In the 1995 film Mr. Holland’s Opus, a musician and composer tries to write one memorable piece of music to gain fame. He takes a job as a high school music teacher to pay the bills and over time discovers unexpected and even greater fulfillment during his thirty-year teaching career.
Such a story has parallels to that of Brigham Young University’s Ron Simpson, producer of this CD, general manager of Tantara Records, coordinator of the Media Music Division of BYU’s School of Music, and music director of the Young Ambassadors. Simpson left a career as a studio owner, producer, music publisher, and composer to take the lead of the fledgling BYU songwriting class in 1984. Since then, some fifteen hundred students have been through the program. It Starts with a Song may be similar to the crowning climax in Mr. Holland’s Opus, when all of the main character’s former students form an orchestra that premiers his long-awaited symphony—but it is less about the music and more about the tremendous number of lives he has touched and the love his students have for him as their teacher.
Simpson and his associates have taken not Simpson’s own music but the music of his students and have assembled a two-disc CD of the best representatives of their work over the last twenty-five years. The songs were chosen on the basis of song quality, finish level, and how they fit in the overall continuity of the program. Many of the names will be recognized by local audiences: Hilary Weeks, Cherie Call, Rebecca Lopez, Mindy Gledhill, Jenny Jordan Frogley, Julie de Azevedo, Jericho Road, Tyler Castleton, Staci Peters, and Jeff Hinton.
Over the years, the media music program has become so popular that many are turned away, leaving a high-quality top tier of ability. One reason for the quality is that Simpson teaches songwriting as a craft that can and should be learned. The names of students who have gone on to serious amateur or professional status are listed in blue in the liner notes—another evidence of the effectiveness of the program.
The material itself encompasses a wide variety of styles, quality, and genres. Though many of the songs would not stand up as hits on today’s radio, they also cannot be judged as such. In some cases, the recording is an original version of a song later recorded and released commercially, with its original roots lying in the songwriting class itself. Others are recordings taken from unreleased albums. As a listening experience, one might expect a lot of devotional music. Simpson purposely avoided that obvious assumption, and a smorgasbord of music has emerged: acoustic folk, alternative rock, Bolivian, orchestral ballads, synth loop-based pop, guitar ballads, western folk-flavored songs à la the Eagles, and much more.
Perhaps the best approach for the listener is to consider this collection as a silver anniversary yearbook of sorts or perhaps an audio class reunion. Taken as a whole, it is a tremendous collection of talent representing even more works that were not chosen for the album. Its appeal is evidence of the contribution of a well-lived life and how much an individual can accomplish over a career.
Ron Simpson and his team deserve hearty congratulations for this outstanding collection of BYU’s songwriting talent. We are lucky to have such talent preserved in such a convenient format. Future generations will be grateful that the project was undertaken.