Vega, Leonard perform in course on popular music

Last Thursday, Professor of music W. Anthony Sheppard invited two guest musicians, Suzanne Vega, an American singer-songwriter and mother of Ruby Froom ’17, and Gerry Leonard, an Irish lead guitarist who has worked extensively with David Bowie, to his “History of Rock” class. In teaching this course, which follows rock music from its roots and examines events and artists that helped revolutionize the genre, Sheppard hoped to find a guest musician for his students as he had in many of his other music courses.

“In my two decades here, I’ve often tried to bring relevant musicians and composers to speak with my students,” Sheppard said. “In the last three semesters alone, we had the [Metropolitan] Opera composer Nico Muhly in my new opera course, the “King of Chinese Pop” Leehom Wang ’98 visit a course on cross-cultural influence and globalization, and today Suzanne Vega and Gerry Leonard in the popular music course.”

Sheppard formalized his plans for the special guest shortly before the semester began and was thrilled to end up with two separate artists with distinct styles and experiences.

“I cautiously approached senior music major Ruby Froom back in January about inviting her mother, and Suzanne immediately accepted the invitation,” Sheppard said. “Having the amazing guitarist Gerry Leonard, who has worked with Vega and David Bowie, agree to join us as well was just fantastic.”

Vega, who has two certified platinum albums and is most famous for her two top-10 hits “Luka” and “Tom’s Diner,” answered questions from Sheppard in front of the class, focusing mainly on the songwriting process. She spoke to students about her folk background and other musical influences and explained the process of how her songs go from their early composition stages through production. Vega also discussed the importance of the lyrics and musical style in popular music, expanding on the theme that students had already studied and discussed in great detail throughout the course, and sang some of her work in front of the class.

Next, Leonard demonstrated several guitar-playing techniques before the class. Drawing from his experience collaborating with Bowie on his Heathen, Reality and The Next Day albums and touring with Bowie twice, Leonard used an array of pedals and other sound-manipulation techniques to demonstrate the versatility of the electric guitar across numerous musical styles and explain how he developed his distinct sound while creating guitar arrangements for Bowie.

The event, which took place in Brooks-Rogers Recital Hall during the usual Thursday morning class time, was open to all of the roughly eighty students enrolled in the class. Sheppard also invited music majors, several music faculty, guitar students of Rob Phelps and songwriting students of Bernice Lewis to the event, but due to concerns over the capacity of the classroom, he could not allow any students to bring family or friends.

“Today was one of my all-time favorite teaching experiences,” Sheppard said.