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ASCAP Workshop Hits Emotional High Notes

Conducting orchestra gives students ‘A-list’ experience

Scoring sessions at Fox’s Newman Scoring Stage are always harried affairs, full of barely controlled chaos as anxious composers and orchestrators scramble to get every note committed to tape before their allotted time runs out. But for one day every year, when the stage is flooded with a dozen students from ASCAP’s Television and Film Scoring Workshop, that panic reaches a rather bracing crescendo.

Now in its 25th year, ASCAP’s annual monthlong workshop climaxes with each student given 16 minutes to conduct a full 60-piece orchestra. The music they conduct is their own, written to score individual scenes from major studio features that the program provides them, all vetted by professional orchestrators and edited with top-of-the-line gear. As longtime program mentor Richard Bellis puts it, the program gives young cleffers “an A-list composer experience” well before most of them could have possibly expected the opportunity.

Started in 1988 by ASCAP exec Nancy Knutsen and composer Fred Karlin, the program boasts an impressive alumni list, ranging from Trevor Morris (“The Borgias,” “The Tudors”) to Cliff Martinez (“Drive,” “Only God Forgives”), Joseph Trapanese (“Oblivion,” “Tron: Uprising”), Atli Orvarsson (“Law & Order L.A.,” “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters”), and Emmy Awards musical director Michael Bearden.

Aside from preparing for the scoring sessions, the workshop comprises weeks of tutorials, real-world advice sessions and hefty doses of guest speakers ranging from big-name composers to lawyers, engineers, directors and videogame designers. Co-produced by Michael Todd and Jennifer Harmon, the program receives between 200 and 300 applications each year for the program’s 12 spots, with an ever increasing number coming from outside the country. The applicant pool ranges from recent university graduates to fledgling indie film scorers, with compositional talent as the only real admission criterion.

“We try to keep the selection process very pure,” Bellis says. “The success rate of this workshop — those who find films and television sessions to score — is very high, so this is something you want to do when at your highest qualifying level.”

Golden Globe nominated “Albert Nobbs” composer Brian Byrne came to the program in 2006 with more experience than most, having spent several years conducting full orchestras in his native Ireland. Yet he still recalls having his eyes opened by a number of the workshop’s lesson plans.

“Richard would talk through things like the finances of being a composer, publishing, the business side of being a composer, the electronic side,” Byrne says. “It gave you a lot of practical info written on a page that it might have otherwise taken you years to figure out on your own. All the way down to the little things like delivery of files to a soundstage. It filled in so many gaps.”

In addition to imparting practical skills and leaving students with an unusually pristine sample cue for their demo reels, the program is also designed to impart confidence. “Juno” composer Mateo Messina recalls entering the workshop in 2005 as a non-classically trained cleffer toiling on short films.

“There were certain workshops where they were talking about budgets, and the budgets they were talking about were super high,” he says. “I remember thinking, are you kidding? No one’s ever gonna pay me that much to do this. And then a year later I actually found myself in that position.”

Bellis is conscious of the fact that it will be years before most of his students again have the opportunity to score in such luxurious environs, but he argues that inculcating an appreciation for full-scale orchestration can be invaluable.

“We are not preparing you to do a low-budget electronic film score,” Bellis says. “You’ve been selected because you have the potential to do bigger projects. And that is our focus because what’s been happening in too many cases is people think of the orchestra as a live sample library, and it’s not. The experience of conducting an orchestra is not available from any software manufacturer, and we want them to have that experience.

“And when they’re finished, they come off the podium just vibrating. They can’t believe that something they wrote could sound that good.”

Lessons learned from ASCAP Television and Film Scoring Workshop graduates:

Brian Byrne (“Albert Nobbs,” “The Good Doctor”)

“There were guys in the workshop that were way ahead of me in terms of the gear they had. At the time I was just making ends meet, and working on a little G4 laptop with a set of headphones — that was my whole setup. So just talking to the other people who were so advanced and invested in terms of gear was an eye-opener in two ways. On the one hand, I realized that if I was going to get serious I had to invest in gear. And the other was, since everyone seems to be so invested in gear already, maybe I can go another way, and focus on acoustic sounds and orchestras. There seems to be such a conveyor belt mentality that, to be a composer, you have to own this this and this … I thought, well, there might be a more left-of-center route that I can go, which helped me with ‘Albert Nobbs,’ where I very much went the orchestral route.”

Julia Newmann (“Bones”)

“They were very honest about the industry. Richard Bellis had five rules of thumb for taking on a project, and it’s something I still carry around with me when taking on assignments: 1. Are these people you’d enjoy working with? 2. Is it a good film? 3. Does it pay well? 4. Will it be a good credit? 5. Is it an opportunity to write good music? If you can say yes to at least three out of five, then the project is worth taking. It’s very easy when you’re starting out to be willing to do things for free just to gain experience, but at a certain point you have to put a limit on that and have real criteria. That just outlined it so well for me.”

Mateo Messina (“Juno,” “Fairly Legal”)

“If you have a scene where two people run up to each other and hug, the big flourish doesn’t happen when they touch, it happens a few beats later. That was something Richard had pointed out — that great feeling doesn’t happen when you first physically touch, it comes right afterward, when you properly feel that hug, and scoring has to take things like that into account. Thinking about those tiny little nuances has really served me well in my career.”

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