The Grand Collective mixes students' music, design

Aaron Menezes is one of the GCU students who produced The Grand Collective.

By Rick Vacek
GCU News Bureau

It’s called The Grand Collective, but it’s really The Grand Collaboration.

“Arise,” the second annual collection of songs produced entirely by students and alumni of Grand Canyon University, is like a kaleidoscope of cross-pollination across programs within the College of Theology. But the project also crosses colleges, with students in the College of Theology collaborating with students in the College of Arts and Media.

Joseph Vaught, who graduated from GCU last year, is in his second year of managing The Grand Collective.

All of that teamwork created opportunities for experiences that could change careers – and lives.

First, and most obviously, the EP brings together student artists and producers to find the right sounds for each of the five songs. 

Unlike the first effort last year, which recrafted five popular hymns, this time the EP – released Friday and available on Spotify and Apple Music – is more like GCU’s annual Canyon Worship album and contains original work by five stars of the Worship Arts program.

If this was like choosing sides for a basketball game, the Worship Arts team most likely would include Amanda Riffe, Madison Russell, Edwin Lopez, Trina Beecher and Nicole Jasperse. That made The Grand Collective a winner even before the students took a shot at creating soundtracks.

Edwin Lopez is one of the five prominent Worship Arts students who wrote songs for the EP.

The creative process that goes into each song turns students and recent alumni into coaches. Joseph Vaught, the 2021 graduate who now works for the GCU Recording Studio and manages this project along with his Executive Leadership team, produced two of the songs, and students Aaron Menezes and Will Christian produced the others.

“It’s so fun,” Vaught said. “We take our time getting into the session and brainstorm, seeing what ideas stick. All the artists were super receptive. My philosophy with songs I write is that you don’t want to lose the heart of your song, but the song isn’t for me. If someone else has a better idea, I listen.

“All of our students have a similar philosophy: ‘This is my song that I wrote, but I’m not trying to white-knuckle it and hold onto it. I really like where I’m at and I want to keep it in that direction, but if you think something else can be better …’”

The songs come from a variety of sources and cover several genres. Vaught and the other leaders wanted to find work that fits with the “Arise” theme, so they probed submissions for the semiannual Songwriters Showcase and for Canyon Worship and also invited students to submit worship music solely for The Grand Collective.

“The goal is to be as student inclusive as possible,” Vaught said of the project, which includes the work of 29 students.

Madison Russell gave her song "Close" a 1970s groove.

The song genres also are an interesting mix. Russell, who also was on the leadership team, gave a 1970s groove to “Close.” Lopez’s “Renew My Soul” rocks like a pop song but with gospel and rhythm-and-blues influences. Jasperse adds her folk music style, and Riffe and Beecher round it out with corporate worship songs that could be part of any church service.

“They’re all prolific songwriters,” Recording Studio Manager Eric Johnson said. “And when you’ve written so many songs, at some point it’s a numbers game but it’s also practice. The more you practice writing songs, the better you get at songwriting. ...

“If you’re a prolific songwriter, chances are you’re probably going to be featured on more projects as a songwriter.”

But the beauty of this year’s effort is that it unveils the talents of Menezes, whom Johnson called “one of the stars of the project.” Vaught and Johnson discovered Menezes’ production work last year when he was in the studio collaborating on an album with Chris Calderon, a longtime star of the Worship Arts program. They were so impressed, they had him produce the songs by Russell and Lopez.

Jared Trask

“Aaron got to explore his talent for production in a way that he hasn’t been able to experience before,” Johnson said. “He really grabbed hold of the project, and his passion and his drive went into it in a way that I don’t think he’s been able to experience before.

“Without this opportunity, he would not have explored his production acumen with as much passion as he did. The two songs he produced, they soar. And they would not have soared in the same way if anybody else had produced them. They still would have been amazing, but I think Aaron has a future in song production.”

Menezes, a communications major, said he sometimes wakes up wondering why he doesn’t switch his Worship Arts minor to a major. Alas, he’s going to be a senior in the fall and figures it’s too late.

But one thing’s for sure: He’s going to pursue production work after college. “My passion has been deep for a very long time,” he said.

Also new to The Grand Collective is the input of design students from the College of Arts and Media. The 2021 album cover was by a student from that college, but there was no formal process to solicit designs.

Johnson and Vaught fixed that by approaching Sheila Schumacher, Director of Digital Design Programs for CAM, who in turn asked instructor Jared Trask to make it a class assignment for students in ADV-456 (Design Studio II).

Jenna Sawyers' design was chosen for the cover of The Grand Collective.

Trask said it was a perfect fit for the class, which emphasizes client-based projects in a highly collaborative environment. So being able to work with actual groups on campus to produce published work is extremely valuable to the students' experience. He makes it even more immersive by having students refer to the customer, The Grand Collective, as the client, even though it’s a peer group.

“We had to sit down and do some sketching and really think through how we take the inspiration we pull in and make it our own,” he said. “We always pull ideas from others, but how do we now make it part of solving our client’s problem, visually? This was an excellent way for us to showcase what that looks like.”

The songwriters came to the classroom to explain the story and inspiration behind their songs, the design students were able to ask relevant and tone-setting questions, and everyone listened to the pieces together. From there, the design students interpreted and used the creative process to produce and present artwork to The Grand Collective group.

A design by Jenna Sawyers was chosen, but all the students won. (See the bottom of this story for some of the other designs.)

“Their response is excellent to these projects,” Trask said. “I think it gets them excited. They’re seeing that it’s part of the campus, and they’re getting to work with other students. 

“It’s just a great way to bring exposure to our talented design students and help other groups on campus at the same time.”

A connective Collective filled with collaboration and career preparation … that sounds perfect to GCU’s academic leadership.

"College is such a prime time for our design students to hone their skills designing albums, websites, logos and social media campaigns for rising musical talents within The Grand Collective," said Dr. Craig Detweiler, Dean of the College of Arts and Media. "We’re energized by this opportunity to collaborate with Worship Arts majors and the College of Theology."

Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or [email protected].



“Close” by Madison Russell

  • Producer: Aaron Menezes
  • Co-Producer: Madison Russell
  • Drums: Jordan Cole
  • Bass: Aaron Menezes
  • Keys: Colter Bonaroti
  • EG: Aaron Menezes
  • AG: Aaron Menezes
  • LD Vox: Madison Russell
  • BGV: Baraka Shekanena
  • Gang Vocals: Aaron Menezes, Ashley Rider, Phil Starr, Monica Dennington, Anna Salmon, Edwin Lopez, Kyleigh Almich, Victoria Gutierrez, Matthew Grewe, Brock Bell, Tim Hesman, Nicole Jasperse, Neveah Stephens
  • Programming: Aaron Menezes
  • Mixing: Aaron Menezes

“I Will Praise You” by Amanda Riffe

  • Producer: Joseph Vaught
  • Co-Producer: Amanda Riffe
  • Drums: Micah Crandell
  • Bass: Astrid Leighton
  • Keys: Tim Hesman
  • EG: Blake Deffenbacher
  • AG: Amanda Riffe
  • LD Vox: Amanda Riffe
  • BGV: Edwin Lopez
  • Programming: Joseph Vaught
  • Mixing: Joseph Vaught

“Dearly Loved” by Trina Beecher

  • Producer: Will Christian
  • Co-Producer: Trina Beecher
  • Drums: Landen Cornatzer
  • Bass: Will Christian
  • Keys: Will Christian
  • EG: Brock Bell
  • AG: Joseph Vaught
  • LD Vox: Trina Beecher
  • BGV: Tim Hesman
  • Programming: Will Christian
  • Mixing: Will Christian

“Micah 7” by Nicole Jasperse

  • Producer: Joseph Vaught
  • Co-Producer: Nicole Jasperse
  • Drums/Perc: Pili Fronda
  • Synth Bass: Astrid Leighton
  • Keys: Nicole Jasperse
  • EG: Brock Bell
  • AG: Nicole Jasperse
  • Strings Composition: Kyleigh Almich
  • Cello: Kyleigh Almich
  • Viola: Leah LaMont
  • Violin: Will Christian
  • LD Vox: Nicole Jasperse
  • BGV: Nicole Jasperse
  • Programming: Joseph Vaught
  • Mixing: Joseph Vaught

“Renew My Soul” by Edwin Lopez

  • Producer: Aaron Menezes
  • Co-Producer: Edwin Lopez
  • Drums: KJ Winfrey
  • Bass: Victoria Gutierrez
  • Keys: Baraka Shekanena
  • EG: Blake Deffenbacher
  • LD Vox: Edwin Lopez
  • BGV: Kyleigh Almich
  • Programming: Aaron Menezes
  • Mixing: Aaron Menezes

Executive Leadership team

  • Tim Hesman
  • Madison Russell
  • Nicole Jasperse
  • Desiree Aguilar (alumni)
  • Joseph Vaught (employee/alumni)
  • Eric Johnson (manager)

Recording engineers

  • Joseph Vaught (employee/alumni)
  • John McJunkin (employee)
  • Daniel Floring
  • Will Christian
  • Aaron Menezes

Mastering engineer

  • John McJunkin (employee)

Album artwork

  • Jenna Sawyers


Related content:

GCU Today: Students' Grand Collective album has touch of aloha

GCU Today: As 2020 album soars, The Grand Collective takes off


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