Rob Cutietta photos by Mark Berndt

Rocking Music's ivory tower

Pasadena’s Rob Cutietta, dean of USC’s Thornton School of Music, gives props to pop in the university’s fall launch of groundbreaking degree programs.

By Ilsa Setziol 10/01/2009

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This fall, USC’s prestigious Thornton School of Music is ushering pop and rock into the decorous world of academia.
The top-ranked school, famous for symphonic, vocal and choral music, is launching an undergraduate degree program in popular music performance, the first of its kind for a major university. Now celebrating its 125th anniversary, Thornton is also adding an undergraduate degree in choral music and a bachelor of arts in vocal jazz.

Ambitious? Precedent-setting? Certainly. The same can be said of the architect of the school’s expansion and its fresh take on music education — Pasadena’s Rob Cutietta, Thornton’s dean for the past seven years. (Listeners of KUSC-FM [91.5] are likely to have heard him answer questions about music on the station’s Arts Alive program.) Get to know Cutietta a bit, and this modernizing of the Thornton School seems inevitable.

Of course, you don’t get to be a dean at USC without serious academic credentials, such as Cutietta’s doctorate in music education and psychology which he earned from Pennsylvania State University in 1982. Still, the dean has the approachability of a regular guy who has spent a lot time in pubs. Which he has. (He also holds a Mickey Mouse diploma, but we’ll get to that later.)

Cutietta, 56, grew up in a Cleveland suburb in the late ’50s and early ’60s, slaving away on an accordion. “I absolutely hated every moment of it,” he recalls. “My dad loved music. He was not trained. He would sit at the piano and play, not well at all, but he loved it so much, he wanted to make sure that my brother and

I both had lessons. Being Italian, I had to start on the accordion.” Young Cutietta dreamed about switching to piano. Then one day, he snuck a red transistor radio into his elementary school. When he flipped it on at lunchtime, the Beatles tune

I Want to Hold Your Hand rocked his world. “It was so different from anything else I’d ever heard. Suddenly, I wanted to play guitar.”

Cutietta dug into the electric bass and, by high school, he was good enough to play professionally. He gigged five nights a week in local bars (a tradition he continued throughout most of his academic career, playing everything from rock and jazz to country music).

By the time he enrolled as an undergrad at Cleveland State University, he was already a studio musician recording jingles. “I went to college because it was something to do, more than anything else,” he says. “It fit in because I worked at night.” He couldn’t study electric bass at school, so he mastered classical guitar. He also studied choral music and later spent several years conducting middle and high school choruses, as well as church choirs.

It was while singing in the university chorus that he met his future wife, Marybeth. She was 23; he, 19. “Although he was playing in bars, he was too young to go to bars,” she recalls. “I was dating other fellows — law students — who took me to bars. With Rob, I would horseback ride.”

In graduate school, Cutietta researched how the brain processes and stores music. He held professorships at Montana and Kent State universities. And by the ’90s, he was head of the School of Music and Dance at the University of Arizona, where he authored Raising Musical Kids: A Guide for Parents (Oxford University Press; 2001).

Cutietta loved Tucson, but he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to head a prestigious music school. And when he saw USC’s posting of the dean’s job at Thornton in 2002, he thought it was a perfect match. The music school boasted top-notch classical training, including choral programs; it also offered a respected music industry major and an unusual film-and-television scoring program. “If I was going to create a school of music,” he says, “this is how I’d make it. When I look at other schools, they’re focused on just one thing. I’ve never been focused on one part of music. There’s so much vitality there.”

Still, electric guitar players couldn’t get an undergraduate degree playing their instruments. To Cutietta that seemed wrong: “We’re missing so many great musicians who can’t get advanced training simply because of the instruments they play.” So he encouraged USC faculty members to write an entirely new curriculum for popular music performance, and he brought in high-profile artists like rocker Steve Miller, Red Hot Chili Pepper bassist Flea, Motown songwriter Lamont Dozier and other professionals to offer input. He also persuaded the classical music faculty to embrace the new program, which could have hurt the school’s reputation if it hadn’t been properly developed. Cutietta insists the new major is as rigorous as those for classical musicians: “If you’re in the popular music program, you’re expected to be improvisatory, to be able to create music. So they’ll be taking courses in songwriting; that is not an easy skill to learn.”

Grant Gershon, music director of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, applauds Cutietta’s flair for innovation. “The new programs he’s put into place are really groundbreaking in the field of higher education,” he says of the pop performance major, as well as the undergraduate degrees in choral music and vocal jazz. “Sometimes even the most successful music schools tend to be insular institutions. That could be said of Thornton in the past.”

To help move the school forward, Cutietta has strengthened its ongoing ties to music professionals. He launched an advisory board that includes Gershon and songwriter Randy Newman and recruited heavy hitters such as violinist Midori Goto, cellist Ralph Kirshbaum and saxophonist Bob Mintzer to join Thornton’s faculty. “Rob is very unassuming,” Gershon says. “Therefore he’s able to mix with people in different settings, from cultivating donors to working with nonacademic kinds of artists. People feel comfortable with him.”

When not on the job, Cutietta can be found in his attic, manning the controls of his old-gauge model trains, or cruising new ones at The Original Whistle Stop on Colorado Boulevard. He’s an unabashed fan of Disneyland and the Disney Institute, the Walt Disney Co.’s leadership training arm, which he attended. He continues to honor his institute pledge to sport images of the Mouse. “You will never find me without something Mickey,” he says. “I have a whole collection of watches and lapel pins. I’ve been doing this since I ‘graduated’ in 1998, so by this point, I’m superstitious that if I ever dared break the pledge something really, really bad might happen.”

For all his accomplishments as dean, Cutietta has one regret: He doesn’t gig as much as he used to. He occasionally plays electric and acoustic bass guitars in a jazz trio that includes USC President Steve Sample on drums and former Thornton faculty member Shelly Berg on piano. The trio is called BCS (for the players’ last initials). “But it has a double meaning,” says Cutietta, “referring also to the Bowl Championship Series that USC football usually wins.”

The dean prefers playing music to listening to it. Still, to garner support for Thornton, he and Marybeth schmooze potential donors and artists at concerts — be they at Disney Hall or L.A.’s jazz club Catalina — several nights a week.
When pressed, he cites acoustic folk as a favorite genre. But Cutietta says the music that inspires him has more to do with who is playing it: “There are certain underlying things in music — musicality, artistry, expression; those are much more important to me than style.”

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