Class Act: Nine Inch Nails’ Chris Vrenna on Becoming a Teacher in Alabama

Millions of fans know him as the legendary drummer of iconic rock band Nine Inch Nails. But to a classroom of 20 students, he’s just Mr. Chris Vrenna, a teacher.

Just last August, the Grammy award-winning artist officially started his residence as a faculty member of Calhoun Community College. Vrenna heads the school’s newly established music technology program at the Alabama Center for the Arts.

In an effort to transform the Alabama Center for the Arts into a regional arts hub, college officials welcomed Vrenna with open arms. Currently, he teaches a total of five classes, which range from recording technology to mass communication. According to him, his desire to teach stemmed from his fascination with the rich resources, tools and technologies available to the students and musicians of today. “What I teach here didn’t exist when I was going to school. You didn’t go to college to be a recording engineer, record producer, or a live sound mixer. You learned that by delivering pizzas or hanging out with bands,” he said in an interview with Decatur Daily.

Vrenna’s passion, coupled with his rich track record in the music industry, makes him an important cog within the faculty department. But what truly makes him a value-adding member is his vision for the school’s music technology program. With Vrenna at the helm, Calhoun’s music technology program is well on its way to becoming a regional leader, with hopes of eventually extending its reach throughout the country.

Early musical roots

All in all, Vrenna’s music experience spans more than four decades. The spark was ignited when he was just six years old, having grown up around his own music-loving father. From early on, his dad exposed him to marching bands and drum corps — of which he was a huge fan. Eventually, a young Vrenna learned how to work a drum set, first teaching himself how to hold the sticks on a practice pad, before moving on to playing rudiments.

It wasn’t long before he became a member of the youth orchestra and marching band — playing musical accompaniment for musicals like Jesus Christ Superstar and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Soon after, he founded his first band — a punk group that went by the name of Eyelidz.

Surprisingly, playing music professionally was never really in the cards for Vrenna. His initial plan was to dive into the media and production industry. It was said that he dreamed of becoming a cameraman who covered events for news networks or games for the NFL. For a while, he was on the right track, having attended Kent State under a telecommunications program right after graduating from high school in Pennsylvania.

But as life would have it, Vrenna ended up not finishing his degree and instead dropped out of college to join Nine Inch Nails. His decision came after the band’s founder and lead vocalist Trent Reznor reached out to him. Reznor knew of Vrenna’s songwriting prowess, so he jumped at the opportunity to invite him on board when their original drummer left the band.

Thus, began Vrenna’s fruitful tenure as Nine Inch Nails’ official drummer. During the time he was there, the band got to grace the legendary Woodstock stage in front of a crowd of 300,000 in 1994. They also count twelve Grammy nominations and two awards under their belt, along with numerous sold out tours and other achievements. Nine Inch Nails’ songs like Closer and Hurt have been solidified as some of music’s most significant songs. Indeed, they were Nine Inch Nails’ glory days, up until Vrenna decided to go his own way in 1997. It was then that he started working and collaborating with other bands and artists like Metallica, U2, The Smashing Pumpkins, and Marilyn Manson.

A different path

Fast forward to 2012, Chris Vrenna tried his hand at teaching. Hollywood Arts Foundation, an organization geared at getting at-risk kids off the streets using music, decided to tap him up to teach. The endeavor seemed to have ignited something in Vrenna. Loaded with inspiration, he began traveling around the country to talk to youth about music.

Vrenna and the band’s rich background in music is definitely something to draw from in his teaching career. Nine Inch Nails is a group that was able to cross cut along many generations and eras in music. They broke out during one of the most raw, vibrant stages of rock history, playing alongside the likes of fellow icons The Smashing Pumpkins, Queens of the Stone Age, and Jane’s Addiction. Despite the years, they were able to live long enough to see a changed music landscape.

Today’s internet age is definitely a far cry from gritty garages and CD culture, of Vrenna’s past, bringing with it the convenience of online music sharing and the democratization of fame. Music and video streaming is driving such high demand for the artists of today, making the concert industry one of the most lucrative ones. Nearly all of 2018’s top tours alone have surpassed the record-breaking $100 million mark, with singers like Taylor Swift standing steady at the top of the heap.

Artists understand that technology elevates the fan experience to new heights and it is something that is seeing improvement across all types of entertainment. It’s a phenomenon that is most commonly found in sports and is used to enhance the fan experience. Virtual reality (VR) for example, is noted by Coral as giving NASCAR fans the chance to get up close and personal with their sports heroes without having to be present at the actual event. The same VR immersion is applied to music, with live concerts by Coldplay and Stevie Wonder broadcast in VR, to add depth to the live sensory experience.

Even Reznor himself, UCR reveals from his BBC interview, takes credit for transforming modern concerts: “I’ve been obsessed with it since the beginning, attempting, with whatever resources I had access to, transforming the live venue into as much of an immersive experience as possible. And that usually relied on, when we finally had access to it, screens and experimental production techniques.” As artists, being able to withstand and evolve with such a drastic pivot in artistry and technology is a master class on its own. Especially when popularity and cultural relevancy can come and go in a minute.

For Vrenna, his experiences as a musician made him want to change others’ lives. Unfortunately, a tragic shoulder injury put Chris Vrenna’s band career on hold. But as that door closed, another opened. Soon enough, Vrenna was turning heads left and right and leaving a trail of inspiration in his tracks. A school in Madison, Wisconsin where he conducted a talk, took extra notice and decided to offer him a job as an instructor. The timing couldn’t have been more impeccable, as his injury officially got in the way of his professional drumming.

For five years, the artist took and held his job as a teacher in Wisconsin before making his way to Calhoun Community College. Currently, he is enjoying his newfound passion, doing what he can to mold the next generation. And it seems his students only have praise for the Nine Inch Nails rockstar-turned-teacher.

“He talks about all the mistakes he’s made so we don’t make them again or we don’t ever make them,” shared his student Gustavo Arreola to WHNT News. Another student, Hayden Miller, also praised Vrenna for being a bonafide natural in the classroom, saying, “I think he’s really good at getting his point across. He’s expressive. I like how he speaks but he doesn’t get off the topic.”

On top of his flourishing teaching career, Vrenna will continue to record in his private studio. By January, he will start his master’s program in music production at the Berklee College of Music.

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