Peter Lee Johnson, a sophomore majoring in popular music performance, is at the forefront of the rebellion that our generation heralds, but he once shared in the same uncertainty that most college applicants face amid the cautionary din of overzealous parents.
From the age of 4 Johnson was immersed in classical music, a hobby that eventually led him to join the Seattle Youth Symphony at age 11. To Johnson, the world of music was not discriminatory; it had no genres, no boundaries — just soul.
“Whenever anyone was playing music, I would always see if I could sit in with them — it didn’t matter the style,” Johnson said.
In high school, he played jazz violin but initially looked to USC’s School of Cinematic Arts in order to pursue filmmaking in conjunction with film composition.
“I had written off music as a serious option in college because I only knew of colleges with classical or jazz programs,” Johnson said. “These are great for some people, but I never could see myself playing in an orchestra for a full time job.”
Very few programs promised to craft his contradictory persona of a modern musician, one who utilizes classical roots in order to become more relevant. Traditionally, students join classical programs because they instill good habits and lay the foundation for eventual experimentation based on knowledge of what has been done prior. This climate can stunt the organic expression that comes from a unique artist like Johnson, however.
“I would be practicing these great violin works and then start making up my own version and create new songs all the time,” Johnson said.
This is precisely what he began doing in his one-man shows, invoking classical precision with modern melody.
In the fall of his senior year of high school, Johnson heard of the popular music major, which was poised for its inaugural run at the Thorton School of Music. USC’s fledgling program is the exception, not the rule, however, when it comes to music programs at most universities.
The problem is that most young people today have dreams of playing music in the mainstream, but have limited outlets when it comes to making that dream a reality.
In terms of pop music, I’m consistently disappointed with the mainstream, but if more pop music programs existed, prodigies like Johnson might be less likely to bow out of music early to avoid classical education and conservatory style programs. The existence of specialized, arts-focused majors is often the linchpin for indecisive college applicants.
“If it wasn’t for USC, I probably would not be doing music officially in college,” he said.
Recently, Peter Lee Johnson performed alongside artists such as Javon Johnson, Sonos and the Luminario Ballet at USC’s Spark Multimedia Showcase. On stage, Johnson was classical and casual, a real smooth operator. But it comes from a place that is genuine and unassuming. Johnson smiles often but only to include you in the moment, not in expectation of applause.
He is radical and traditional, professional and bashful. The spotlight suits him, but Johnson is the type of artist who would just as soon play at his friend’s graduation party or Ground Zero Café. To watch Peter Lee Johnson is to watch an individual doing what he lives for.
At the Oscars, film composer Michael Giacchino gave a heartfelt acceptance speech that echoed Dustin Hoffman’s the year he accepted the Best Actor award for Kramer vs. Kramer, which recognized the nobility of being an artist.
“Listen to me: if you want to be creative, get out there and do it,” Giacchino said. It’s not a waste of time.” Quite eloquently, he spoke about the lack of support that some kids have at home, which is so crucial to the development of any artist. He made it clear that he was not subject to these restrictions as an adolescent and was consistently affirmed throughout his life, and used this platform to defy societal conceptions about creative careers.
The problem is that people assume artistic careers belong only to the names they see on billboards; but there are many individuals who have found a niche in each of these markets, allowing them to succeed on their own terms.
“People are definitely discouraged, but when I get discouraged, I just think about how many opportunities there are that have to do with music,” he said.
Recently, Peter Lee Johnson secured a job as a violinist for Mark Salling to promote Salling’s CD on Ellen and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Let us not forget, of course, that Johnson is still a sophomore at USC. He is certainly not a household name, but with relentless determination, Johnson is beginning to make music into something stable and economic.
“I know I won’t be happy unless I’m doing something with music,” he said.
For an artist, this outlook will always override any uncertainty. This is the mindset that makes the poorest of artists wealthy and carries them through the rejection and heartbreak. This is the mindset that will define our generation. And if we’re lucky, Johnson will have something to do with the soundtrack.
Peter Lee Johnson is a dreammaker.