America’s Rock U

America’s Rock U

One of the best things to do on a weekend night at Catawba College is attend an “ADP.” Trust me, I attended a lot of them as a student there! The Artist Development Program, lovingly referred to as “ADP,” (college students shorten everything!) is a co-curricular, student-managed program that is an essential part of the Popular Music degree at Catawba. Created to help give aspiring musicians the environment to develop their unique, artistic voice, the Artist Development Program is just one aspect that makes Catawba’s Popular Music program stand out among the rest, oh, and the fact that they are one of only about a dozen American colleges and universities that offer a full program of study designed specifically for students of popular music. If you have ever been on Catawba’s campus, you know that it is home to a significant number of talented musicians from across the country, and you understand why it’s earned the title of “America’s Rock U,” though a variety of popular styles thrive there, such as alternative, urban, country, roots, jazz, contemporary Christian, and gospel. In Tune Monthly, a magazine catered to teen-aged music students, has deemed Catawba as a Best Music School for five years running, putting them on a short list of elite institutions of higher learning such as Juilliard, Peabody, and Berklee. Five of Catawba’s students have placed 1st, 2nd, or 3rd place in the national John Lennon Songwriting Scholarship contest over the past six years, proving Catawba’s talented student pool. It is crazy to me that a music school with such a good reputation is right in our backyard in Salisbury, North Carolina!


RJ Thornton and friends performing at Catawba College in Salisbury, North Carolina.


Being Distinctive and Having Know-How

These two things are vital when pursuing a career in music. That’s why Catawba caters the popular music major to help students stand out and provide them with a combination of knowledge and experience. Dr. David Fish, the Director of the Popular Music program, says the most important advantage Catawba offers is “a fertile environment where students can develop a singular artistic voice.” Two ways that is done is through the Artist Development Program and the Vernaculars popular music ensembles. For the Artist Development Program, each student chooses a track to pursue: spotlight artist, backing musician, engineer/producer, or manager. Throughout the semester, students perform in live weekend showcases and record original works in one of two state-of-the-art studios on campus. All aspects of the program are student managed. The Vernaculars ensembles perform important legacy works and current music from the charts. In the past, Vernaculars ensembles have performed the complete Beatles Abbey Road album at the Hard Rock Café in Times Square, and performed works on campus by artists such as Christina Aguilera, Incubus, Goo Goo Dolls, Prince, Eminem, John Mayer, and more. RJ Thornton, a 2017 alumnus of Catawba College who double-majored in Music Education and Popular Music and minored in Worship Arts, agrees that being part of this program prepared him for the real world. Currently living in Nashville as a working musician, he says the program taught him to work on the fly.


RJ Thornton doing what he loves most! Jamming out on the drums and making an audience happy!


“Sometimes I get a day or hour notice for gigs that are happening the same day. Because I had to play a wide variety of music in Vernaculars, I’m able to pick up on a certain style pretty quickly. Dr. Fish always told us, ‘Diamonds are made under pressure.’ I still say that to myself.” Ethan Zilka, a current junior at Catawba hailing from Richmond, Virginia, says he found Catawba through an article about “under the radar” music schools. After one tour of the campus, he says he fell in love with the vibe, and now his favorite part about the music program is how much the students are involved. “From the Artist Development Program to the other events we perform in, we work alongside knowledgeable, helpful professors who really want us to be able to understand how to operate successfully and efficiently in the real-world music industry,” Zilka says.


Ethan Zilka performing at his ADP at Catawba College.


Small School, Twice the Opportunities

One thing that makes Catawba stand out from other popular music programs is the size. You don’t have to compete for attention among 1000+ other aspiring musicians/singers, and you can wear many hats. “I was able to sing in two choirs, conduct a small choir I put together, take voice lessons from an opera singer and extra advanced theory lessons, play in multiple Vernaculars, worship in praise band, play at churches around town and in a Catawba musical. Going to a school like Belmont or Berklee, they’re more than likely going to put you in a bubble. ‘You play guitar; therefore, you’re going to play guitar and nothing else.’ Catawba doesn’t work like that. I wanted to play the drums, know how to sing, know what I’m playing and singing, be able to READ what I was playing and singing, and be successful wherever I went with music,” commented RJ Thornton. And I’d say that paid off for him, because now RJ’s living his best life in Nashville, recording sessions for a few studios, playing live alongside alum Damon Atkins and partner Rylie Bourne in and out of town, playing for musicals, and doing copyist and transcription work on Finale.


RJ living his best life performing in Nashville, Tennessee!


His buddy Damon Atkins has also found great success in the music scene post-graduation. Residing in Nashville, he works part time at a music venue and weaves a full-time music career in between. He started a band called LoneHollow (check them out on Spotify!!!) and tours with other artists as a sideman guitarist. Since graduating from Catawba, he’s toured most of the U.S and even performed in a month long European tour! “Catawba music helped me because it was hands on and gave me the opportunity to explore, create, make mistakes, and correct them on the fly,” Damon says. Dr. Fish says that most well-known popular musicians have to learn how to succeed in the music industry on their own through trial and error, and it takes years to learn how to establish a solid groove when performing. But, Catawba’s popular music graduates study with veteran musicians who shorten that process. “As an example, a few years ago, our top popular ensemble at Catawba performed all of Prince’s Purple Rain album with members of the New Power Generation as guests. They marveled at the musical maturity shown by our students at such a young age.”

A Competitive Advantage

“The Popular Music program is a unique program that offers a lot to students who put the work in. You can’t expect to go anywhere with music and a degree if you don’t figure it out there. Catawba gave us a ‘bubble’ to hone our craft with guidance from professors, upperclassmen, and other students. I understood just how valuable my degree was when I met with a drummer out here, Pete Abbott, who after learning I read music, he said, ‘Man, the number of reading drummers in this town just went from 8 to 9,’” RJ laughs.


RJ practicing with his friends Damon (left) and JP (right) at Catawba College.


“I have developed a great work ethic while in the music program at Catawba College. Without the guidance from my professors, I wouldn’t be taking my band on tour this summer, nor would I have the ability to know how to do so,” says Ethan. The education offered at Catawba gives popular music students a competitive advantage to help them succeed professionally. While no one can predict success in the field, Catawba helps its students be a strong competitor, and you can tell they’re doing something right with the successful, working musicians all over the United States who seem to be doing quite alright! I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: Catawba is the hidden gem in our backyard! Keep on the lookout for Vernaculars performances and ADP’s for some fun, free entertainment from talented aspiring musicians!

About The Author

Lauren Turchin

I am in my second year of teaching at Carson High School. I love my students and am passionate about making English fun and relevant for high school kids! In my free time, I enjoy watching Netflix with my perfect husband, laughing with my family, singing all the parts of the Hamilton soundtrack, and reading John Green novels. Born and raised in Salisbury, NC, I am excited about being a part of the Your Rowan and can’t wait to share some of the amazing things going on in Education in Rowan County with ya’ll!