Alumni Maintain Close Relationship with BestSemester’s Contemporary Music Center

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CMC alum from Semester 21, Clayton Thornton, running lighting on tour with Old Crow Medicine Show during the summer of 2012.
CMC alum from Semester 21, Clayton Thornton, running lighting on tour with Old Crow Medicine Show during the summer of 2012.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Clayton Thornton has been fascinated with lighting and set design since the age of 12, when he was put in charge of his first show at his school's new multimillion-dollar theatre.

That fascination became a career after Thornton spent a semester of his senior year of college at BestSemester's Contemporary Music Center in Nashville, where CMC Director Warren Pettit spotted his talent and introduced Thornton to the owner of a local production company.

One week before Thornton's CMC semester ended, Jeff Lavallee, owner of that production company, hired Thornton as the lighting director for a two-week tour with Christian rockers Family Force 5, Hawk Nelson, and Manafest. Thornton returned to Nashville the following year to volunteer for Lavallee. He also toured with Old Crow Medicine Show through a different company that summer.

"CMC capitalized on skill sets we already had as students," said Thornton, who graduated in 2012 from North Greenville University in Tigerville, S.C., drove to Nashville the day after graduation, and now works with Lavallee at 44 Production Designs. "They brought in people specifically to help with our particular talents. I'd had 10 years of lighting experience at that point, and they brought in Jeff to work with me. Now he's my boss."

Thornton is one of about 120 CMC alumni living and working in Nashville, where the BestSemester program has been located since the fall of 2010. With its state-of-the-art facilities, faculty resources, and industry connections, CMC remains a crucial resource for alums trying to make it in Music City.

"Our local alumni are very involved in the life of the CMC," said Natalie Ferwerda, who directs the program's music business track and coordinates at least one alumni event, such as a songwriters' feedback session or an outing to a local show, every month.

In addition to attending weekly student concerts on campus, known as CMC Live, local alumni are occasionally asked to perform themselves, according to Ferwerda. They're also invited to take advantage of CMC's facilities-including its recording studio, photography studio and gear, and performance space-during the program's breaks and in the summer when current students are not using the facilities.

The program's alumni connection is so robust, in fact, that many alums-like Hannah Smith, who attended CMC in the fall of 2009 and returned the following semester as an artist-in-residence-even followed the program to Nashville when it moved after nine years at Martha's Vineyard.

Smith and her roommate, fellow CMC alum Alissa Abeler, are aspiring singer-songwriters who make up the alternative folk duo The Daily Fare.

"You live in an environment at CMC with people who have the exact same ideas and goals," said Smith, who grew up in North Syracuse, N.Y., and graduated from Johnson University, located in Knoxville, Tenn. "It's life-changing, perspective-changing. A huge group of my CMC friends moved here after the program [moved], and so did I."

Like many other local alums, Smith and Abeler attend CMC Live every week to reconnect with program faculty and support current students. For Smith, who considers herself "the encourager" amongst an intimidating 60-plus audience, providing a helping hand for other aspiring musicians is what it's all about.

"Going to students' shows, seeing new artists giving all their effort, watching them grow from beginning to end-it's inspiring to us too," she said. "I know what it's like. And I let them know that they have a place to go to if they want to be in community with other musicians."

CMC's dynamic program-alumni connection provides more than just student mentoring, however. For Thornton and his work at 44 Designs, the benefits to both parties are indispensably practical.

"It's more than just the students," he said, though he invited all 41 students to come tour his shop and learn about lighting production this semester. "It's the facilities, staff, and social circle. The CMC has connections greater than me or my company, and we in turn have connections that can help CMC."

Thornton regularly provides lighting for CMC events, such as the semester's kickoff Winter Jam show. Likewise, Ferwerda helps connect his company with student help.

"If I need extra hands, I shoot Natalie a text, and she hooks me up with students," he said. "If I can show them something about lighting, we can both be future resources to each other."

Nathan Allen is a senior from Asbury University in Wilmore, Ky. This semester, like Thornton a year earlier, he is studying in the CMC's technical track and hopes eventually "to move to Nashville and do studio work-that's the dream."

In just his first five weeks at CMC this semester, Allen is already broadening his focus from audio production to "all things tech production"-influenced, in large part, by watching and learning from alums like Thornton.

"When we visited his studio, Thornton talked about how companies do lighting design," said Allen. "He introduced me to lighting in a whole new way."

Allen, Smith, and Thornton all agree that the program's heavy emphasis on maintaining industry and alumni connections provides an indispensible collaboration among students, faculty, and alums.

"Alums and faculty essentially teach us the same things, but alums have ‘made it,'" said Allen. "We have a different type of respect and response to their advice. They're at the next level, putting theory into practice-showing us ‘this is what I do and why.'"

In addition to encouraging current students to stay connected to the CMC as alumni, both Smith and Thornton have the same advice for new CMC students.

"Try everything. Do everything. Don't be discouraged," said Smith. "Know there's an entire community behind you in this."

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About BestSemester: The Council for Christian Colleges & Universities offers 12 off-campus study programs, collectively branded BestSemester®, which expand learning opportunities for students from CCCU campuses and are designated as culture-shaping or culture-crossing programs. Culture-shaping BestSemester programs are: American Studies Program (Washington, D.C.); Contemporary Music Center (Nashville); Los Angeles Film Studies Center (Los Angeles); and Washington Journalism Center (Washington, D.C.). Culture-crossing BestSemester programs are: Australia Studies Centre; China Studies Program; India Studies Program; Latin American Studies Program; Middle East Studies Program; Programmes in Oxford; and Uganda Studies Program. Visit www.bestsemester.com for program details.

About the CCCU: The Council for Christian Colleges & Universities is a higher education association of 172 intentionally Christ-centered institutions around the world. The 118 member campuses in North America are all fully-accredited, comprehensive colleges and universities with curricula rooted in the arts and sciences. In addition, 54 affiliate campuses from 20 countries are part of the CCCU. The Council's mission is to advance the cause of Christ-centered higher education and to help our institutions transform lives by faithfully relating scholarship and service to biblical truth. Visit www.cccu.org.