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Film Scoring Schools

by Lukas Kendall

I am sitting here typing, sleepy and blurry-eyed (it's late, as usual), amazed at the fact that there are school programs for film scoring today. Honestly, isn't this the weirdest thing? I can understand, say, dentistry school, because everybody has teeth and there needs to be a lot of dentists to take care of teeth. But film scoring... not many people have movies they need scored. Today, there are indeed more media outlets than ever - commercials, TV, and multimedia projects that need music. Still, I dunno, film scoring school...

Well anyway, yes, there are schools that have courses and even majors in film scoring. Believe it or not I get a lot of e-mails (meaning maybe one or two a week) from an eager young composer in high school (or the international equivalent) who wants to go to film scoring school. The two places I recommend time and again are University of Southern California (located in the scenic "ghetto" district of Los Angeles) and Berklee College of Music (located a brisk walk from historic Fenway Park in tolerant Boston, MA).

Something else funny is that I'm listening to John Barry's Beyondness of Things CD, which I love. You know, I don't think John Barry went to film scoring school. In fact, he didn't. I can think of only a few composers today who went to school for film scoring (primarily as a graduate student), such as Christopher Young. Basil Poledouris went to USC in the late '60s, but actually not as a composer, but as a director, and then he got more into music as he scored student films for classmates like John Milius. Back then, nobody went to the film school, it was like a joke - Basil was one of the first Cinema School graduates at USC, along with some very famous classmates (one of them made Star Wars...).

What is a shame is that there aren't any music departments with apprentice programs anymore. It used to be that people like John Williams could be a session musician at 20th Century Fox and slowly get arranging, orchestrating and composing gigs, and Jerry Goldsmith and Bruce Broughton could get jobs writing original cues at CBS after doing other stuff there. The only remaining type of "music department" is Hans Zimmer's Media Ventures, where young composers get hired as interns to fetch cigarettes for Hans, and can write cues some months later.

From: Dale Applebaum,

    Subject: filmscoring programs

    I am trying to locate programs at the undergraduate level in filmscoring-- whether an actual concentration or simply an institution that offers coursework. So far my understanding is that USC offers the only program within a non-conservatory setting (which is what I want), and that Berklee School of Music offers the only conservatory program. I would also be open to a cross-registration (as Juilliard and Manhattan School of Music have with local liberal arts institutions) but Berklee told me they have cooperative relationships only with other conservatories. The librarian at UCLA's music library told me that if anyone would have ideas or knowledge in this area it would be you. Have I overlooked anything?

Well, probably, but I confess I don't know, and would invite our readers today to write in with suggestions.

I am going to give five reasons why I personally would NOT try to concentrate in film scoring as an undergraduate, and then I want people who ARE presently doing film scoring as undergrads to write me and explain why I am wrong:

1) If you are looking at undergraduate programs, what are you, 17? How can you really say you know what you want to do? When I was 12 I thought I wanted to be a cartoonist like Jim Davis. When I was 17, I only knew of a lot of things I liked doing, and I was already doing FSM (in its earliest form) and wished I could be in Los Angeles being into movies all day long. But at the same time, I knew I could not predict what I would want to do later, so I decided to go to a four-year liberal arts college (Amherst College). As my family, friends and even distant acquaintances will all agree (and probably still insist), I sure needed those four years to grow up intellectually and socially. I personally spent my college years (18 to 21) just taking lots of classes in a variety of subjects, breaking the umbilical cord with home, and learning how to interact with human beings. It took three semesters just for me to try beer, and I'm glad I did that at college and not in the workforce! I cannot comprehend spending those four years in a concentrated study of a craft rather than just as an intellectual growth-period.

2) Film scoring as a profession right now has a few dozen hugely successful practitioners in the world, and hundreds of others are struggling. If you go to law school, you don't have to be the world's most famous trial lawyer, there's still plenty of other work - but with film scoring, it's like feast or famine.

3) This is weird, but most composers do not mature until later in adulthood. This is not as much the case for painters or writers, but it seems that few composers can find their voice until their early thirties at least. Check out an FSD we did a while back on how old composers were when they did their first major score. If you are a 20-year-old aspiring composer, you should plan on writing your first major feature score not in 2001, but 2011. That's a good decade to mature as a human being and as a composer.

4) If you want to study music, study music. Most film scoring programs require a thorough understanding of theory, etc. as a prerequisite anyway (the USC one does). Why limit yourself? It's like, if you want to study literature, study literature -- don't immediately say you're only going to read one type of book from one period of time by two authors.

5) My point way above: John Barry didn't go to film scoring school. Neither did Lalo Schifrin, Ennio Morricone or James Newton Howard. All of these people had musical lives and then stumbled into film composition. Somehow, talent has a way of winning out, and it was nurtured in these gentlemen by doing a wide variety of things, from playing to traveling to arranging to just living.

Okay, because it's late, I just re-read Dale's letter, and it seems like he's just asking for good schools to go to which ALSO have a program in film composition. Um, hey, that's a reasonable request. I don't know but check out the below:

From: "Brian W. Ralston" <>

    Subject: University Film Scoring programs

    I wanted to point your attention to the University of Arizona. Let me be clear that the U of A (that's the one in Tucson) does NOT have an actual degree in film scoring but a rather pretty good class that is undoubtedly getting better. I can give you more info if and when you would like some. I was a student in the class this past year and this was the first time it was taught here. You see, there is this little battle going on here because the composition professor does not like film composers. It is not that he isn't interested, there is actually some bitterness there. But the head of our Jazz program, Jeffery Haskell is a working film/TV composer. One of TV his credits is the music for the Emmy award winning children's TV show "Dusty's Treehouse" and he has worked (mostly behind the scenes) with composers Guy Moon and Alan Silvestri. Guy Moon (BRADY BUNCH THE MOVIE, A VERY BRADY SEQUEL, THE NEW ADVENTURE OF JOHNNY QUEST, COW AND CHICKEN) is actually a graduate from the U of Arizona and he comes back every year to talk about being a composer in the tv/film industry. Prof. Haskell is taking this fall semester off for a Sabbatical so he can gather info/research on how to make the film scoring class even better this spring. (There was actually a big drive to NOT allow a film scoring class here by the composition professor and others BUT since Haskell is the HEAD of the Jazz program, he decided to teach the film scoring class under his Jazz studies department. Problem solved. Actually every previous composition professor here has been involved in the film composing world since the days of Rosza and Korngold (so we were told). It is only our current comp. prof. who has no interest in it. So there is some tradition here. BUT, this is a great place to be a composition major if you want to become great in 20th century technique and composing. Dan Asia is our composition professor and he is starting to make a name for himself in the academic work of composers. Sometimes those 20th century orchestration techniques can come in handy, especially in a horror or sci/fi score.

    In just that one class I have learned so much and I am sure that it will be better in years to come. Also, the competition for composers here in Tucson is not very strong, there are a lot of film projects and not a lot of people to score them so this is a great place to build experience as a student, build your portfolio, learn the basics and then move to L.A. with a lot of experience behind you. The U of A school of music recording studio (which every music student has access to for FREE) is top notch and they are spending a lot of money to set up 6 midi workstations for our classroom, surround sound and a role down screen for viewing projects and movies. (Each station consists of an Alesis keyboard, two MAC power PCs, one optimized for the video capture and SMTP coding, the other for the music stuff, studio vision pro, etc....)

    Our class had/has a primitive web site that we used mainly for info and some discussion. Its address is Lately it has been a little slow for some reason but it is there and will load eventually.

Thanks, Brian! I would love to hear from other people right involved in film scoring classes. I sat in on an ASCAP workshop last summer (see FSM Vol 3 No 8) and was amazed by how much I learned just visiting three or four classes - so these programs are instructive.

If I seem discouraging to young, aspiring film composers, it's only because I hear from many of you and it's inevitable that some people's dreams aren't going to work out. I must share with you a weird piece of wisdom that was passed on to me by a friend who is probably a dozen years older than me: the older you get, the less you realize you know. This seems weird, although logically, as you get older and get more experienced, you simply dabble in so many more things, that you realize how much there is in this big old world.

Last Friday I was at the ASMAC (American Society of Music Arrangers and Composers) annual dinner where they honored the whole Newman family (the subject for another column!). Gary Ross, who directed Pleasantville, introduced Randy Newman, and I thought, of all the people who are directing their first movie, this man has to be at least 40, and although he was either the writer or producer of Big and Dave (I forget), this is his first movie. (By the way, it's excellent, I enjoyed it a lot.) We are just so indoctrinated into lauding the youngest new actor, director or composer, that we forget how things generally are: Gary Ross is a talented man who spent two decades doing who knows what as a writer and producer in the film industry, and THEN he directed a movie. And I think it shows: that movie bears a wisdom to it.

So to boil down my advice, informed only by spending a lot of time observing film music, don't feel compelled to be an overnight sensation in film scoring. Go to music school properly and get an education. Or if you do want to be an overnight hit, what the hell, give it a shot, but realize you'll probably end up doing something completely different. Incidentally: I'm living my own advice. I don't want to be a film composer - I don't know what I want to do - but I'll do this magazine and web site and just learn stuff and have fun.

People who I've insulted (or not): your feedback as to all this advice would be very interesting to me:

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