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2021 Commencement Information
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Popular Music at Catawba College

America's Rock U

Catawba College is one of only about a dozen American colleges and universities that offers a full program of study designed specifically for students Catawba-Vernaculars-Hard-Rock.jpgof popular music. It's made us home to a growing number of talented musicians from across the country and earned us the reputation as America's Rock U.

Such distinctiveness is one of the reasons In Tune Monthly has ranked Catawba as a Best Music School for five years running. It puts us on a short list of elite institutions of higher learning that includes Juilliard, Peabody, and Berklee. The Princeton Review has also written about us, "For students of all stripes with an interest in theater or music, Catawba demands consideration."  

Student Success
When we say Catawba draws talented students, we mean it. One clear mark of their abilities: five of our students have placed 1st, 2nd or 3rd place in the national John Lennon Songwriting Scholarship contest over the past six years.

That's an unrivaled result for a school of our size   in a contest that receives thousands of entries each year.

We're also proud of the recent success of 2006 Catawba graduate, and now Catawba Young Artist in Residence, Dennis Reed. Dennis recently signed a major-label record contract with Universal Music. He also reached the quarter finals in this summer's America's Got Talent.  Appearing with members of his nonprofit Inspire the Fire, Reed's break  out performance had AGT judge Howie Mandel proclaiming, "It's  phenomenal!"

The Catawba Advantage
What sets us apart from other colleges and universities when it comes to popular music? Let's start with the Catawba Advantage. Compare us to other colleges/universities  with  programs of study in popular music, and you'll discover these important benefits:

  • AFFORDABILITY. College is a major investment of  time and money. At Catawba, our students enjoy a low net price (the amount you actually pay for your education). That's especially true when you factor in scholarships and other financial aid.
  • STAGE TIME. Simply put, there's no substitute for performing if you want to become a successful performer. It's like time in the pilot's seat when learning  to fly. Catawba's new popular music students take the stage within weeks and enjoy multiple performance opportunities throughout their four years with us.
  • SIZE. Catawba is NOT a popular music factory where you compete for attention alongside 1200 other guitarists or hundreds of other singers. We're just the right size for you to enjoy a range of opportunities, learn alongside other talented musicians, and receive the personal attention you need to grow as an artist.
  • RETENTION. Catawba enjoys a sustained persistence to graduation rate of over 90% for students in both our popular music and music business degree concentrations. That's significantly better than the best known  popular music school. It's also the surest sign that we're doing things right.
  • AmericasRockU.jpgPURSUING YOUR MUSIC. At some other colleges and universities with degree programs in popular music, you're required to study classical music almost as much as the styles that really interest you. You're told things like, "studying classical guitar will make you a better rock player." Wow! Imagine the rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix could have been  if he'd only studied classical music. LOL. Obviously, that's a concept that doesn't hold much water when you think about it. At Catawba, from  our ensembles to the private lessons we offer and beyond, you have  more latitude to pursue your music. (If it includes classical music, we of course support that.)

Job 1
Being distinctive is absolutely essential in popular music. In fact, it's far more important than pyrotechnic facility on an instrument or an advanced understanding of jazz theory. Therefore, the most important advantage we offer is a fertile environment for you to develop a singular artistic voice. As jazz legend Miles Davis once noted, "It can take a number of years for a person to sound like himself." Catawba provides you with the environment to do so.

Artist Development Program

Our co-curricular, student-managed Artist Development Program truly sets Catawba apart from the pack. Each student chooses at least one of four tracks* to pursue:     

  • spotlight artist
  • backing musician
  • engineer/producer
  • manager

Throughout the semester, ADP artists  perform on live weekend showcases and record their original works in our Pro Tools studio. The showcases are organized by the ADP management bureau and both live events and recording sessions utilize the program's backing musicians and  engineers/producers. It provides everyone in the ADP with lots of practical experience patterned after what's commonly found in the music industry. All aspects of the program are student managed with faculty supervision.

*Many of our students pursue more than one track.

At Catawba, we  put a premium on know-how. It's the combination of knowledge and experience that results in true relevance, the most important factor in success. As an example, take the internship experience  of a recent Catawba student at Soundcheck, an important Nashville rehearsal venue for major acts before they tour. It was our student rather than one from another school who was  being given opportunities, because she already had lots of practical experience setting up and running a live sound system. That's know-how. That's relevance.

Rock is Just the Start
rapoff.jpgWe may be known as Rock U, but a variety of popular styles thrive at Catawba. The full gamut of popular music at Catawba includes:

  • rock
  • alternative
  • urban
  • country
  • American roots
  • jazz
  • contemporary Christian
  • gospel

Popular Music Ensembles
Catawba's Vernaculars popular music ensembles are central to our curriculum. They perform important legacy works and Abbey-Road-HRC--for-web_000.jpgcurrent music straight off the charts. Last year, our flagship  ensemble, the Vernaculars All Stars, performed all of the Beatles Abbey Road  album at the Hard Rock Cafe in New York City's Times Square. You can watch the Vernaculars in action by simply searching for Catawba Vernaculars on YouTube.

In recent years, the Vernaculars have performed works by:  Incubus, Motion City Soundtrack, Mat Kearney, Sara  Bareilles, Matchbox Twenty, LeAnn Rimes, Muse, James Morrison, Jimmy Eat  World, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, AFI, OK Go, Coldplay, the Almost, Red Jumpsuit  Appartus, Tally Hall, Paramore, Mewithoutyou, Switchfoot, Foo Fighters,  Death Cab For Cutie, My Chemical Romance, Goo Goo Dolls, Snow Patrol,  Gavin DeGraw, the Violent Femmes, John Mayer, Regina Spektor, Jack's  Mannequin, Dave Matthews, the Black Crowes, Nirvana, Live, the Killers,  Franz Ferdinand, Mary J. Blige, Christina Aguilera, Carrie Underwood, Corrine Bailey Rae, Eminem and more.

And list keeps growing each semester!

Here's a sampler taken from a recent Vernacaular's  performance of Prince's Purple Rain album.


Another important key to Catawba's success is found in the professionals who teach for us. They include:

  • Dolphus Ramseur, manager of such acts as Columbia  artists the Avett Brothers and the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
  • Jeff Little, longtime musical associate of roots music legend Doc Watson and director of the Catawba College Roots ensemble.
  • Jim Boitnott, guitar wizard and president/CEO of Notion Music.

Pro Tools Studio
studio.jpgMuch of the creative process in popular music takes place in  recording studios. That's why Catawba's Hoke Hall, home to popular music at the college, features a Pro Tools studio where students record their original works and learn the art of engineering and audio production.

Fall Forward into Music
Many prospective students consider pairing a degree in popular music with something like one in music business. They or their parents will often refer to it as "something to fall back on." Double majoring in popular music and music business can  be quite savvy and many of our students do. However, we prefer to look it as helping you "fall forward into" a  music career more than something to "fall back on." Why? It can take time to become successful as a performer in music. Holding down a position within the industry as you do gives you a ringside seat to how things really work, allows you to build a  network for yourself, in addition to other benefits.

Catawba students at Nashville's       
famed RCA Studio B.

The Catawba Gateway
There use to be only three  music industry cities in the country—New York, Los Angeles, and Nashville—and you pretty much had to migrate to one of them to find success. The collapse of the  record industry and the advent of the Internet have changed all of that.(You need look no further than  the Avett Brothers, who built their success without ever leavning North Carolina, to appreciate the point.)

Actually, there can be distinct advantages in avoiding a New York, Los Angeles, or Nashville, at least until you're ready. When you are, New York, Los Angeles, or Nashville are great places for an internship, and Catawba students have been accepted  by a range major music organizations, including Def Jam, Soundcheck, CMT, and more.

That's not to say that you shouldn't get to know a New York, Los Angeles, or Nashville as a student. Our Nashville travel course helps you do just that. You enjoy  inside access to the industry as you meet with executives at  BMI, Sony ATV publishing, and Curb Records, and other major organizations. Some Catawba students even get a chance to try their wings at open mike night at Nashville's famed Bluebird Cafe.

The Bottom LIne
The education we offer students of popular music is directed at one thing, giving you competitive advantages to help you succeed professionally. No one can predict success in the field of popular music, but Catawba can help you be a strong competitor. It's like the two guys being chased by the bear, and one asks, "Do you really think we can outrun a bear?" The other replies, "I don't have to. I just have to outrun you." There are always opportunities in popular music, and they almost always go to those who outrun the competition by being more distinctive and possessing greater know-how.

Auditions & Scholarships
For more information about music business and popular music at Catawba, including auditions and scholarships, contact Dr. David Lee Fish at or by calling (704) 637-4280. (Backstage auditions in conjunction with Vernaculars live appearances as well as online auditions can be arranged.)

As far as auditioning is concerned, we just ask that you play two songs that somehow contrast with one another (playing technique, tempo, or the like). It's great if one of them is an original if you already create your own music. If you sing, feel free to use MP3s of backing tracks. And, no, one of the pieces doesn't need to be classical. We don't expect you to have a classical background or even be able to read music to be accepted as a popular music student at Catawba.

For more information about the popular music degree program, please contact David Lee Fish at