New Major Helps Students Make Music that Pops

By Steve Fyffe

It’s after hours and most classes on campus are already done for the day, but students in the songwriting workshop course are just getting started.

First-year student Alivia Nelson steps up to the microphone in a darkened studio at the School of Music and Dance and starts to sing her original song “Make Some Room,” while acclaimed jazz pianist and associate professor Toby Koenigsberg records her vocal track into a laptop computer.

“I’m flying on high above the ground,” Nelson sings. “You’re on my mind, don’t ask me how I got here, I’m wondering too.”

It’s all part of a new popular music studies major that gives students who love music, but don’t necessarily have classical training, the opportunity to earn a degree in their favorite subject.

“Halfway into the first term, I found out that we had this program where songwriters unite, and I was like, ‘OK, I want to be a part of that,’” Nelson said.

Students don’t have to audition for acceptance and don’t need a background in music theory to apply.

“People like The Beatles, singer-songwriters who play guitar but can’t read music yet, those people can all now be included in what we do here in the Department of Music,” said Koenigsberg, who devised the curriculum for the new major.

School of Music and Dance alumni already are finding success in the popular music industry.

Ben Darwish graduated with a Bachelor of Music in jazz studies in 2007. Now he’s playing keyboard in front of packed crowds at Wembley Stadium alongside pop star Mike Posner of “I Took a Pill in Ibiza” fame.

And Peter Hollens, who graduated from the vocal performance program in 2005, has built an online media empire from his home studio in Eugene, with a million and a half subscribers to his YouTube channel of self-produced music videos.

But Koenigsberg said students wanted a major that would give them the freedom to pursue their own musical interests across all popular music genres, including EDM, hip-hop, rock, indie and everything in between.

“We’re really able to specifically target students’ interests and goals because of the open framework and flexibility of the degree,” Koenigsberg said. “The fact that somebody can write a rap and an indie pop ballad as a part of the same class, that I think reflects the program.”

The new major also allows students to earn a degree for around half the credits required to complete a traditional music degree. That reduced credit load makes it easier for students to double major in complimentary areas, such as business or advertising, which could help better prepare them for careers in the music industry.

First-year student Julia Eshet is double majoring in popular music and psychology, with a minor in business. She came to the UO on a tennis scholarship, but she’s been recording her own original music with Latin Grammy-nominated producers in her hometown of Miami since she was in high school.

“I love being around people who are creative and open-minded and love music as much as I do,” Eshet said.

Koenigsberg said the new major is one of the fastest-growing programs at the School of Music and Dance, which is also offering a new audio production minor that can be taken separately or in conjunction with the popular music degree.

Back in the studio, Nelson has moved onto the next phase of production — auditioning drum samples and sweetening the audio with UO alum and Los Angeles-based music producer Alex Sacco, who’s come back to campus as a guest artist to help Koenigsberg’s students polish their tracks.

“You definitely want to make sure that your vocals are going to be the highlight, because that’s what you’re all about,” Sacco told Nelson as he scanned through the frequencies on her vocal track in the audio editing program Logic Pro X.

Sacco and his band Papa Ya created a minor sensation online with upbeat tracks like “Outta Here,” including a song that reached No. 6 on the Spotify Viral Charts last year, and recently signed their first record deal with disco:wax, an imprint of Sony Music.

Sacco said he wished the popular music major had been an option for him when he was a student.

“I wish there had been a program where I could go and I could learn more about songwriting, arrangement, the structure, the elements that go into creating a pop song,” Sacco said. “It’s really cool that there are now classes to go and learn about that.”

Nelson, who attended an arts high school in Los Angeles, said the opportunity to study popular music and get hands-on training from industry professionals was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.

“I don’t see myself doing anything else with my life,” Nelson said. “Music is what I do.”

And that’s what Koenigsberg said he had in mind when he designed the degree — to give students like Nelson the tools to take their music to the next level.

“My intention was to make it so students could have the flexibility to express themselves most fully by making the kind of music that was most meaningful to them,” he said.