Eleven Wheaton students piled into a van in early November for a whirlwind weekend trip to find out what it takes to break into the music industry.
Organized by Wheaton’s Advancement and Alumni Relations Division in partnership with Wheaton’s Conservatory of Music, the trip was intended to introduce students to alumni professionals involved in every aspect of the music industry, from performance and production to writing and business.
Thanks to the vision and gracious hospitality of David Hamilton ’86, a successful producer, orchestral writer, and arranger who moved to Nashville in 1989 with his wife Sandy Kraft Hamilton ’86, the trip involved meetings with both alumni in the arts and prominent Nashville contributors to the world of music.
Joy Tobelmann Fletcher ’87, an event planner who spent years managing artists and tours and working for the Gospel Music Association, helped orchestrate the three-day schedule. “We showed them the talented, amazing people behind the music reel,” she says.
Students met with entertainment attorney Ted Graffam ’93 and with Tom Snider ’84, an award-winning music writer and producer, who has written theme songs for television. For business major Jeremy Browning ’13, the broad exposure to the industry was only part of why the trip “far exceeded” expectations. With hopes of working in entertainment and media, he took note of key elements for success that spanned specialties—like professionalism and “an increasing familiarity with musical trends.”
Students used the van rides between stops to debrief and discuss the larger questions of entering a competitive, often cutthroat, industry as Christians. They explored questions such as one posed by vocal performance major Elise Azkoul ’13: “Are people selling out if they don’t label themselves as a Christian artist?”
Elise sees herself as a classically trained jazz singer and wants to someday write songs for Disney. “We saw the industry from every side and got a taste for all it could be,” she says. After hearing stories from other Wheaton alumni, Elise came to realize that none of them gave up on their passions. “They worked every job,” she says, “and God has been faithful to them through music. He is faithful over time.”
Ian Eskelin ’92, a producer, songwriter, solo artist, and founding member of the Grammy-nominated Christian rock band All Star United, also met with the group at his own studio in Franklin, Tennessee. He has more than 30 top-ten singles in the United States, including 12 number-one charting songs, and has won two Dove Awards.
“We talked about transitioning from college to chasing after those dreams,” he says. “You have to be just crazy enough and brave enough to chase them through open doors—or slammed doors, in some cases.”
David Hamilton adds, “When you step into the creative world, there are a lot of opportunities, but you have to hit the ball when you step up to the plate. There are a lot of people waiting in line behind you.”
David and Sandy Hamilton are both alumni of the Wheaton College Conservatory of Music. After David finished graduate school, they followed his dream of working in the music business and moved to Nashville. Since that time, he has worked on projects for artists across a wide range of genres and has recorded in studios around the world. He talked with the students about preparing for his upcoming recording for Disney at Abbey Road Studios in London.
Last year David was invited to join the Leadership Council— a group of Wheaton alumni, parents, and friends formed two years ago by the alumni relations staff for the purpose of coming alongside administrators and faculty in helping students consider God’s calling and make important connections.
This trip to Nashville came about thanks to David’s willingness to lead the way. He says, “The students came with wide eyes and brains spinning, wrapped up in every session. They saw what makes the music industry turn from a business standpoint, publishing, engineering, creating—all of it.”
This exposure to the industry struck a chord for David Christensen ’14. David grew up in a missionary family in Belgium and was highly involved in music through the church, as well as dabbling in writing pop music in both French and English. “I’m so appreciative of what I’m learning, but it has been focused on contemporary classical music. During this trip, I started thinking of myself in the context of the pop music world,” David says. “Hearing from these artists stirred that up in my heart again.” David plans to head for the Contemporary Music Center in Nashville after Wheaton to take the next step in bridging the classical with pop.
Sharing the reality of what students would be facing was of utmost importance for David Hamilton. “We took the students to some big studios, and there was a lot of ‘wow.’ But I didn’t want to sugarcoat anything for them. They need to know the reality of the challenges ahead of them. They need to know what it means to be self-employed and never know when the next paycheck is coming.
“You have to be passionate and commit to this,” David adds. “It’s too challenging to go into it just kind of liking it. You have to be sold out to it.”
For Raluca Bojor ’15, David’s advice was just the ticket. “I kept thinking, I want to be like him,” she says. “That’s how much he influenced me. He writes, produces, arranges, and knows everything about bringing an idea to life.”
Raluca came to Wheaton from Brasov, Romania, to study music composition with the piano as her main instrument. “This trip made me realize that Wheaton is just a starting point. It broadened my horizons. It made me think, I can write anything! I started thinking more outside the box and realized I am learning all of this simply as a foundation for what I want to do next.”
In their “caucus” time at the end of the tour, David Hamilton shared again with the students that now is the time to put in the practice hours and the studying. “It will come back in ways you may not realize now,” he told them.
And then David left them with a final challenge: humility. “There is so much arrogance, especially in the creative industry. It’s all about ‘me’ and who I know. Be grateful for the gifts God has given, be faithful, and integrate those gifts with your faith.”