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Graduating From The School of Rock

Last month Ian Farmer and Jake Ewald released their third album with the band Modern Baseball, this weekend they’ll officially become Drexel graduates.

Turning pro before graduating — or instead of graduating — is often the temptation faced by prodigious talents. When the immediacy of an opportunity to perform a craft outflanks the benefit of training to perfect it, students are faced with an enviable but difficult decision: stay or go?

Though Farmer and Ewald, who’s album “Holy Ghost” hit stores in May, have experienced the full trappings of success in the music industry — opening for big names, touring internationally, releasing two successful albums — finishing a Drexel degree has always been part of the plan.

“Their first record had so much success it drove them out of school, but they decided early on that they really wanted to finish up and get their degree. So they’ve been coming back between tours to put in the class time and finish off their senior projects,” said Ryan Schwabe, an assistant professor in Westphal College and the pair’s senior project advisor.

Educators like Schwabe face the challenge of preparing these talented students for an uncertain future in a period of time that can be rather fluid. He’s seen enough bands flame out after early success or fall victim to the lure of a contract offer to know how useful a bachelor’s degree can be; but he also understands that the diploma isn’t necessarily the piece of paper that takes priority in the eyes of aspiring young artists.

“Nine out of 10 students’ eyes are bigger than the offer,” Schwabe said. “I try to infuse them with a bit of reality. They may have an opportunity, but it might not be as big or as great an offer as they think it is.”

What this means is the agent making the offer is just trying to sign a lot of young bands in case one of them makes it. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the company is invested in helping them be successful or plotting a course toward that success. This is common practice for the talent-scouting wing of music companies.

“I see a lot of this, some of my friends had these offers while we were in school. There are a lot of smoke and mirrors in the industry and 18-year-olds can be fooled,” Schwabe said. “It’s our job as professors, and people with industry experience, to help them weigh the options.”

Farmer, Ewald and Modern Baseball were in the fortunate position of having industry pros like Schwabe as advisors at Drexel, while also benefitting from the physical resources of the Music Industry Program — namely, the recording studio where they put together their first album “Sports” — and a vibrant basement music scene in the area.

With the success of their first tour and their second album “Your Gonna Miss It All” rising to a Billboard Top 100 ranking, the band members took some time off from school but worked out a plan for coming back to finish.

“They were determined to finish their education, to the point where they actually turned down an opportunity to tour as the opener for a petty big band just because they needed to be on campus to take some required classes,” Schwabe said.

This sort of class scheduling model is not unusual, according to Music Industry Program Director Jim Klein, it’s something that the program is flexible enough to accommodate so that students can take advantage of experiential learning opportunities.

“The Music Industry program tends to attract motivated and talented students,” Klein said. “It’s not uncommon for a student to take a leave of absence to pursue a professional opportunity. What we try to do is give them the benefit of our experience. For example, students are often offered jobs by their co-op employers. It’s pretty tempting. Ultimately, they need to do what they think is best, but we understand that there is a direct trade-off between a student taking an immediate opportunity rather than finishing an education that will make them even more employable in the long term.”

By taking classes between tours, and working with academic advisors and professors to take some of the required classes on a non-traditional order, and scheduling special topics classes that they could fit into their schedule Ewald and Farmer were able to work toward a degree while also touring and recording with the band.

“It wasn’t easy,” Schwabe said. “They had to work hard and make some sacrifices to get through the program, but we were willing to work with them to allow them to learn through the experience of touring and working in the industry. Experiential learning is part of our university’s DNA, so we’re always trying to be flexible when opportunities like this arise.”

Ewalt and Farmer finished their final degree requirements in the winter term. For their senior projects each produced a vinyl solo album.

“These guys are very humble,” Schwabe said. “They’re great songwriters, but they still very much look up to people in the industry who have had some more experience—they’re still very teachable.”

Schwabe would know, he served as the advisor on both projects.

As happenstance would have it, Schwabe also joined the Drexel-laden team of professionals who helped to turn out the band’s latest release “Holy Ghost.” Through two of his friends, Joe Reinhart and Jon Low, both Drexel graduates, who produced and mixed the album, respectively, Schwabe’s professional services were enlisted to master the recording.

“This band is something Drexel can really be proud of,” Schwabe said. “From the guys who are in it, to the people producing it, to their manager and the team that makes their music videos — there are Drexel graduates involved in every aspect.”

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