There are few musicians who command the level of trust and respect held by Conrad Pope. His mastery of music, combined with a keen sense of storytelling and meticulous attention to detail have seen his creative services sought after by many of the leading composers and film-makers in the industry.

In this conversation, Conrad provides us with an insight into his career journey, and reveals how consistently engaging in a variety of musical challenges, as well as spending time in close proximity to several key mentors, has propelled his growth as a musician. We also are provided with a glimpse into the reality of just how long it takes to refine one’s craft, and to earn a strong reputation in Hollywood.



Show notes:

00:00 – Introduction – track: John Williams – Harry’s Wondrous World (orchestrated by Conrad Pope)
02:08 – Conrad’s early musical memories;
04:40 – Conrad’s formal education: studying with Gunther Schuller;
07:52 – Movie music as the international language of music;
09:25 – Adjusting to the working world after graduating;
11:20 – Conrad’s humble beginnings in Hollywood;
18:12 – Sending out 50-75 postcards per week to prospective employers;
21:24 – A referral to Joanne Kane Music Service (JKMS) by Arthur Morton;
26:10 – From the “bottom of the bottom” to the “bottom of the top”;
30:35 – A decade earning the trust of John Williams;
32:04 – The University of John Williams / JKMS;
36:48 – Orchestrators as ghost-writers;
39:55 – What makes John Williams the consummate professional;
46:16 – Finding your voice: Imitate, assimilate, innovate.
49:30 – The role of an orchestrator in 2017;
56:25 – How Conrad structures his workflow for maximum efficiency;
1.02:49 – How to stay relevant by keeping yourself engaged;
1:04:49 – Feeding your ego the right way;
1.08:30 – Willing you ideas into existence: look inside yourself;
1:12:30 – An insight in the Hollywood Music Workshop;
1:16:30 – Outro – track: Love – theme by Hans Zimmer and Steve Mazzaro, arranged by Conrad Pope

Connect with Conrad

How I experienced the Hollywood Music Workshop

This summer I was fortunate to spend a week learning from Conrad Pope during his Orchestration & Arranging module at the Hollywood Music Workshop (HMW), held annually in Baden, Austria.  It truly was a mind-expanding week, and a privilege to learn from such an experienced and generous teacher in a town with a rich musical heritage.  For those who may be considering attending the workshop in future, the following brief insight into what one can expect from Conrad’s seminar may prove helpful.


1)  An overview of the Hollywood orchestra

Throughout the first several days of the workshop, participants are given an overview of the instruments and sections of the orchestra.  Whilst the workshop attracts composers and orchestrators at various stages in their career, even those with prior experience working with live orchestras can benefit greatly from revisiting this information from Conrad’s perspective.  Conrad does not simply provide the conventional overview of the orchestra found in a textbook: he offers his personal guide, based on the many discoveries he has made throughout several decades of working on scoring stages with the best composers and players in the business.

Conrad gives his thoughts on how to write effectively for each instrument, highlighting what he has found to be what he refers to as each instrument’s ‘cash register’, as well as sharing his best practices on how to voice each orchestral choir.  He also warns about which particular notes and ranges to avoid – whether these be due to their difficulty for players to sound, which could cause holdups in time-sensitive recording situations, or simply because they do not translate well into recordings.

Indeed, Conrad reminds us that, as media composers, ‘we’re not in the music business, we’re in the recording business’, and that our scores must be conceived with the knowledge that audiences will experience them through loudspeakers.

He also encourages participants to keep in mind the person playing the instrument for which we are writing, whilst also discussing the psychology of an ensemble. He advises that, whilst not every element necessarily has to be audible, allowing the orchestra to what they do best – play together – and by writing material that allows for players to become engaged with what is happening around them, this helps to build energy and momentum which in turn will contribute towards achieving the best possible performance.


2)  Dissecting scores

A significant portion of the week is devoted to analysis of scores.  Conrad has played a key role in the realization of many of the most iconic scores ever written, and it is fascinating to get his perspective on how and why things work.  Whilst there is a strong theoretical component to the craft of orchestration, we learn that much of Conrad’s creative decision-making is based on the goal of achieving a specific emotional result which will assist in the musical story-telling of a score.

In the weeks leading up to the workshop, followers of Conrad on Facebook were able to enjoy a preview of the music we would be studying during the workshop.  It was clear that he put a great deal of consideration into what to show students in class, in order to present participants with a wide variety of styles and approaches from throughout the history of Hollywood scoring.  This year’s study material covered scores from ‘the Golden Age to the Virtual Age’, and these included selections from John Williams’s classic scores for Harry Potter, ET and Star Wars, through to more contemporary works by Mark Isham, Alexandre Desplat and Hans Zimmer, as well as scores composed by Conrad himself.

Even with an entire week of classes, there was only time to explore a tiny fraction of Conrad’s vast body of work.  He mentioned himself that, were we to listen to all of his work back-to-back, it would take months!  However, after several days of intensive study, one does begin to notice patterns in how Conrad analyses/deconstructs music.  Observing his thought process equips workshop participants with the tools and strategies to continue the practice of score study in their own time.  Conrad also armed us with several pertinent questions to ask ourselves when analysing scores, in order to get into the mind of the composer — namely:  “did the composer do this the obvious way? If not, what were they trying to achieve?”


3)  Learning from a master

There are very few professionals today whose experience rivals that of Conrad Pope, and whose skill set has evolved to meet the ever-changing demands of the industry – meaning his services continue to be in high demand by some of the most prominent figures in the film industry.  It is unlikely that you will find another teacher who, after class is over, returns to his hotel room and works into the night on jobs commissioned by Wes Anderson and John Williams!

In addition to sharing his knowledge of orchestration, Conrad offered an invaluable insight into the scoring industry: how it has evolved in recent years; how he has personally adapted to these changes; and the skills and character traits Conrad considers are required in order to succeed in the contemporary industry.

Conrad’s own role in the industry has provided him with a unique vantage point from which to observe the rise and fall of many composers.   As a result, during the workshop, he is able to divulge numerous insider stories on malpractices to avoid, and other cautionary tales we can learn from – as well as highlighting some of the overlooked qualities and character traits of the great contemporary composers which allow them to sustain successful careers.

Beyond the overview of the orchestra, and the stack of scores to work through, Conrad uses little in the way of a traditional lesson plan.  He states, “I’m not really a teacher, but I know a lot”, and he therefore encourages participants to ask questions so that he can tailor sessions to cover the topics that those present are most interested in learning about.  Few other mentors would be able to pull off this spontaneous approach to teaching, but – for a man with Conrad’s experience – it works extremely well.  We participants were captivated by every word, applauding at the end of every 90-minute session!  And with such a range of participants from different backgrounds, many questions were posed that individually we would not have thought to ask, but the answer to which we could all benefit from hearing.

Several of this year’s masterclass participants had attended Conrad’s module in previous years, and informed me that the content of the course could be quite different each time depending on how it was influenced by class participation.


4)  Learning how to avoid getting fired

In order to get a taste of working at the top levels of the scoring industry, workshop participants were given the option of undertaking several extra-curricular assignments.  One of these was an orchestration task, whereby Conrad provided the MIDI file and an MP3 of a mock-up for a cue from a recent Hollywood blockbuster.  To complete the task, participants would firstly need to clean up the MIDI file in their sequencer, before importing the data into a notation programme in order to produce their own orchestration, referring to the mock-up audio as a guide.

Those participants who completed the challenge bravely presented their completed orchestration to the class.  Conrad was then able to offer his constructive critique, and he did not hesitate to declare ‘you’re fired’ to almost every participant, before pointing out the inconsistencies between the composer’s intention dictated by mock-up and how it was mis-interpreted in the participant’s orchestration.  Conrad revealed that, in the working world of Hollywood, a composer may not have time to review the orchestration prior to the recording, and will instead arrive at the session expecting the live realisation of their cue to be as they remembered in from their demo.  Any unexpected surprises or creative departures from the demo would not be welcomed by either the composer or the film-makers, and would cost an orchestrator their job.

Even for those who did not complete the challenge, there was much to be learnt from having access to the composer’s materials, and to gaining an idea of the level of detailed mock-up that is expected for a composer to deliver when working on an A-list film.


5)  Expanding your network

The workshop also allows participants to connect with a new international network of fellow composers and orchestrators, fostering a real sense of community.  It was inspiring to spend time with other musicians, sharing knowledge, experiences, and also having plenty of nerdy discussions about gear!

The workshop hosts also organised several special events which took place during the week of Conrad’s workshop.  This year’s events included a banquet at a nearby restaurant, followed by a live-to-picture concert of Joe Kramer’s re-score of the 1927 film, Sunrise, in which he conducted an ensemble of musicians from the Synchron Stage Orchestra, including concertmaster and HMW founder, Dimitrie Leivici.  There was also a class trip into Vienna city centre, where we enjoyed a private boat ride down the Danube, before Dimitrie took us to taste the best ice cream in Vienna!

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This short review only scratches the surface of what was a truly wonderful week.  I took a copious amount of notes, and I’m sure it will take me several years fully to digest the vast knowledge imparted by Conrad. Upon returning home, I noticed that – following a week of listening intently with Conrad – I now hear music with more clarity.  It is an experience somewhat similar to that when one upgrades their speakers, only to become suddenly able to hear a new level of detail in the music: except, this time, it is some kind of internal ‘software upgrade’ that seems to have tuned my ears into being more sensitive.  This certainly makes it even more enjoyable to revisit many of my favourite John Williams scores, but also rather more difficult to re-listen to some of my own prior orchestration work …

Attending the workshop was certainly one of the best investments I have made to date, and it is an experience I would recommend you seize, should you have the opportunity.  Conrad Pope is an incredibly generous mentor, clearly motivated by a passion for music and story-telling, and keen to share his knowledge and expertise with the next generation so that we can strive to uphold the high standard set by him and his contemporaries.


Thanks to Conrad Pope, Nan Schwartz, Dimitrie Leivici, Lilo Bellotto, Colja Belgium, Darius Djwadi and Leanne Puttick.
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Thank you to the Arts Council Wales for generously supporting my trip.