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So you wanna be a rock ‘n’ roll star… GTCC’s Larry Gatlin School of Entertainment Technology quietly turning out grads who may start a music industry revolution

by Ogi Overman

It’s a long way from the garage.

Yep, the proverbial garage, the proving ground where, soon after learning G, C and D, the guitarist who knows a guy who can sing who knows a drummer who knows a bass player all get together and form a combo. They hone their chops, learn enough tunes for a couple of sets, play a few gratis shows for their friends, finally get a real paying gig and, voila, the next Beatles have arrived.

It’s a dream shared by a million kids in a hundred thousand garages in ten thousand towns around the world. The details may vary but the scenario remains the same. It’s the romantic notion of chasing the dream, of living one’s fantasy, of forging one’s destiny, of waiting for that big break that’s just around the next corner. And the next, and the next.

Yet the reality for all but a handful of those kids is that the corners eventually become rounded, morphing into a circle, an endless dog-chasing-tail circle. Regardless of talent or motivation or timing, the vast majority of those idealistic kids never get very far from the garage. For any number of valid reasons – from the vicissitudes of the music industry itself to the realization that there are easier and more lucrative ways to make a living – most of them pursue the dream for awhile and then walk away from it with memories ranging from the sublime to the bittersweet.

While the pursuit of a career in music, whether in the performance end or the dozens of ancillary vocational iterations, is altogether noble and worthwhile, the fact is that most youngsters enter that world at their own peril. Armed only with a rudimentary knowledge of their instrument, or perhaps having some interest in sound reinforcement or stage lighting, their youthful zeal is rarely enough to sustain a career into their thirties or forties or beyond. Aptitude alone promises nothing, and all the enthusiasm in the world cannot compensate for real-life slings and arrows.

So, what is a young man or woman to do? Fresh out of high school and ready to take on the universe, how can they best prepare themselves for an industry that can be every bit as cruel as it can be rewarding? Does one follow the advice of Briscoe Darling to “jump in and hang on,” or go the academic route by honing their craft at a four-year college?

Until very recently, those were the two options: either get the hands-on experience or the classroom knowledge. Rarely, if ever, did the twain meet. There was a chasm between the classroom and the stage or studio, with no bridge to connect the two. Granted, the aspiring musician may have the option of majoring in music at a four-year college, but what of a high school grad who wants to become a sound tech or lighting designer or artist manager or record producer? Where does one gain the skills necessary to pursue those vocations, other than to take your chances by entering the work force and hoping to find a mentor?

Well, if they’re smart they’ll enroll at Guilford Technical Community College’s Larry Gatlin School of Entertainment Technology.

They told me all about the pretty girls

and the wine and the money

and the good times.

No mention of all the wear and tear

on a poor honky tonker’s heart.

Well, I might’ve known it but

nobody told me about this part.

– “A Showman’s Life”

Jesse Winchester

Now there’s somebody to tell them.

It may be Jeff Little, head of GTCC’s entertainment technology department, who has worn the hats of road manager, tour manager and manager, as well as Nashville session man and keyboardist for such Music City heavyweights as Keith Urban, Montgomery Gentry and John Michael Montgomery. To a kid wanting to break into the music biz, those gold and platinum records hanging on his office wall carry as much or more weight than his degree in communications and media from Appalachian State.

Or it may be Thomas Johnson, recording engineering instructor at the school. When TJ rattles off the list of artists whose albums he has produced – Marshall Tucker Band, Ted Nugent, Perry Farrell and Porno for Pyros, Weather Report, DropKick Murphys, Alice In Chains, Rancid, over 60 in all – eyes light up and people sit up and take notice.

Or it could be Cliff Miller, chairman of the department’s Board of Advisors. Not only is he the owner of SE Systems, one of the Southeast’s most respected sound reinforcement dealers, but he and his crew run sound for all 14 stages at MerleFest and tour with Alison Krauss. And now that he has won a Grammy for technical excellence and creativity for his work with Krauss, that respect turns to awe.

Or it could be Larry Gatlin himself, the school’s namesake. Gatlin, along with brothers Stephen and Rudy, was one of the hottest acts in Nashville throughout the ’70 and ’80s, winning a Grammy and Male Vocalist of the Year award, among many other accolades and accomplishments. He has performed at the school numerous times, but may also drop in just to chat with the faculty and students. And when Larry Gatlin talks, people listen.

It’s called, in the vernacular, street cred. They’ve been there, done that and gotten the black concert T-shirt. They’ve been on the stage, behind the stage, built the stage. They’ve written the songs, played the songs, produced the songs. They’ve been on the road and in the studio, been in the limelight, hung the lights, run the lights. They’ve been to school and been schooled.

What those folks, and many others like them, bring to this remarkable school is something that can’t be measured or quantified. Not only is there a mind-boggling array of gear at this downtown High Point jewel of a facility, but the people who administer, teach, advise and support the 260 or so students enrolled here can fairly be classified as being among the tops in their respective fields. It is this combination of classroom learning and hands-on experience that, in the relative blink of an eye, is already earning the Larry Gatlin School of Entertainment Technology a national reputation for turning out graduates who are ready to make their mark on the music business the moment they earn their associates degree.

“Our job is to make sure we always keep the rigor in the classroom,” says department chair Jeff Little. “The reputation of the degree has to do with the knowledge of the students when they leave here. That’s what we want to ensure always, and we work hard at that. It’s the quality of graduates we turn out that brings visibility to the program.”

‘… or find myself a rock ‘n’ roll band

that needs a helping hand’…

– “Maggie May”

Rod Stewart

There exists something in the music industry – perhaps more than in other lines of work – called the school of hard knocks. What the Entertainment Technology Department seeks to do is circumvent that school and replace it with one that gives them a leg up on much of the competition. One won’t find it in the GTCC catalogue, but there is an invisible roadmap here that shows where the pitfalls are located and how to avoid them.

“I tell them the way it is,” says instructor/producer/guitarist Thomas Johnson. “It may not be what they want to hear, but it’s not what you see on TV. It’s not all about cribs.”

Adds Jeff Little, “There are pitfalls in every business, but they get publicized more in this business. What we really talk about is work ethic and diligence and taking care of yourself. We’re giving them real-world skills in addition to the classroom skills.”

But make no mistake, there are classroom expectations here that are in no way different from any other college. The only difference is that in addition to the English, math, psychology, etc. requirements, students get to play with these “toys” worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Digital recording consoles and computerized lighting rigs and Pro Tools software are the tools of their trade, the gear that is going to turn them into well-rounded musicians or agents or roadies or managers or producers or any of the dozens of other job tracks within the entertainment industry.

The department offers four majors, or options, as they are called. They are: recording engineering, concert lighting/live sound production, artist/music management and performance. Within each area of specialization, students must take introductory courses in the other three. Also, the core curriculum, regardless of major, includes such requirements as mathematical models, entertainment law, expository writing, oral communication, fundamentals of music and music theory. The programs range from 70 to 73 credit hours and take five semesters for completion.

“It’s important that we teach this broad base,” says Little, “because the more adaptability and flexibility students have, the better their chances for success. You don’t know where the industry might take you, but you’ll be prepared for a creative position. It might not be exactly what you’d planned but it will still be something you love. The majority of our students are musicians but, like myself, you just never know how your career might evolve. At some point you’ll need those business skills and communication skills.”

Truth be known, any number of colleges, two- or four-year, could teach any of the aforementioned classroom courses. But the element that separates the Gatlin school from the pack is the physical plant and the enormous amount of high-end gear contained within. The facility, located at 901 S. Main St. in High Point, includes three fully functioning recording studios (digital and analog), four rehearsal rooms, two practice rooms, two electronic music labs with 11 Pro Tools stations in each and a large concert staging room that functions as both classroom and full-blown concert venue. There is also a large outdoor amphitheatre that seats around 600 and has the potential for uses beyond college-related functions.

The hands-on experience gained by the students so closely resembles real-world that it is virtually indistinguishable. For instance, much of the final two semesters of the recording engineering option is consumed by a start-to-finish recording project.

“I give them a fake budget, and they have to go out in the community and find an artist, coordinate with them and me to record them,” discloses Johnson, who has been with the school since its inception in 1999. “They must work at least twelve hours in the downstairs studios, then mix it and master it. And if they don’t stay within budget it influences their grade.”

On this particular day Chad Brown is at his Pro Tools console mixing a recording by a local group, Outrun the Storm. The Pfafftown resident is also the drummer for the group Forever In Despair, and hopes to open his own studio after graduation.

Meanwhile classmate Kejuan Mebane, from Burlington, sent his completed project to Bad Boy Records in Atlanta and has already gotten calls from two artists who liked his work and may want him to produce them.

Success stories abound. Recent grad Chris West landed a job with SE Systems and immediately went to work on the Alison Krauss tour. Current student Chris Harris won last year’s mandolin contest at MerleFest and appears to be near a record deal with a prominent label. Another grad landed a job as a TV producer in California and several have opened their own recording studios. Kyle Welch, who was in the school’s inaugural graduating class, is now a fulltime instructor at his alma mater. And on and on.

Dreamin’, I’m always dreamin’

– “Dreamin'”

Johnny Burnette

GTCC President Dr. Don Cameron is the first to admit he knows nothing about music and the last to take credit for the fruits his idea for a music school at the college have borne. But all great projects start with nothing more than a dream, and without Cameron’s dream there would be no such thing as the Larry Gatlin School of Entertainment Technology.

He’d hatched the idea not long after being installed as GTCC president some 16 years ago, had even written letters to several major country music artists seeking support and advice. “But, you know what, I never mailed them,” he reveals with a smile. “I wrote Dolly Parton and Charlie Pride and Loretta Lynn, but because I had no background in music, I never got up the nerve to mail them. I had it all mapped out on paper but that’s as far as it went.”

He finally got a chance to set the wheels in motion when friend and colleague Nido Qubein, president of High Point University, invited Larry Gatlin to perform at a Rotary Club meeting the week of Thanksgiving, 1998. Before the meeting Qubein hosted a reception for the Nashville star at his home. That’s when Cameron made his move.

“I told Nido I didn’t want to take advantage of our friendship but I really wanted to talk to Gatlin about this idea,” says Cameron. “He said not to worry about it, so that night for just a brief moment there was no one around him and I walked over there and made my pitch. He said he thought it was a great idea and that he’d be back in High Point the following February and we’d talk some more about it.

“So I picked him up at the airport and showed him around the campus,” he continued. “The Hospitality Center was under construction at the time, with a five-hundred-seat auditorium, and I asked him if he would come back and perform and at that time we would announce that we were forming the Larry Gatlin School of Country Music. He said he’d gladly do the performance but then he paused and didn’t answer the second part. Finally, he said, ‘I don’t like the term ‘country music,’ and I said, ‘I don’t understand. That’s how you’ve made your living the last forty years.'”

Then Gatlin offered a critical distinction that would ultimately chart the direction of the yet-unformed school.

“He asked me, ‘Do you have a cosmetology program? Don’t you think opera stars get made up and get their hair done before they go onstage just like Grand Ole Opry stars?’ He asked, ‘Do you have a business program? Every entertainer needs a manager and a tour manager and a merchandise manager and a business manager.’ He asked, ‘Do you have a graphic arts program? Who do you think designs CD covers and T-shirts and websites and promo kits?'”

Cameron got the message: that confining the school to country music would be far too limiting and put too many constraints on both the curriculum, the types of students it would attract and the chances for growth.

“I said if we can use your name, you can call it anything you want. He said, ‘You got a deal,’ and we shook hands on it.”

Soon afterward Cameron and Lee Kinard, legendary newscaster and now the college’s director of public affairs, visited one of the small handful of two-year colleges in the country that already had a music technology department up and running, South Plains College in Levelland, Texas.

“We patterned probably half to three-quarters of our initial curriculum after them,” discloses Cameron. “We also brought in some local people like Cliff Miller and songwriter Kristy Jackson to help set it up.”

Still, there was that small matter of funding, and Cameron properly gives credit to the voters of Guilford County for making that happen. A bond referendum was placed on the 2000 ballot, earmarking $9.25 million for GTCC expansion.

“If the bond referendum hadn’t passed, we wouldn’t be sitting here right now,” quips Cameron. “The citizens of Guilford County deserve all the credit. This has truly become a community project, a team effort. The town has embraced it; the students have embraced it; Larry Gatlin has embraced it.”

And as more and more GTCC grads make their way into the wide world of music and all its ancillary fields, word of this hidden treasure will spread to every facet of the industry. Already 20 percent of its students come from over 100 miles away, and it is no stretch to presume that its allure will reach worldwide very soon. If it hasn’t already.

All this, down on Main Street. Who knew?

To comment on this story, email Ogi Overman at ogiman100@yahoo.com

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