If you’re a middle school or high school student wondering whether a career might be a good fit, we have good news for you! For the next few weeks, our Musician Intern Team will be interviewing individuals with different careers involving music, from commercial film scorers to scientific researchers. Articles about these interviews will be posted on our website each week to help you explore different careers and pathways in music.
This week, Musician Intern and TYS cellist Natalie Wiese interviewed Jonathan Russell, esteemed jazz violinist and composer. Here’s what she learned:
Jonathan Russell wanted to be a film and commercial scorer for a very long time. Along with early aspirations of playing violin on the moon and his later goal of becoming a professional jazz violinist (which he actually accomplished), being a film and commercial scorer had been one of Russell’s dreams since he was nine years old. Inspired by the Lord of the Rings soundtrack, young Jonathan transcribed all of the themes from the score by ear so he could play them on the violin.
Russell explains that sounding professional and having a strong skill set are the two most important aspects about getting noticed as a film and commercial scorer. Using good sounding instrument samples, practicing techniques on a midi keyboard, and examining skilled composers’ works all contribute, Russell adds. Once your music sounds polished, Russell encourages you to post it “anywhere that someone can grab it” such as YouTube or SoundCloud because “most likely someone who listens to your stuff is going to know someone who needs a scorer.” In fact, for Russell, connections played a big part in getting him started. Russell managed to get his first professional job as a film scorer at the age of fifteen because he knew the right person: “I got [the job] just because I knew a composer who was [originally] supposed to work on [the project], but he didn’t have time so he referred me…They gave me three days to write twenty minutes of music and record it which is kind of insane, but it gave me a good little insight into the industry.”
As Russell previously inferred, a job in film and commercial scoring can involve some tight and strict deadlines. However, Russell enjoys working under these deadlines even though they can be stressful. When asked about the most fun and challenging parts of the job, he replied, “It’s funny–the thing I like the most is actually the most difficult thing: I really like working on deadlines. I really like having a schedule. I like knowing okay you need to write this by 4 PM today.” Writing music under a short time limit may not be the first thing that pops into a person’s head when they think about preparing for a job in commercial and film scoring, but Russell actually got some valuable experience from one of his music teachers who prepared him for this very challenge: “My first assignment from her was to spend ten minutes writing a piece of music, and I didn’t get any more time than that…[W]hen I started, I was writing maybe 10-15 seconds of music. But after practicing, I was able to write 4-5 minutes of music in 10 minutes.” Although he has had some stressful experiences composing music in a short amount of time or under short notice, Russell says that “[m]ost of the time, I know when I have to wake up early and log into the studio.”
Within the film and commercial scoring industry, there are a lot of different opportunities. Often, it can be easy just to think about movies as the main outlet for this commercial scorers, but Russell says, “Once you actually get to learn the landscape, scoring for film is such a tiny tiny subsection of the ‘scoring for media’ genre. You also have game scoring. And within the game scoring–are you doing something for a little indie computer title [or] are you doing something for mobile handheld games?” Although Russell went into the job initially wanting to create an Oscar Nominated soundtrack for a movie, after working in the film and commercial industry for a while, he found he adores creating the short 30 second to 2 minute songs in commercials.
Russell describes the process of creating scores for film. Although about 90% of the time, a client will have a temp track, or a piece of music that they want the scorer to mimic the feeling of, Russell finds that often the client doesn’t know what they want “until they stumble upon it.” He says, “[This] is why I tend to ignore all the direction they give me, and just do something that feels right, and most of the time, that has gotten me to where I want to be.” Russell recalls a time that he was trying to satisfy a client’s request when the request really wasn’t what the client wanted. The director had sent him a Lord of the Rings temp track, and the director said that he wanted whatever brass sound was in that piece to be incorporated into Russell’s product. Russell explains, “I know what brass is: trumpets, tubas, trombones, etc. So I gave him this brass piece, and he said, ‘That’s not the sound I’m referring to.’ So I think maybe he means woodwinds. But that is not the sound he is referring to. I give him some percussion, and he says, ‘That’s a little closer.’ It turns out the sound that he wanted was an anvil being struck–which is the theme for Isengard in Lord of the Rings–and when he said ‘brass,’ he actually meant the sound of metal being hit.” That is why, Russell explains, one of the most practical pieces of advice for someone working as a film and commercial scorer is to get used to discarding your first idea because “nine times out of ten, you are not going to be using that in the final product…Our job is to say yes to the director. It is their call. It might as well be their music at the end of it.”
Being a film and commercial scorer involves having a lot of passion and being able to work under a sometimes stressful and tight deadline, but a job as a scorer can be a very rewarding experience for the right type of person. For Russell, becoming a film and commercial scorer was worth it, and he made this fact clear very early-on in the interview when he confidently stated, “I am very happy that I get to do it.”