tyson Williams, who was definitely not in Kansas anymore. “Only my music college, McNally Smith can take an unknown musician and put them in front of people like Ashford and Simpson!”

All seminars, including the Ashford and Simpson exchange with students  took place in Midtown at the Flatotel Hotel suite on the 41st floor where the group stayed. There they also got to meet with music business companies  in three different seminars, including DEF MIX PRODUCTIONS, Billboard and SESAC. Def Mix Founder and CEO, Judy Weinstein talked about creating an innovative new company to meet unmet needs in the music business including new management strategies, while featured guest, Hector Romero (DJ, A&R  Saw Records) talked about the world of Dance Music.

Students also took home some valuable information from the Billboard presentation. Shawna Pasholk, a McNally Smith Music Business Major who is gradating this year, praised that event for its invaluable insights into the current — and future — state of the industry, courtesy of Christopher Robbins from Billboard, Jamie Dominguez from SESAC, and Leotis Clyburn from EMI.

Dominguez discussed the performing rights organization, SESAC, and how it differs from other performance rights organizations such as BMI and ASCAP. Meanwhile, Clyburn brought two songwriters from EMI with him and let them explain their songwriting process. The songwriters, Darhyl Camper (DJ) who has two songs on new R Kelley release, and Eritza Laues who boasts numerous song placements, told the group, “There is no right way to write a song,  you just do it; there’s no correct form or procedure for doing it. You should write and record at any time the urge arises.”

Students busted out of the hotel seminars for more real-life experiences by also taking in the phenomenal musical, “Fela.” The Afropop musical, based on the life and music of the one of Africa’s leading artists and Nigerian political rebel, Fela Kuti, brought tears to the eyes of McNally Smith student, Leaura Larche. She described the show’s rich colors, powerful music and overall spectacle as an emotional experience she would never forget.

“There was no orchestra pit because the band was on-stage with the actors,” Larche reported. “The first time I saw their costumes, make-up, and hair, I was absolutely blown away!  I actually had an extremely emotional experience watching their dancing and hearing their music.  I started to cry.  I knew, right then, that I was meant to be there in New York for the rest of my life.”

Ten students also got to meet with McNally Smith alumnus, Nate Brown, in Manhattan’s fabled theater district. Brown has been playing guitar in the pit orchestra of “Mary Poppins” for three years on Broadway.  Nate took the group into the pit, the costume/make-up room, and onstage where Larche and her classmates got to stand and look out into the audience. “Backstage, there was a black board with a bunch of signatures on it,” she said, “and I took a picture and discovered those were the signatures of famous people who had been there, including Julie Andrews!”

“Our schedule of events in New York was designed to complement classroom training with interactions with professionals in the worlds of dance music, theatrical music, music technology, music business, and music business administration — and we achieved all our goals,” noted Sandrige, who was still buzzing about the trip a week later back home in the Twin Cities. “The enthusiasm I witnessed as students realized they too can have a successful career in their field of study was just amazing to see. I hope we make this an annual event every spring at the college.”

Students who made the trip, blogged up a storm about it, recounting the many high points, including Joel Cooper, a Senior Music Business Major:

“Where do I begin? The NYC experience afforded to the selected group of McNally students exceeded every expectation.  For five days we were inserted directly into the music industry, conversing with the likes of Ashford and Simpson, Def Mix, Billboard, SESAC, EMI publishing, and more.  However, we didn’t just converse.  We were able to contribute ideas to them; they were thrilled about giving advice to us! And at the end of the day many of us will be able to contact them in the future.”

Among the 20 students who went on the grand adventure, graduating senior Mora McGovern (who hopes to find her place in the music business when she graduates), put the entire journey in perspective: “The advantages of this trip are once in a lifetime, from the songwriting workshops with legendary songwriters Ashford and Simpson, to the face time with A&R and creative directors of music publishing. It was simply a great way to end my senior year at McNally Smith College of Music.”