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Liberty’s Michael W. Smith Center for Commercial Music brings Nashville to Lynchburg


Producer Ben Shive addresses students before a recording session in the Liberty School of Music recording studio (Photos by Eva Soderstrom)

Last week, Liberty University students had the privilege of learning from some of the finest recording session musicians in Nashville who brought their wealth of industry knowledge to classrooms and studios at the Center for Music and the Worship Arts.

The three-day visit was facilitated by Liberty’s Michael W. Smith Center for Commercial Music. The center launched in 2019 and seeks to provide students with connections to the professional music industry. The center regularly welcomes visiting musicians, including Smith himself.

Drummer Dan Needham helps a school of music student tune the recording studio drum set

Liberty welcomed producer Ben Shive, who was awarded the GMA Dove Award for Christmas Album of the Year in 2008 for his production on “Christmas is Here” by Brandon Heath and is also known for his work on Colony House’s album “When I Was Younger”; guitarist Dave Cleveland, a world-renowned guitarist who has played on more than 45,000 radio tracks for Miley Cyrus, Little Big Town, Chris Tomlin, Amy Grant, Steven Curtis Chapman, and others; Danny O’Lannerghty, a well-known bass player in the Christian music industry who has recorded with David Phelps, Newsong, Jacki Velasquez, Anthony Evans, Amy Grant, Michael Card, and many others; and drummer Dan Needham, who has recorded with Garth Brooks, Nick Jonas, Nick Lachey, Josh Groban, Michael McDonald, Kenny Loggins, Jeremy Camp, Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith, Steven Curtis Chapman, Israel Houston, Marc Broussard, CeCe Winans, and Chris Tomlin among others.

Cleveland said that not only is the caliber of students at Liberty impressive, but also the experiences that the Center for Commercial Music affords them.

“I’ve been able to actually help some of the students from Liberty get pretty good positions in Nashville because I so trust what they’re teaching them here,” he said. “I really believe in what they’re doing. If I trust and believe in somebody, I’ll be their biggest fan.”

Cleveland said Liberty’s School of Music is focused on giving students hands-on experience before they graduate.

Dave Cleveland (middle) and Ben Shive (right) look on as Associate Professor of Audio Engineering & Music Production and Director of Audio Production Nathan Zwald (left) works on a school of music student’s track in studio.

“I think (the School of Music) has a real vision for not just giving them a degree, but giving them opportunities to pursue their dream through the music industry,” he said. “I think everything they are doing is bigger than the piece of paper. It’s really for the life experience, so they can leave this area and be as prepared as possible for all that’s coming.”

In addition to speaking in classes, the professionals worked with students in Liberty’s recording studio and offered advice on students’ own demos. Students were also allowed to sit in the recording studio to observe how the musicians approached a recording session, using students’ demos as their projects.

“It was really cool to have my song come to life through them playing because they have so many years of experience,” said Elizabeth Rajok, a first-year graduate student in Music Education – Performance. Her song “Polished” was one of the tracks that Associate Professor of Audio Engineering & Music Production and Director of Audio Production Nathan Zwald chose for the visiting musicians to take artistic liberties with as they taught the students. “It was just really exciting because I do a lot on my own with producing. So it was fun getting to hear their perspectives on it and bring (to the table) pieces that I had never thought of before.”

Senior Recording, Engineering & Producing student Adam Belcher said that it was exciting to see his friend’s song being reviewed by some of the best in the business.

“They’ve put in their 10,000 hours, and they can help bring her song even higher,” he said. “It’s already amazing and now it gets even better.”

Danny O’Lannerghty (left) advises a student practicing bass

O’Lannerghty, marveled at how intentional the center is in helping students succeed.

“I’m just always impressed with what Liberty is doing to give the students a leg up to go out and do what they do in the world,” he said. “I’m always amazed by it every time I come here.”

O’Lannerghty encourages students to get practical experience outside the classroom, such as performing live any chance they get, so that they can learn more about themselves as musicians.

“We all have to fall down to learn to pick ourselves back up,” he said. “Whether that’s professionally, as an engineer, as a bassist, teacher, or whatever. You kind of have to figure out for yourself what works for you because we’re all different.”

In the process of gaining experience, O’Lannerghty said that one does not always know what the Lord will do with their lives and in what direction within the industry He may direct them.

“That’s a whole other part of it, because God doesn’t waste anything,” he said.

The next guest that students can look forward to working alongside will be Smith himself, when he visits the School of Music in November.

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