Composing : Music School or Independent Study? by Alyssa Burns

Alyssa Burns

Music School or Independent Study?

Hello everyone, I just wanted to let you all know that I am a new member on this site. I just happened to stumble on this website while looking for ways to network with the film community. So far as I can see this is quite an amazing website. Currently I am taking my general classes at my community college, and also taking private lessons on composition from a local composer. Although I compose on the piano, I am also learning how to orchestrate. My ultimate goal is to compose for television and film. I know I have a lot to learn, do any of you have suggestions on the pros and cons of going to college/music school vs. learning independently?

David Heymann

Depends on the school. I went to the ucla film scoring program in Los Angeles and we regularly recorded music with musicians who played on movies such as star wars, titanic, avatar, etc.. You'll definitively learn a lot about how the industry works there.

JIll Boyd

My career has been all about networking with who I know, and so far I've been able to create music for a children's choir, elementary school, film, my own concert with piano/strings, and most recently an orchestra piece. I would suggest to you to start a website (wix is super easy) and put any projects on there. My first gig came from creating my own YouTube channel.

Pat Savage

Welcome to Stage 32 you'll definitively learn a lot about how the industry works here Alyssa. Lots of composers from all sorts of backgrounds and all working together on or craft. Happy networking and soon you will be working. It's all here!.

Joel Irwin

I started and continue to do exactly what you have done. If you are not in a major music city like LA, NY, or Nashville, it will be harder to find musicians. School is one of the best ways to do it and get live performances. Though as you know, for the types of inidie films outside of LA, you will probably not need live musicians since filmmakers don't have budget unless its a single player or 2/3 person ensemble perhaps. Getting an orchestra to play live without the purse strings in unlikely unless you get one to play from the school you are in. Also remember that most schools require you to 'audition' on an instrument to get accepted and the tuition is very expensive. As you know schools like I have been attending (Houston Community College since the Fall of 2003), often use the same texts as the four year colleges, often get taught by PhD's (I studied orchestration under two of them), are significantly less expensive (I pay around $400 for a Jazz improvisation ensemble class and an individual composition class), and you don't have to go for a degree (I hold an MS and part PhD in computer science - I have no interest for any more degrees). Now first, you have to learn the material that all music major do regardless of your music goal. You can ignore the rules only after you have learnt them and student like those in front of you (both in an out of film) have done. And notice I didn't say 'classical'. That is because it is very important you don't forget some of the great 20th century masters such as Henry Mancini (who has an excellent orchestration book) and Nelson Riddle to name two but let us not forget Duke Ellington. "Sir Duke" was an orchestration and arranging master as well. Which brings me to my next point. I often hear from my teacher and mentor, "Don't write a string quartet if you don't have a string ensemble". So many years ago, I realized it would be difficult to get an orchestra to play my material at a community college. So I used whatever ensemble was available. Learning how to arrange and 'voice' instruments can also be done with a 'big band'. Also I had to play piano in the big band as a pre-requisite to having them play my charts - great experience 'living with the natives'. You get to have to score typically for 5 sax's (2 alto, 2 tenor and 1 bari), 4 trumpets and 4 trombones (perhaps a flute and/or clarinet) and a rhythm section. That can give you an arrangement with as many staffs as a contemporary orchestra. And you don't even have to write a totally original piece. You can start with someone else's piece, add your own arrangement and then modify and customize it with original material. (Learning to transcribe off a recording is as important imho as reading and studying score). I have frequently used as an example here, my arrangement from some years ago of the classic pop hit "Topsy, Part 2" of Cozie Cole from 1958 'read' for the first time by a big band at Houston Community College. https://www.stage32.com/media/644309202969309144 Some people just practice writing music, and yet others like me just go out and find films to score - most often 'shorts'. This will help you build up your 'online resume' / work experience in IMDB. I have scored five short films so far this year. If you can't find some through networking, try joining / getting on a team for a competition. While some like the "48 hour film project" are criticized, they get you work experience, contacts, and allow you to work under pressure. My favorite competition has been www.168film.com since it has teams worldwide and the festival is in downtown LA. Working quickly is a very important ability when it comes to scoring film. While the deadline isn't always 1 day, learning to score a large ensemble quickly - often 2 to 4 minutes or more a day is a great asset - especially when the music is not slow to lower the number of bars. Three weeks ago, I was given a 4 minute short to score at 1030am on Sun, had to entertain company that night, pulled an all-nighter and finished at 630am the next morning. These scores may not be your best work, but they can highlight your composing, arranging, work ethic, and collaborating abilities. Check out "Sports vs Zombies" at http://www.icompositions.com/music/song.php?sid=218684 as an example - it is full orchestra but not all the instrument need to be played all time. Finally, don't assume that your only potential musicians are professional with LA scoring experience. Use what you have access to and compose idiomatically to their abilities. I have in the past written a piece for an all string middle school orchestra where most of the violin players can't play in anything but the 'first position'. I have composed a jazz piece for a Gu Zheng, a Chinese instrument, which can only play 5 of the 12 notes (https://youtu.be/vK5nNpNLo_Y), and now I am having to compose a 'quartet' for four saxophones (soprano, alto, tenor and baritone). Take on all challenges both electronic and live and try to get 'out of your comfort zone' whenever possible. Composing the same type of music is OK but you want to increase the breath of your experience. The more varied types of music and ensembles you have targeted, the more interesting and 'relevant' you will become to your perspective filmmaking clients.

Pat Savage

Brilliant Joel! I am just making the transition from 35 years composing songs and touring with a band live to composing music for films. Thanks!

Joel Irwin

Pat - while many consider my approach 'unorthodox', I don't score with a DAW (I own Sonar Producer), but rather sheet music software (Sibelius though I am looking at Dorico). Some of my reasons: 1. score can be used for either electronic production or live/handing out charts. So I don't have to do it twice. 2. most scoring software like Sibelius have the same features for film scoring as DAWs - they work with the same VSTs and can sync with films (though Sibelius bothers me since it syncs only at 23.97 and 23.976). I use Kontakt and Cinesamples for my orchestral scoring usable by both my DAW (Sonar) and Sibelius. 3. its easier for someone (like a college instructor not familiar with reading a DAW piano roll) to look at and critique 4. I can still 'hear'/get a general idea what my live instrumentation/voicing sound like even if I don't score electronic (often the case when I hand out 'lead sheets' for jazz performers). 5. I still have total MIDI control over the samples through 'hidden' midi commands should I decide I want extra control over my 'sounds'. And when the final WAV file or files are done, the filmmaker frankly doesn't care what software was used to produce it - only how it sounds and fits in.

Vince Tofanicchio

Alyssa, play from the heart. Play what feels natural. I've had no training, but schooling will only help fill some voids you might of missed doing it on your own.

Pat Savage

You're right the filmmaker doesn't care what software was used to produce it - only how it sounds and fits into the script it is supporting emotionally. Great info again with regards to the way you do things. Thanks!.

JIll Boyd

Joel I use Sibelius and so far I've loved it. I've come up with a bit of a challenge, though, as I'm trying to combine a choir score with my orchestra score. I'm not sure how to put it together.

Joel Irwin

Jill - let's not hijack this post. you can start a new one on this topic or pm me. sounds more like a composing/arranging issue than something specific to the software tool, Sibelius but I only have one sentence to base this on.

Alyssa Burns

Thank you Mr. Irwin, Jill Boyd, Mr. Heymann, Mr Savage and Mr. Tofanicchio for all the great feedback!! Fortunately in the small town I live in we have the Kalamazoo Philharmonia, Kalamazoo Junior Symphony Orchestra, Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra, University Symphony Orchestra, and the Battle Creek Symphony Orchestra, and many choir and band and jazz band groups.

Vince Tofanicchio

Your welcome, good luck

Christopher William Scott

Welcome Alyssa. Today is my first day on the site, so I can not offer too much for you about that, but I always suggest people go to school. You may not learn a whole lot, but there are two really good reasons why I suggest it. First you get a degree that can be used as a leveraging chip should you decide to go work for a film production company. Without the degree, you may not get the salary you would like. The second reason, which I still use to this day, is that you build a network of composers. This is cool because you can trade techniques and collaborate with others later down the road. I still talk with friends from school today. Some have even referred me for some jobs. Others are just really good friends that I can ask for help on a project if I get stuck. Please understand that I am not saying you must have a degree to be a successful composer, all I am saying is that by going to school you are learning a trade and build friendships that will be beneficial down the line.

Joel Irwin

Christopher great comments and ideas. If I may, I would like to make two personal 'observations' about them: (1) you can go to school and learn everything (basic theory, ear training, orchestration, composing, etc.) without necessarily going for a degree. I already had degrees (BA Math, MS/part PhD Computer Science) and was on my second career when I went back to school from scratch in Sept., 2003. I am still taking two classes a semester 13 years later. Unless one plans to teach in the music field or perform professionally (so schools like North Texas State / Denton would be invaluable for the performer), a degree is not as 'important' as things like reputation, portfolio, and IMDB credits. Though, I will admit that most 4 year colleges require you pursue a degree and also require you audition to get in. (2) I would agree that developing relationships with other students and staff are a major consideration in going to school. However, we need to keep in mind that unless the school has a strong program geared to film (like USC, UCLA, NYU, etc.), your relationships are mainly with those who are pursuing different areas of music which may or may not be 'close' such as Theater. After 13 years at Houston Community College I have yet to find a single music student who plans to pursue film scoring (other than those who go through the audio engineering program who are by the way great contacts).

Dana Solomon

Not certain if I'm too late to add my 2 cents here; but, IMO, you can get the best from both school and private lessons if you are focused with what you want to achieve in music. Since your goal is to be a film/tv composer, then I would say, take classes in school that will let you master all of the basics of music you should know: theory, aural training, harmony, counterpoint, voice, piano, etc. That way, you have a better explained understanding of certain things like leading tones, modulations, modes, cadences, chord substitutions, etc. And sure, you don't have to be formally trained to compose for film/tv; there are those that aren't. But formal training allows you to catch on to things a lot easier as a musician and composer, rather than having to rely on just your ear and inspiration from other composers. It's not that you can't learn some of that stuff yourself, which you can, but there is something a little different about being in an academic setting around your peers all hungry for the same goal. Plus, you can build a network of friends for later in life. But now you're in a different day and age, where there isn't much information that you CAN'T find anymore if you want an explanation of how things are done, or were done centuries ago in the arts. In fact, you could go on imslp.org and find Tchaikovsky or Rimsky-Korsakov's original orchestration manuals that they wrote to teach musicians the art of composing as they saw it. There's a lot at your fingertips now if you really want it. Plus, you can always invest in a daw or notation app that will afford you the comfort of composing ideas anytime in your home, while learning more and more about music. No information is really hidden anymore with social media and the worldwide web.

Other topics in Composing:

register for stage 32 Register / Log In