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Elton John performs free concert with USC students

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Monday was a good night to be a USC student.

Sir Elton John performed a free concert to a small crowd of mostly students at the university's 1,250-seat Bovard Auditorium.

He was promoting his new album "The Diving Board," due out Sept. 24. But for the university's Thornton School of Music, which put on the event, the concert shows how it's changing.

"We are actively trying to redefine what it means to be a school of music," said Rob Cutietta, the school’s dean, who is concerned that music programs in universities don't do enough to teach students modern music. USC launched a Popular Music program in 2009 to help broaden the school's reach.

About 40 Thornton students were selected to perform with Elton John on stage. They played in the orchestra and also sang vocals on several pieces during the two-hour performance.

He played five of his new songs, plus many of his older hits including "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" and "Bennie and the Jets." He closed the show with his 1972-hit "Rocket Man," which received a standing ovation - one of several throughout the night.

"I think that was a once in a lifetime show definitely," said Barry Harris, who graduated from the school with a major in Popular Music Performance. "We got to hear the hits, but we also got to hear the cuts off the new album."

School of Cinematic Arts student Christian Falstrup said seeing his fellow students on stage filled him with pride.

"He has an understanding of their potential talent," he said. "I took away a lot from that."

Elton John focused the night on the students. Unlike a regular concert, he took a few questions from students during a Q and A moderated by GRAMMY Foundation Vice President Scott Goldman. Some asked for advice.

"Don't just limit yourself to one genre," he told one music student. "Listen to everything, you don't have to like everything."

Elton John also told students about his early days studying piano at the Royal Academy of Music in London.

"It's been my constant companion all my life," he said of the instrument.

Students were given free early copies of his new CD as they left the auditorium.

Capitol Records contacted USC about hosting the event, and most details were assembled in just a few weeks, according to Chris Sampson, associate dean of USC's Thornton School of Music.

"I'm just overwhelmed by how generous Elton was with his talents," he said. "I know that he added extra songs. So it was clear that he was very much into it."

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