What path takes you from a small town in the Kootenays to performing at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville? For one professional musician, the first steps on that journey led through the doors of Selkirk College’s Contemporary Music & Technology Program.
Guitarist Tom Samulak was a student of the program from 2007 to 2009, majoring in music performance on Nelson’s Tenth Street Campus. In the last few years, he has quickly established himself as a gifted live performer and recording session-man in the U.S., working with some of country music’s biggest established and rising stars.
Selkirk College Contemporary Music & Technology Program alumnus Tom Samulak realized one of his dreams this past October when he performed at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville.
It’s all pretty heady stuff for a kid from Fruitvale, a small town outside of Trail. His first connection to Selkirk was taking after-school guitar lessons from college instructors who helped him become familiar with the Nelson campus and prepare for his audition for the school. Attending the College made a lot of sense for a local youth, who was able to learn and practice close to home.
“I gained necessary expertise in my field through top-notch training and experience,” he recalls. “Meeting like-minded musicians and getting the chance to play with them in a wide variety of venues and musical situations gave me a boost.”
Lessons Delivered by Music Masters
The Selkirk College music program has been preparing students for commercial success in the industry for a quarter-century. Students study rock, jazz, classical, world music and other genres—including Samulak’s beloved country music. The small class sizes and individual attention a student gets at Selkirk made a real difference.
“Each instructor and course gave me a boost in their own ways,” he says. “That’s what meant the most to me, getting first-hand expertise from each instructor, who are all masters of their respective talents.”
Samulak was an “absolute pleasure” to have in the program says Darren Mahe, who taught him music theory and guitar.
Samulak graduated from Selkirk College in 2009 and then went on to Berklee College of Music in Boston.
“Besides being quite talented as a guitar player, he was a really great student, driven to succeed, a hard worker, with an open mind about everything he was learning. He always wanted to learn something new,” Mahe recalls. “He had a really great personality, positive, and always had a vision in mind and very clear goals of what he wanted to attain.”
In the subsequent years, Mahe says his former student has become a colleague and good friend. They keep in touch to this day.
After his time at Selkirk College—where he graduated with distinction—Samulak went to the University of Calgary for a year, then traveled to the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Selkirk’s transfer agreement and related curriculum made the transition much easier, he says.
Samulak graduated Cum Laude from the prestigious international school in 2012 with a degree in Music Performance, and headed for Nashville to start work. But even there, he says, lessons learned at the intimate campus in Nelson stay with him and have helped advance his career.
“Besides the fundamentals of music, more rhetorically, I learned the importance of making friends of lifetime quality,” he says. “I’m still personal friends with many of my Selkirk colleagues.”
Among those friends is international recording star and fellow Selkirk College alum from 2009 Kiesza. She also attended Berklee and graduated a year before Samulak. They are still close friends, having kept in touch and even performed together on occasion.
Making it Happen in Music City
Since moving to Nashville, Samulak has found himself in ever greater demand. He’s been picked up by bands such as Derryl Perry and Haley & Michaels, performing 200 or more times a year. He’s played before millions of people on television and live satellite radio concerts, recorded in studios across the U.S., created theme music for TV series, and won awards for his performance skills.
The highlight of his still-emerging career? Playing the Grand Ole Opry, the world’s longest-running radio show, on October 24 last year. It’s the dream gig for any aspiring country star.
Samulak's guitar style is based on some of country music's greats both past and present.
“You could put it on my gravestone and I’d be happy,” he says. “It was a defining moment for me and I’m very thankful.”
So how do you keep your head level when your dreams have come true so quickly? Samulak has some advice for students hoping to follow his path.
“Aspire to be the best and most balanced you can be in every aspect of your life, so when your life becomes a rollercoaster ride, you’ll be rock-steady,” he says.
Samulak’s style might remind an old-time country music fan of Roy Clark, the guitar and banjo player who became a television and recording star in the 1970s. Samulak’s YouTube videos show a performer much like Clark—relaxed, smiling, comfortable with his performance and astonishing with his command of his instrument.
Samulak says that happy look on his face when he’s playing is no accident: he’s learned to cope with all the performing pressure with a simple concept.
“Just do it, and always have fun playing music and studying it,” he says. “It is meant to be fun, so enjoy it.”