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First and Only Commercial Music Program in the State Gives Students Tools to Pursue Commercial Music Careers

November 1, 2021
E.E. Curtis

The rotunda at the Stephens Performing Arts Center is lit up a cool Moroccan blue tonight. From the lobby I hear strains of piano, hints of drums. As I enter the Jensen Hall, I see Idaho State University Associate Professor of Music, Jonathan Armstrong on-stage plucking an electric bass alongside students Adam Redd at the piano and Joseph Emmanuel on the drums. The group is lit up from behind, the color of Red Hots, and I know I am in for a treat tonight.

In a few minutes an exciting thing is about to take place for the first time in ISU history. 

“This is the first official year of the commercial music program,” says Armstrong. “It’s the only commercial music program in the state of Idaho. ISU Pride!”

The commercial music students then take the stage with the first official concert of the Idaho State University Commercial Music Program.

With luminous vocals, Claire Smedley, a junior in the ISU commercial music program, and her group opens the concert. Smedley is a singer-songwriter with a pop/folk vibe. She plays acoustic guitar and sings the first song she composed, “Hurricane.” She announces the next song: “It’s a little bit different but I hope you love it.” And I do. “Uncommitted” has a syncopated groove and I think I could listen to this at a club or bar, relaxing with friends on a Friday night.

I anticipate country twang when senior Mason Wittman comes onstage with a guitar pick in his mouth. But he’s a smooth tenor and sings with close-eyed passion. My boss next to me can’t stop whispering about how much she loves his voice.

Senior Joseph Emmanuel takes the stage at the drums, inhabiting the space easily. Emmanuel introduces his song, “Alawada,” which he explains is Nigerian for “a phrase of admiration.” Adam Redd does some Piano Guys maneuvering on the piano, plucking the strings with one hand, and playing the keys with the other. The bass, piano, and drums tease us with short, rhythmic interplay. 

I’m curious about the title of Emmanuel’s next piece, “PRO0618.”

As though reading my mind he tells the audience, “There’s actually no story behind the name. It’s just some name I called it.” But it’s not just some song.

It soothes and pampers like a massage, while still being exciting. Emmanuel massages bells in his hand, kneading my rhythmic soul. I can feel how tight the group’s communication is. I can hear it. I can see it in Armstrong’s intense eye contact with Redd. The piece ends with Emmanuel’s vocals like a satisfied sigh. This group is watching and hearing Flow in action.

The next group is very mod. Freshman Jayden Simonson rocks out with his electric guitar. His song “Crush” is beachy retro. He’s part of junior Jack de Tombe’s band.

“The purpose of this band,” de Tombe explains, “Was to select young members so we could all grow together.” 

His song is the final performance for the commercial music program. 

“It’s called Mayo and Bread because I was working at Goody’s,” de Tombe says. “ A lot of people just be putting mayonnaise on their sandwiches and it’s pretty sad.” 

Dueling electric guitars follow the audience's laughter. 

De Tombe is willing to experiment with instrumentation, combining a classic hard rock lineup of instruments with saxophone and fiddle. At times the electric guitars take on the style of a fiddle solo. This song is the epitome of the freshness of young artists.

There’s so much diversity in the music being composed and performed by the students and their bands. I found myself increasingly impressed throughout their performances. And this is just the beginning of the program. 

The concert is a demonstration of how students in the program are becoming contemporary artists. The commercial music program prepares students to be artists who produce and release music. The compositions the students performed tonight with their collaborative bands are part of that process. 

Armstrong explained, “They are creating their own albums and everything that goes into that. You have to be able to write all the music, arrange all the music, rehearse the bands, engineer the session, record the session, mix it, produce it, and release it. By the time your senior recital hits, that album has to be out and distributed in some way via digital or physical.”

Armstrong used his experience of living as a professional musician for seven years to inform the curriculum of the program. 

“No one gets hired just because they're a virtuoso. It doesn't really work like that,” says Armstrong. “They hire artists with points of view. They hire someone that has their artistry matured.” 

“We’re just going to be releasing rad music for the people,” Armstrong told the crowd. 

I can’t wait to hear what’s next.



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