UNH students in Nashville
Music City Magic

by Jackie Hennessey

Mike Bognar hadn’t planned on going to Nashville to study away. He liked living on the UNH campus. “I thought I’d be out of my comfort zone,” he said. But then John McBride, owner of Blackbird Studio, came to UNH to talk with students from the music, music industry and sound recording programs about the University’s new Nashville Study Away program.  

“He started talking about the program and the studio – one of the best recording studios in the world – and what students would be doing in the courses and in the internships,” Bognar ’16 said. “I knew right then Nashville was the place to be if you want to work in the music industry. I left the auditorium and immediately called my mom and I said, ‘I have to do this.’ And she told me we were going to make it happen.”

Music City Magic 01Now Bognar is in Nashville, studying at Blackbird Studio and interning at the studio as well. One of 14 students in the University’s inaugural Nashville class, he is taking “Mixing Techniques” with David Leonard, a Grammy Award-winning producer and recording engineer who mixed Prince’s Purple Rain and has worked with Paul McCartney and a long list of well-known artists. He’s also taking a production course with Steve Fishell, a Grammy Award-winning producer who has played pedal steel guitar on Emmylou Harris’ tours for a decade.   

“The best way to learn something as subjective as what a producer does in a studio, making all the creative choices necessary for an artist to reach his or her creative goals, is by experiencing it,” Fishell said. So this semester, when Grammy-level independent artists are recording a new album at Blackbird, the students will be part of it, observing and, at times, working alongside the professionals in the studio, as the coffee flows and the sessions stretch on from seven at night until one in the morning.

​Fishell said students will develop a critical ear and have the chance to watch the nuanced ways studio pros talk with artists to get the best possible sound from them. “You don’t press the talk back button and say, ‘So how are your headphones?’ because that lets the artist know you weren’t happy, and that lets doubt creep in,” he said. “Instead you say, ‘That was a good warm-up. Let’s try it a couple more times.’ It takes a while even for a Grammy-winning artist to get 'in the zone' when singing in the studio, to sing like it's the third set in a favorite nightclub. That's what the students will experience."

Later, for a final project, the students will take home copies of the tracks from two major recording sessions and create their own final mix. “They focus on their perception of how the art should be heard,” Fishell said.

For Bognar, “this is exactly what I want to do,” he said. “I want to produce music, and that’s what I have the chance to learn about and do here. I’m learning every single day.”

Kimkia Hunter ’17 agreed. The “Entrepreneurship and Careers in the Music Industry” course taught by Tracy Gershon, vice president of A&R for Nashville’s Rounder Records, has made her think about new possibilities for her own music career. “She’s amazing,” Hunter said. “She’s had so many jobs in the industry herself, and she knows even more people.” Gershon regularly brings in speakers from all aspects of the industry to share their stories. “Besides being generally nice people, they’ve all had so much to tell us about getting started in the industry, working, being open-minded to new careers, trying the things we may have not considered, and networking especially,” Hunter said.

Music City Magic 02

Experiencing What Great Is

This is just what Susan Dodes, a lecturer in the Department of Music and a former major label and music publishing talent executive, envisioned when she set out to create the Nashville Study Away program two years ago. “To be in the music business, you have to be in the music business,” she said. “If students are going to gain experience in the industry, why not in the nation’s music capital, taking courses from professionals at Blackbird Studio, one of the premiere studios in the world?” she said.

McBride said working with faculty members with “world-class resumes” allows students “to experience what great is.” “So whether they’re recording in a basement or a small studio, they won’t settle for good,” McBride said. “They’ll work to find a way to get a better sound and to achieve great because they’ll know that great exists. The future of recording depends on that.”

One of the key lessons McBride said students will take from working with professionals is that “attitude is 99 percent of the gig. Having a great attitude is something that will get you a job over talent and experience because people really want to work with you.”

McBride and Fishell said the UNH students arrived extremely motivated. “They’re so great to work with,” Fishell said. “They’re very bright. They’re musicians. They’ve spent time using recording equipment. They know the technology. They’ve recorded their own material or the material of others, and they really love music.” The program will grow to 18 students next year.

“Excitement for next spring is already growing among music majors,” said Erica Haskell, the music department chair.

Students take courses such as “Music Publishing,” “Music Business Careers and Entrepreneurship,” and “Music Production and Mixing,” working with top-line artists, producers and engineers and accessing cutting-edge sound technology. The faculty also includes Bryan Clark, musician and founder of Rainfeather Records, principal composer for America’s Next Top Model and Project Runway and a lecturer at Vanderbilt University, and Michele Rhoades, the Nashville Study Away program coordinator and director of radio development at the Americana Music Association. Students also intern at music companies and recording studios including Blackbird, Rounder/Concorde Records, Sony/ATV Music Publishing, Castle Recording, Black River Studios, Universal Music and Omni Sound Recording.

Mitchell Whiting’s favorite moment came when he was elected “producer” during one of Fishell’s classes. “Steve is a killer pedal steel guitar player, and he had me producing him and deciding the direction of his playing,” Whiting ’17 said. “He made suggestions along the way, but in the end I was in charge of what was being recorded. It was awesome.”

Whiting calls the experience at Blackbird surreal. “It always feels like I shouldn't be allowed in the studio, but the next minute I'm putting microphones up and plugging in gear, then, on another day, I’m mixing on one of the boards,” Whiting said. “It still hasn't sunk in what an opportunity this is. I don't know if it ever will.”

Ryman Auditorium

Exploring Nashville

And then there’s the city of Nashville to explore, with its thriving country, indie, rap and rock music scenes, a place where Bognar and his four UNH roommates have discovered “there’s music everywhere.” Field trips include the Country Hall of Fame, Ryman Auditorium and Sun Studios in Memphis. Students will also sit in on the Bobby Bones radio show, which features interviews with some of the biggest names in country and pop music.

“This is a 360-degree view of the music industry,” Dodes said. “Students can really find their niche, whether it’s in sound engineering, music publishing, marketing or producing. They will see the journey of a song through the whole creative and business process, a song that ultimately could be recorded by Miranda Lambert or Sam Smith."

Haskell said the program amplifies and enforces what is central to the department. “Music is by its very nature experience-based,” she said. “This program builds upon the experiential learning that begins for our students on their first days at UNH. In Nashville, they have the chance to work and observe and create in a city filled with working songwriters, musicians, engineers and producers.” 

Country Hall of Fame

The networking opportunities have been tremendous, Hunter said. “Everywhere you go feels like home, and everyone you meet feels like family,” she said. “Even the studio manager who told you he has no opening for interns or assistant engineers will still take two hours to give you tips on networking, give you numbers for people to call and buy you coffee.” 

Most of all, McBride wants students to experience the magic that can happen in a studio.  “What’s great about this job is that you come in the morning with nothing,” he said, “and by the end of the day you just might have a song that could change the world.”

Spring 2016

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