Somewhere in Pinellas County, a young person with a great future in the music business may be standing in his (or her) family garage, plugging in an electric guitar and getting ready to make some very loud three-chord rock ‘n roll.
A few years ago, that same youngster might have rounded up a few friends, learned a few songs, and even played a few dance gigs before giving up the rock star dream in favor of a regular job.
But today, there’s an even-money chance that the rock star dream just might become a reality. If it does, the young garage band music-maker may owe a big thank-you to the personal computer, the sound card, and St. Petersburg College.
Computers have made a lot of things possible for regular people in recent years, and music production is one of them. Music production and audio engineering was once the property of professionals who sat at massive (and expensive) electronic boards in huge production facilities. But no more; today, anyone with a few hundred dollars can buy software, computer sound cards and some other simple equipment and produce surprisingly professional-sounding recordings.
It was a shift that music educators at St. Petersburg College recognized early on.
“Most schools of music and conservatories don’t cater to commercial music,” said Patrick Hernly, an adjunct professor at SPC’s Music Industry and Recording Arts (MIRA) program, a fledgling two-year college program designed to train people for jobs in the commercial music industry.
“Terms like popular music, commercial music, music production, audio engineering — these types of music-making have been in the periphery of classical music,” Hernly said. “It’s been mostly western classical music that’s been offered in virtually all colleges of music.”
That sort of devotion to classical music training existed at SPC as well. But two years ago, with the beginning of the MIRA program, the college opened a new and different track that appeals to a completely different kind of music student.
In the past, college-level music students have usually followed a predictable path in high school – band or orchestra, perhaps, or chorus. But MIRA wasn’t really designed with them in mind.
“Somewhere between 80 and 90 percent of high school students don’t participate in band, orchestra, or choir,” Hernly said. “But many of them love music and are very involved in making music. If you don’t come from a background that involves band, orchestra or chorus, your chances of getting into a traditional university music program are pretty low.”
Jonathan Steele, SPC’s Dean of Humanities and Fine Arts, said the pressure to develop what ultimately became the MIRA program came from music students themselves. The students, he said, wanted technology-based commercial music courses that would help them become more attractive to music industry employers, or make them more skilled as self-employed producers.
“I think that’s why all this rose to the forefront,” he said. “The computer and music-based software applications became more affordable for average people, who could enhance their own creative skills and foster their own personal creativity.”
The person who has really made the MIRA program click is its lead instructor, mark Matthews, a Tampa Bay native who enjoyed a successful 25-year West Coast music career before returning home several years ago. Matthews had a unique understanding of what the MIRA program needed; a rock ‘n roll guitarist with a degree from Boston’s Berklee School of Music, he had a difficult time finding the right graduate music program himself in the late 1970s.
Under his direction, MIRA has expanded from 12 students to its current 183.
To make it grow, he placed posters and post cards in area music stores.
“Those items really got seen,” Matthews said. “Then, as a second wave, we sent direct mail to seniors in the Pinellas County schools, and enrollment really exploded. We almost had to stop promoting ourselves because we ran out of room for more students.”
Years ago, Matthews took his master’s degree to California to look for work in the music and entertainment industry. Because he had learned how to run a complicated piece of electronic equipment, he was able to land a job with a company owned in part by Quincy Jones.
It was a lesson he never forgot.
“I tell our students that you have to be ready, because someday someone will ask you if you can do a particular task, and if your answer is no, or if you say yes but you can’t deliver, you may never get another chance,” he said. “Prepare students for any eventuality – that’s our job. It’s almost vocational in nature – teach them so they have the skill to sit behind a console and do anything it takes to become successful.”
Though only two years old, Matthews and Steele are already working on plans to offer a four-year degree program so students in the current two-year associate’s degree program will be able to go on and earn four-year degrees. Whatever MIRA offers, the bottom line is to prepare students for real jobs in the music business.
“The real sin would be to give someone a diploma from MIRA and then have the student be unprepared for the work force,” Matthews said. “What is most important to us is to prepare people to get jobs. We’re not simply looking to put butts in seats – We want to make sure our students can do the jobs that are offered, and be active participants in the economy.”

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