Orchestrating success

Composing veterans share their insights into the dos and don'ts of building a successful career in film music.

When Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum was only in seventh grade, she received a birthday gift that pointed the way toward a career in music: Her father arranged for her to take a single composition class with Karen Tarlow, a composer on the faculty at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

"I grew up in a house full of classical music, and as a kid I loved old film scores by Bernard Herrmann and Elmer Bernstein," says Kroll-Rosenbaum, now 27. "But it was an important moment during that first class when I realized I was actually meeting a composer. It suddenly made sense to me that the composers were real people, and it seemed like a real possibility that I could be a composer."

She continued studies with Tarlow and others and came to treasure regular trips to Joseph Patelson Music House, a sheet-music store in New York, with a generous and supportive grandmother who would treat her to any film score or concert score that piqued her interest. Kroll-Rosenbaum went on to complete undergraduate and graduate work at the Juilliard School, where she studied with Milton Babbitt, a pioneering figure in serial and electronic music. Babbitt frequently mentioned a former student of his, composer Laura Karpman, who had developed a career that included concert work and scoring for film, television and video games.

Two years ago, when Kroll-Rosenbaum was ready for another big career step, she moved to Los Angeles -- to become Karpman's assistant.

"I've been very involved in the new music scene in New York," Kroll-Rosenbaum says, "and in that world, there's some looking down upon commercial music. But I don't feel that way at all. There's such a high level of sophistication and fun in the music being created for television and film -- it's very exciting to be a part of it. And there are a lot of ways for emerging composers to learn the craft of film scoring, but I think the best way is to sit with a great composer and experience what they do. I'm very grateful to Laura for that opportunity."

The opportunity to put their skills to use and allow their talents to shine is what aspiring film and TV composers seek most. But while it's almost a given that young composers in Los Angeles possess an extraordinary level of talent, it's also fairly evident to anyone aiming for a career in film or television that perseverance, timing and luck can be just as critical. What really can help an aspiring composer make the most of an opportunity is the guidance and wisdom of those who already have succeeded in the field.

"One of the things I always tell students -- and one of the things that I think is the biggest 'do' for a composer -- is to have a rich musical life," says Karpman, whose credits include two ABC TV series, "In Justice" and the forthcoming "Masters of Science Fiction," as well as the "EverQuest" video game series.

In addition to doing one-on-one mentoring work with her assistant, Karpman teaches a film music workshop for UCLA film students. "Continue to do everything you can to love music," she adds. "That's what gets you through the dark times of not working or working on a film or television project you don't enjoy. ... Don't forget to remind yourself that you love music. Keep your spirits high and your chops sharp."

The "don't" that Karpman shares is of a much more specific nature. "The biggest mistake I see composers make is that when they get notes from a director or producer, they diminish the music to accommodate the note," she explains. "Notes always have to be accommodated, but you have to keep the music top level. Instead of taking away from the music to try to get a lukewarm 'OK, it's fine' from a producer, you have to continue to try to make a great cue."

Composer Christopher Young hosts a free Wednesday-night composition class at his own studio, and he allows a rotating group of film music students to live for free in a house he purchased near USC. Young tells music students not to expect too much too fast.

"If all you get in your first year out here is a compliment from another professional about your work, that's a good start," says Young, whose credits include 2000's "Wonder Boys," as well as Sony's October release "The Grudge 2" and planned 2007 release "Spider-Man 3." "Don't expect money and credits and job offers right away; understand that it takes time. If you make some contacts and collect a few compliments, you're doing fine. Too many people come out here with unrealistic expectations, and even though they may have a great deal of talent, if they don't have patience they end up undermining themselves."

Young speaks from direct experience. As a UCLA music student, he had the opportunity to study with famed composer David Raksin. "I remember the first few things I wrote for him he clearly wasn't thrilled with," Young says. "Finally, the third or fourth cue I put together, he congratulated me on having done some good work. That's all I needed to keep going."

One of the most accomplished and versatile composers working today, John Debney speaks several times a year as a guest lecturer to film music students at USC. The composer, whose credits include 2004's "The Passion of the Christ," 2005's "Sin City" and Universal's August release "Idlewild," regularly stresses the importance of developing a stylistic range so that young composers can be ready for any gig that might come their way.

He also suggests that young composers should learn to be very hard on themselves.

"I always tell students to never become too enamored of their work because it can always be better," Debney says. "You have to learn to be a really good self-editor and self-critic. You have to know when a piece of your own music actually kind of sucks and know when it's pretty good. It's a hard lesson, but when you're working, it ultimately doesn't matter what you think of your work. It's about what the director wants and what he loves."

Being in service to filmmakers means that a composer's job is not just about creating music but about dealing with people. And developing people skills is the key piece of advice offered by composer Jay Gruska. "You presume that if somebody is choosing to go into this field, there's a certain amount of musical training and talent there, but the X factor is how you sit in a room with people and collaborate on the idea of music," says Gruska, whose credits include the TV series "Charmed," ABC Family's "Wildfire" and the CW's "Supernatural."

"In the moments when you're actually writing music, it isn't a collaboration, but around those moments are all sorts of discussions about what's going to be written, and that's an incredibly collaborative experience," he says. "It's incumbent on a composer to learn to communicate well in those situations, and frankly, that's not a natural skill for a composer. We're people who spend a lot of time by ourselves, and sometimes getting out to go to a meeting is like coming out of your cave ... It's not always an easy adjustment, but it's something that has to be developed."

A composer today also must know how to handle some fairly imposing technology, and Mark Mothersbaugh suggests that aspiring composers become proficient with the machines that will make their job easier. "Classes aren't ever a bad idea," says the composer, whose wide-ranging career stretches from his work with Devo to the music for the Nickelodeon childrens' series "Rugrats" and the films of Wes Anderson. "There are quite a few technical and technological aspects to scoring that you can't figure out unless somebody explains them to you. The first thing I scored for TV was 'Pee-wee's Playhouse,' and I spent the whole first season sort of writing music on the fly -- playing along with the videotape and trying to get a running start before a scene began, almost scoring live to picture. It wasn't until the second season that somebody explained to me that there was such a thing as time code. That made the work quite a bit easier."

Mothersbaugh can offer some unique counsel to composers deciding between a career in rock 'n' roll and one in Hollywood. "I found there to be more overt lying in the record industry than in the movie business," he says. "In the record industry, they'll tell you anything because you're what's going to make money for them. In the film industry, you're just a hired hand, and ultimately music is cheap -- compared to catering, for instance."

For young composers willing to take any and all work offered them, it's hard to imagine a point in their careers when they might only pursue projects that really spark their imaginations. But Michael Skloff, who enjoyed phenomenal success as the composer of the theme song and interstitial music that ran through 10 seasons of the landmark sitcom "Friends," says that that day does eventually arrive for most composers.

"I feel incredibly fortunate and blessed that I don't have to take work for the money anymore, which was absolutely an inconceivable idea to me when I was just starting out," he explains. "Looking back, I think the key for me was learning that you have to keep yourself excited about what you're doing in order to do your best work. Anyone in this business struggles with scoring something we don't enjoy on a creative level, but we think we need it for our resume or for the paycheck or for a relationship with a director. Those are all valid reasons to take work, but the bottom line is if you don't enjoy the process and the creation of the music, there's a problem."

Working out of Karpman's studio, Kroll-Rosenbaum feels ready for whatever opportunities her budding film music career might bring. In addition to assisting Karpman in all aspects of writing and recording, she remains busy scoring short films for a number of young directors, as well as writing her own commissioned concert works.

"I don't try to approach things with too much of a plan," she says. "So far, I've been open to all sorts of experiences, and it's been very rewarding. I haven't scored a feature yet, and I'd love to do that, but I just hope to keep working and meeting interesting people and doing good work."

While she can't be certain where her career will take her musically, she does feel she made the right choice geographically. "In New York, there are all these stereotypes about Los Angeles, but I love it," she says. "I think it's a beautiful place to live, and there are so many brilliant people writing music here. There's a great community of talented composers to bond with and draw from and be inspired by. It's the right place to be."