1) SARA, YOUR LIST OF CREDITS FOR FILM, TV AND VIDEO GAMES IS SIMPLY ASTOUNDING. CAN YOU SHARE WITH US SOME MUSIC PREPARATION TIPS THAT MAKE RECORDING SESSIONS MORE EFFICIENT? IN YOUR EXPERIENCE, WHAT MAKES SESSION MUSICIANS CRINGE?
Such a great question, Adonis! First of all, let me please say I completely appreciate the complexities, incredible demands and impossible deadlines to be met to get a score out, and not everything can turn out perfectly in the music prep side of things, depending on budget, time-constraints, last-minute changes, etc. But, I do encourage every composer to do what they can, within their control to have the music prep as flawless as possible for us session musicians eager and grateful to play your music! We want more than anything to bring our best foot forward for you as fast and efficiently as possible! Money and time spent towards music prep before the session happens is extremely wise in that it saves precious minutes. Because, if not careful, it can end up being way more expensive with session overtime, or just not being able to finish everything in the original allotted time due to careless music prep items.
One of the great and necessary skills of the session player is the ability to sight-read on the spot. We are trained from a very young age to learn our scales, arpeggios and intervallic technical exercises and rhythmic exercises and recognize style nuance and note patterns lightning fast. And if the presentation is not neat and clear, it is very difficult for us to do our job at the top speed that we are trained for with no hesitations.
It also can make us not sound our best and that ends up being frustrating and embarrassing. Obviously, we never want to be put in a situation like that, and, of course, we will feel bad you didn’t get the best product result for your important project but know we could have if the music would have been presented more clearly and accurately.
Let me mention a few that immediately come to mind. Please forgive me if this sounds somewhat elementary, but for those projects that may not be able to afford a huge professional music prep team, these are common mishaps that can be frustrating for all parties involved:
a) Having correct and balanced rhythmic spacing within each measure, i.e., make sure notes and rests are not scrunched unevenly on either side of the measure with a large space that is out of balance, making it look like the beats are not what they actually are.
b) Making sure all of the time signatures are marked clearly and there is the correct amount of beats with notes and rests, again, spaced appropriately.
c) Double checking for any incorrect enharmonic spellings so that patterns are truly written out to be read and recognized as quickly as possible. I have seen, for example, a ‘C’ major scale come out on the page as a B# major scale, and an ‘A’ Major scale spelled A, B, D flat, D natural, F double flat, G flat, A flat and B double flat – and it took just that amount of extra time to figure out “WTH?”
d) Making sure measures are numbered in a way on each part frequently for easy reference and in a location on the page that is not confusing, trying to figure out if it is referring to the measure above or below the number.
e) Same goes for any musical terms or directions.
f) For woodwinds – sensitivity that we need to breathe every so often! We can immediately tell if a piece was conceived on a sequencer without any regard that an actual human will be playing it, the page will be black with notes with no place to breathe.
g) The same goes for technical demands, making sure the notes are within our range and humanly possible to execute at the particular tempo you want. Even though some combinations of notes may be awkward and not idiomatic to our particular instrument, they are certainly playable up to a certain speed. But depending on the speed and choice of notes, we are forced to make creative decisions as fast as we can to give you the effect you want, but it is likely not note for note what you wrote. For best results definitely contact a friend that plays that instrument at a professional level to advise what is possible, or a referral from a friend to connect you with a professional on a given instrument to give the thumbs up, or make some suggestions in order to prepare the parts the best as possible ahead of time.
h) Allowing enough time to change instruments: It depends on the tempo and even the size of instrument one needs to switch to. That should influence how long to allow. Again, phone a friend. Have them see a part you can send them and let them tell you what they think for that given situation. And, at the very least, you can sit down and pretend to hold a flute, then put down the flute on your lap and pretend to pick up the other instrument, allowing a little more time for the bass flute. And also keep in mind these are all very expensive instruments and we don’t want any casualties trying to switch instruments too fast, knocking them on something or even having them slip out out hand. At the very least, if it is not a terribly exposed part, we will definitely make our creative adjustments as needed, but – if it IS an exposed part – be aware of the time needed to make a smooth and safe change over. Also, the instrument will be cold if it has been sitting there for a while not used – some instruments have different issues to deal with for that, such as dry reeds and unkind registers to have to play soft in. For flute we can do some adjusting with the head joint ahead of time, if the room is particularly cold – but just be aware there is limit to how fast instruments can be switched.
i) Having incorrect transpositions: Make sure to double check any of the non-concert pitched instrument parts, such as Alto Flute in G and English Horn in F, for example, to be sure they have been transposed correctly.
These are few common things I have seen that could have been avoided with a little more time, research, double checking the look of the individual parts.
With all of this mentioned, I am always more than happy to field any questions any time about any of these topics and any other questions that may come up regarding this topic or anything about flutes in general. I am here to help any time.
2) YOU RECORD FOR NUMEROUS FILM/TV/GAMES COMPOSERS WHO REQUEST YOU SPECIFICALLY. BESIDES YOUR STELLAR MUSICIANSHIP, WHAT ELSE DO YOU BRING TO THE TABLE THAT MAKES YOU SO SOUGHT AFTER?
I am truly grateful and humbled when I get to play on any recording session, or live concerts, but I am particularly in awe when I am requested! And though this question is difficult to answer myself, what I can say is that I am truly enthusiastic from the heart. And what I try to bring to my performances, and what I hope comes through, either on stage to an audience or when in a recording studio with the composer and other colleagues is, I love to play music! And I really care that I am there and never take one note for granted. It means so much to me knowing music makes a positive difference in this world and in people’s lives. And with that, I have the greatest respect for composers and what they do. I know they spend countless hours creating music and opportunities for their music to be shared with the world. And in connection with that, I have spent my whole life trying to perfect my performance and approach to sound and color and giving my absolute best for the composer and for the integrity of the music in all of its many facets. I hope that people can hear that when I play. There seems to be very kind comments about that I have a unique sound and I have a special sensitivity to the style and character of the music. And it also seems to be appreciated that I am able to improvise depending what is needed stylistically to help serve the musical moment. I am very grateful for that and I so appreciate that it does seem to matter. I happen to also love all different kinds of music and love diversity. When it comes to film, TV and video game music, anything can come up in a score.
I feel very fortunate that I also have a piano and vocal background from a very young age in addition to flute, and I believe that really helped to develop my ear, as well as inspired me to be more versatile with styles, interpreting the flute line in a unique way that includes both a horizontal as well as vertical perspective. And with the vocal training, and even my competitive swimming, I do believe that continues to have a profound influence on my sound production and breathing/lung capacity. And listening, going to other artists’ concerts, and appreciating all kinds of styles are crucial to be musically open-minded, thoughtful and adventurous.
In connection with that, I was delighted and honored to be asked to be a part of an album of Elmer Bernstein’s big band music a couple of years ago. It’s called Elmer Bernstein: The Wild Side. In another jazz concert called Big Band Film Noir, I played Leonard Bernstein’s On The Waterfront and also an amazing piece by Alex North that was actually censored from the original version of A Streetcar Named Desire!
I also think, whether you are a soloist or performing in an orchestra or other kind of ensemble, that your personality comes out in your performance, your life experiences contribute to aspects of your sound and musical interpretation. So, I guess that makes each musician unique in that way, and it just fills my heart when a composer requests me for their score or writes a piece for me because they like my sound and the musical integrity that I strive for in all areas that I possible can, and specifically, they want me to play their music.
3) THERE IS A DEBATE GOING ON ABOUT THE USEFULNESS OF ATTENDING MUSIC COLLEGES BECAUSE SUSTAINING A CAREER IN MUSIC IS SO HARD. AS AN EDUCATOR AND GRADUATE, WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON THAT?
Yes, having the big dream of being a professional musician is both one of the most exciting ventures and one of the most daunting journeys one could ever imagine doing. It has always been this way, but it seems the competition is only getting stronger. There are landscape changes currently going on in many facets of the industry, and along with some of the standard, traditional roads, there are many more cutting-edge opportunities for the creative and entrepreneurial soul. And there are numerous many ways to explore different paths to find your voice and where you fit in this world of music. It really depends on so many independent factors, i.e. specific field of concentration, financial flexibility, desire, passion, talent, versatility, personality, creativity, the ability to work with others, networking skills, self-motivation, lessons, apprenticing, etc…
Personally, it could be that I am one of those “geeky” peeps that absolutely LOVED being in school. I still feel strongly that if you are an orchestral musician of any kind (and this could apply to other areas, but I will speak to my general area as an instrumentalist), I feel it is important to get the education and experience that a college institution can give you if at all possible. There are several reasons: I love the idea of learning new things on a daily basis in an interactive setting, with the various required classes and also elective classes one gets to take. Being inspired by the faculty who all have so much to share and who become respected mentors and ultimately friends for life, in my experience.
I believe a well-rounded education could help make it possible for many musicians to enhance their lives in a way that will be valuable musically, but also for the betterment of one’s life in general. The class requirements make sure every student has the necessary knowledge of at least basic piano skills, if never studied it before. Also advanced theory, music history, and crucial performing experiences in a variety of ensembles are important, ranging from standard chamber music, to contemporary ensembles, baroque ensembles, jazz and pop, opera, ballet, chamber orchestra, full orchestra, choir – which I HIGHLY recommend any instrumentalist to be involved in a choir, for so many good reasons, musical deepening, phrasing, breathing, sound production, ear-training, blend, style awareness, that is greatly internalized by singing.
Also, being in college gives you a chance to study with a world-class private teacher on a regular basis who, as I mentioned before, becomes your mentor for life. One can obviously take lessons with a teacher of one’s choice outside of a direct college environment, which is fantastic, too, and encouraged, but I believe it is an extra-enhanced situation in a college environment because you and the teacher also become directly involved with other things related to your college life. In addition to the weekly lessons, it is weekly advice on career decisions. They help a student grow through the various rep and what ensemble and chair assignments they will receive each semester, along with weekly masterclasses, and with invited guest artists to campus. You get to experience all of this with your colleagues, along with concerts by faculty and your colleagues on a regular basis.
And one of the most important things for future opportunities is that all of the connections are made in one place – a central headquarters, with your private teacher, other faculty members and all of your school mates who you are growing with. And, in addition to the personal connections of being friends for life, there will be professional advantages as well down the road, helping each other as you all go on in your career after college.
I am grateful that I had the opportunity to start out at the local Cal-State University San Bernardino, near where I grew of up in the very small town of Colton about an hour east of LA. I was able to take music and general education classes and try to figure out what the heck I was going to do with the various interests I had and still have, particularly in philosophy, psychology, astronomy, art and music and it allowed me to start to figure out a path. I realized all my interests were going to take several lifetimes to even scratch the surface, and figured music for me would probably be the most challenging. It would be one passion that I had to at least give a shot, or I would always wonder and be tortured, by the “what if?” questions. And with that I decided to go on to USC for my masters of music degree in flute performance and then on to the YALE School of Music for my post-graduate artist diploma. All of these schools inspired me and afforded me opportunities beyond my wildest dreams, leading me in a valuable career direction and with good exposure that I don’t believe would have been possible without these crucial building blocks of connections with the amazing faculty and students in each place, and being incredibly inspiring learning environments.
And, in addition to being an active performer, I am also the Artist Teacher of Flute at both the University of Redlands School of Music and the Idyllwild Arts Academy. I feel I am able to give back and help guide aspiring students who have desires and questions about careers in music. Clearly there is no one way that guarantees success: every path is completely individual. But I personally had a great experience having had the opportunity to go to college to study. And no matter what, I feel strongly that a student with a good background in music is either going to do whatever it takes to keep going in that direction. But if, for whatever reason, they decide to do something else, there are so many other fields value what it takes to be a musician in the first place: the discipline, perseverance, goal-orientation, creativity, working together with others from all walks of life and backgrounds to make something beautiful. Those are life skills that are valuable in any career field and for life in general.
4) YOU ARE THE PRINCIPAL/SOLO FLUTIST FOR THE REDLANDS SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA. DO YOU FIND THAT PREPARING AND PERFORMING FOR CONCERT WORKS IS MORE DEMANDING THAN STUDIO WORK?
That is a great question, Adonis. Both can be incredibly demanding at times and for various reasons. For me personally, I feel it really depends on the particular concert programme and the particular recording project. But, no matter what a given situation is, there is always a lot of thought and care to make what even appears to be the most simple thing to be at its best.
Performing solo concerti is something that is usually planned in advance, and in preparation you practice like an Olympic athlete in order to be in the best musical and physical shape as possible. Daily practice of basic fundamentals, long tones, breathing, scales, technical studies, along with the solo itself, focusing completely on the music and intent of the composer with heart full of humility and gratitude. Communicating fully with the audience, telling a story through the music with a combination of steadfast prep and in-the-moment spontaneity, wanting to reach people’s hearts and wanting to help them forget their troubles even for a few minutes, is the dream situation I always hope for as an artist.
As an orchestral musician preparing various standard orchestral repertoire, there are so many wonderful and challenging works that one will play once he or she is a member of an orchestra. And, depending on the piece, that could be a young, top-notch training orchestra, or college orchestra, or professional orchestra – but the preparation for many of these pieces starts as a young student, after achieving a certain level of proficiency, learning the standard excerpts to prepare for auditions. All of the many hours of prep early on is what makes it possible for the moment you actually get to play the piece in real life with an orchestra. There are too many pieces to mention here, but to name a few, almost anything and everything by Stravinsky – such as the Firebird Suite or Petrushka, Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe, Beethoven’s Symphonies, including his Leonore Overture No. 3, Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf and his Classical Symphony, Debussy – Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, Bartok – Concerto.for Orchestra, Saint-Saens – Carnival of the Animals, J.S. Bach – St. Matthew’s Passion, works of Rimsky-Korsakov, Berlioz, Brahms, Strauss, Mahler, Schoenberg, along with cutting-edge contemporary music with many extreme extended techniques.
There are excerpts throughout all of these incredible pieces that are not meant to be sight-read flawlessly the first time ever gazing at it. It takes hours, months and even years to prepare starting as student and continuing to do maintenance and “new discovery and awareness” work throughout one’s musical career, either for auditions or if the pieces are being programmed for a particular season. These all have passages that require knowledge of proper style for the time period and composer, the appropriate sound/color/timbre/use of vibrato, blend, impeccable rhythm, articulation, breathing and phrasing. And for me, in my opinion, it is paramount to study the full score intensely and thoroughly, to know exactly how my flute or piccolo part fits into the rest of what is going on within the whole orchestra. And today, in this modern day of exquisite recordings, DVD’s and YouTube videos, it is worth listening over and over to a given piece and playing along with a recording to help feel the connection with a piece before going into an audition or first rehearsal of a piece. Recording yourself often and listening back with a critique in mind is also part of excellent prep.
With studio work, one of the biggest differences that has a different kind of demand is that 99% of the time, the studio musician will not know what the music has in store before just getting there and opening the stack of music on the stand. For an action movie, it could be many pages of highly technical, virtuoso playing, and articulations and fingerings may be awkward and not a lot of places to breath. For a love story, there may be long, lyrical lines or many extremely soft pages that require ultimate dynamic control in all registers. It could be a horror flick that uses several extended-techniques, such as multiphonics, harmonics, whistle tones, singing and playing at the same time, flutter-tonguing in all registers, key slaps, tongue rams, jet whistles and more. Marco Beltrami’s incredible score to The Thing had a multitude of extended techniques that I just listed, as well as extensive doubling on instruments of the flute family from bass flute up to piccolo.
Other requirements could be possible improvisation and also doubling on various instruments one after the other. It could be a movie that uses a lot of ethnic instruments and/or stylizing on traditional orchestral instruments, that may also doubling on many instruments in close proximity. In John Debney’s stunning score The Jungle Book, there were many wonderful instances of switching from regular flute to bass flute, then to piccolo back to alto flute, these flutes of all different sizes and air control and embouchure control were really fun and demanding. And some scores, I have had to go to penny whistle, recorder, or ocarina, for example, and then have a very exposed solo back on alto flute that the engineer may want to stripe to get the desired balance. So, there is always a chance you will be asked to play a solo passage with many people there listening, i.e: the composer, director, producer, orchestrators, contractor, the composer’s agent, maybe young aspiring composers getting to visit the studio for the day, plus 90 of your world-class colleagues who make up the whole studio orchestra sitting quietly, while you play an entire solo that needs to be flawless the first time.
And if there is room noise, you will need to play it again, or if there was a computer glitch, you need to play it again, and if the composer wants a certain interpretation looking at the film clip it is accompanying, he or she may ask you to add something where you may need to transpose on the spot, a part of it from C flute onto the alto flute in G, for example. Or actually improvise a jazz or pop solo, or just effects that enhance a moment of the story that needs to fit the time period/and/or action on the screen.
I have also been asked to come in on what is already the second or third day of recording where the sessions are in full swing and your first cue of the day is a huge, minute and half long bass flute solo in the chair you are filling in for that day.
And on the flip-side, you may be on a double session (6 hours) and there are very small, spotty cues, but for the most part have been sitting cold in an overly air-conditioned studio for a very long periods of time and then need to a really, soft, exposed passage in the very high register as soft as possible without any chance to warm up.
All of these situations take a lot of courage and incredible focus, and one has to put their mind completely on the music and not at all how difficult it actually is. No feeling of doubt can creep in, otherwise, you can really psyche yourself out, and you just can’t do that. You must deliver – and deliver well – as if you wrote the music yourself and are perfectly warmed up and have practiced it many times before, understanding the style and what is in the composer’s mind.
Having the ability to be diverse, knowledgeable and comfortable in many styles and doubles on demand, as well as being able to play in any chair, be flexible in the moment, and remain as cool as cucumber under fire in the hot seat. Also being responsible and respectful to the job and to your colleagues in every way, being very grateful, and being a good hang is always an awesome and necessary plus! These are all some of the wonderful demands of both the live orchestral world and also the studio recording world.
5) BASED ON YOUR EXPERIENCE, WOULD YOU AGREE THAT CONCERTS OF FILM/TV/GAMES MUSIC ARE BECOMING INCREASINGLY POPULAR?
Yes, absolutely!! It is truly inspiring to see music from film, TV and video games is so much more accepted in concert halls around the world and in real demand! Looking back at the general history, film music in particular, it used be considered music for an occasional pops concert, maybe an afternoon summer concert in the park type of thing. Film music is obviously so much more sophisticated than that and also so much fun! Thanks to the tireless work from such titans as Robert Townson and David L Newman, and also the global fame and genius of John Williams, live film music has now become an absolute phenomenon. And I think it is still just beginning. Jeff Beal just conducted House of Cards at the Kennedy Center with the National Symphony Orchestra. David Newman did On The Waterfront and West Side Story with the New York Philharmonic and conducts Alan Silvestri’s Back To The Future at Royce Hall this weekend. Richard Kraft’s concerts with Danny Elfman filled the Hollywood Bowl three night in a row for Halloween, and Robert Townson presented an all-Lalo Schifrin big band concert in Tenerife last month. Lalo has another concert in Paris this weekend, and there is a Harry Potter live to Picture concert in Orange County this weekend as well! And countless video game music concerts going on all over the world which is awesome, i.e. Legends of Zelda, Final Fantasy, Pokemon, League of Legends, World of Warcraft, Blizzcon events, Video Games Live concerts, to name some. Truly mighty, attracting several thousands to huge arenas, and this is just the tip of the iceberg!
It has been such an incredible privilege for me to have been invited to perform at so many wonderful film music festivals and in concerts all over the world over the last couple of years. It is so moving to see what film really means to people. I have seen it in their eyes when they come up to me after a concert. I see it in the enormous audiences that fill concert halls and even arenas! There are audiences of 15,000 people for the arena concerts at the Krakow Film Music Festival in Poland. It is astounding! I got to perform Jeff Beal’s The Dovekeepers for flute and orchestra, with Jeff conducting, at that venue. It was a phenomenal experience. Trevor Morris, Ramin Djawadi and a number of other television composers were also there and part of that concert. The audience went absolutely crazy. It was so inspiring to be part of that and to feel how thrilled the crowd was, cheering and on their feet.
These film music concerts are also incredible opportunities to work with composers when they are creating a new concert version of either one of their own scores or to do a special suite by one of the composers they revere. Composers we all revere! Lee Holdridge did a special arrangement of Alex North’s Spartacus Love Theme that I have now been able to play in Macau, Krakow, Poznań, Tenerife and here in Los Angeles. Randy Edelman did a brilliant arrangement of Elmer Bernstein’s Ghostbusters for me. It was just incredible getting to work with him on that. One of my all-time favorite scores is Elmer’s To Kill A Mockingbird, which Austin Wintory arranged for me. We premiered it together with Austin conducting the Golden State Pops Orchestra as the encore to the Varèse Sarabande 35th Anniversary Gala in 2013. I have also been able to perform this suite around Europe and it is a guarantee to make people cry. The music is so powerful and so beautiful and it communicates to people everywhere. It is very moving to even perform a piece like that. I feel that music so deeply myself and I see what it does to people. I also got to perform this piece at the ASCAP 100th Anniversary Gala in Krakow. What a show that was! Hans Zimmer, Patrick Doyle, Elliot Goldenthal and Dario Marianelli were all there. I performed Spartacus, Mockingbird and Henry Mancini’s Moon River in that concert. It was so magical! An audience of over 4000 people, and when I started to play Moon River, you could have heard a pin drop.
John Debney arranged a concert version of his theme from The Ant Bully for me (also for the Varèse 35 concert) that was for pennywhistle, orchestra and choir. That was so unique and challenging, but really a lot of fun. I love working with John so much.
I also love when, through these concerts, I get to perform music by composers that I just never got to work with. The ones I have already mentioned but also Georges Delerue and John Barry. Two of my favorites! And two more legendary composers who are still very much with us. I couldn’t even believe it when John Corigliano sent me a special version of his The Children’s Song from his Revolution score for the 1985 At The Movies album and concerts. I also premiered Ennio Morricone’s Hamlet in Krakow last year in their Shakespeare In Concert program.
Conrad Pope and Nan Schwartz created a whole show of special arrangements of some of the most beautiful love themes of all time for flute and chamber orchestra. This was for Robert Townson’s show Hollywood Love Stories: Great Romantic Film Music. We all premiered it together at the Hollywood Music Workshop in Baden, Austria, a couple of summer’s ago. And for Christmas concerts William Ross arranged an incredible suite from A Charlie Brown Christmas for flute, orchestra and choir. This is an absolute classic!
I also got to help organize and perform in the Krakow Film Music Festival’s first-ever video game music concert, entitled GAME ON, and performed incredible music specially arranged for this unique chamber music concert by the awesome composers, Russell Brower (World of Warcraft), Neal Acree (WoW: Mists of Pandaria, Starcraft 2), Jeff Kurtenacker (WildStar), Jason Hayes (Diablo 2) and Garry Schyman (BioShock Infinite). And the following year I came with the acclaimed video game cover band “Critical Hit” with amazing artists, cellist Tina Guo and violinist Carolyn Campbell and performed music by the several composers listed above, as well as Greg Edmonson and Trevor Morris. Critical Hit performed countless favorites to a highly enthusiastic crowd and state-of-the-art stage production, such as Tetris “Main Theme”, Angry Birds, Super Mario Brothers, Call of Duty, Final Fantasy X, Lullaby of Zelda, Pokemon, Uncharted, Dragon Age, Metal Gear Solid 2, WoW: Legends of Azeroth, and many others. The concert was sold out in the first 15 minutes the tickets went on sale.
Also, had the great honor of performing as a soloist with the San Diego Symphony, coinciding with the San Diego Comic-Con convention, performing on the Video Games Live Concert, Tommy Tallarico, producer and with Russell Brower, composer/conductor. I got to create an improvised flute rhapsody based on composer Russell Brower’s theme to the expansion of World of Warcraft, The Warlords of Draenor.
It really is amazing to get to play pieces like these and to be part of these concerts and to see how passionate people are to hear great film music and video game music performed live. America, Europe, South America and Asia all are wanting these kinds of incredible concerts and the demand is only growing.