At the time I'm writing this, I'm three months into a graduate diploma of film and game scoring at the Film Scoring Academy of Europe. I'm finding it to be a vastly educational experience that both develops and challenges composers to be the best that they can be. In this blog, I'm going to share about the journey so far, what it takes, what is gained, and whether it's worthwhile in the internet age of self-education and free information.
The Film Scoring Academy (FSAE) is based in Sofia, Bulgaria. They offer three programs including a four-week summer program, a master's degree, and an online graduate diploma; the latter of which can be completed from anywhere in the world. This option was the clear choice to me for a number of reasons. It can be completed in just eight months, but holds no shortage of opportunities with a grand total of nine recording sessions for piano, strings, woodwinds, and brass instruments. And if you're like me, with responsibilities like a job and a family, then you can't upend your life to go live in Bulgaria for much longer than the summer program.
I've always had a hunger for learning when it comes to music. I love the complexity and potential of the craft and have never been okay with mediocre standards. I chose this path to help facilitate my growth as a musician and nestle me deeper into the magical world of screen composing. There are other options out there for academic development such as Berklee College or ThinkSpace Education, or even courses run by individual composers. I'm sure they each have their own benefits, similarities and differences, but I'm mainly going to be speaking from my perspective as a student at FSAE.
The Journey So Far
Despite my excitement, I wasn't sure exactly what to expect during my first few weeks at the academy. It's a graduate program, meaning many of my fellow classmates and I already have degrees in music, but not in film music. I didn't want to spend time and effort re-learning anything that I already knew. Thankfully, this is an area FSAE excels in. The tutors make it clear from the beginning that they aren't going to be teaching music theory (while still pointing students in the right direction if they need to brush up on theory knowledge), or fundamental music concepts. It's generally expected that you know how to speak 'musician' by the time you start there. This means the tutors can focus their attention completely on the art of scoring for media.
I currently have papers in orchestration, production, and film music history with regard to common styles and tropes. Throughout the entirety of the course, each of the students also have weekly 1-on-1meetings with the program leader to discuss anything from identifying our own unique style, to reviewing music for an upcoming assignment. It's a great opportunity to ask questions, and similarly to my bachelor's degree study, the smaller class sizes mean you get to know both students and staff well, building lasting connections.
"Think deeply; write simply."
The assignments start simple, with a couple of solo piano recordings. Students are challenged with writing to a brief. Some have found film clips to score. This is encouraged, but ultimately optional. These first two assignments have been a good opportunity to knuckle down with notation practice, and really focus on the details so that you establish good habits before the bigger sessions come along. Notating my work has been one of the most demanding, but also most formative, aspects of the academy so far. It's changing the way that I think about music and making me a better composer. At the time I'm writing this, we are about to have our third session for solo violin, solo cello, and piano accompaniment.
The staff at FSAE are excellent and all extremely knowledgeable about their subject. One highlight for me personally has been the exposure to different composers, styles, and films than I had previously admired.
FSAE dean and director of studies, Dr. Andy Hill, used to be the vice president of music production at Disney, working on films like the original animated Beauty and the Beast. I've enjoyed learning from him about the music and influence of composers like Bernard Hermann, James Newton Howard, and Elmer Bernstein. We've talked a lot about Thomas Newman too, whom I've always appreciated. Andy teaches about the trends of orchestral music with fully developed themes, the rise and fall of dramatic emphasis, the incorporation of digital instruments and soundscapes into film music, and much more.
Orchestration leader, Dr. Norman Ludwin, has played double bass on many famous scores including Spiderman by Danny Elfman, and the TV show Lost. He has also acted as the personal orchestrator for composer, Michael Giacchino. His insights into the timbre, power, and range of each of the orchestral instruments are golden. Orchestration is a big topic, so it helps to learn from the best.
Some other names to mention so far include Mark Kuypers (program leader), Jeremy Leidhecker (director of administration), and Richard Bellis (composer behind Stephen King's IT).
If you structure your time well, prepare, and don't leave things to the last minute, you won't have any trouble studying at FSAE. The course content is not overwhelming. Four to six hours of video lectures release each week, each with their own demands, exercises to practice, and learning to absorb for future lessons. There are no breaks or weeks without videos in the duration of the 8 month online course so you need to stay on top of it. I'm working full-time and still managing to get through about an hour of video content each week night, leaving my weekends open for practical study and writing assignments. It also helps that I'm a teacher and have school holidays that I can use to catch up on any missed activities and get ahead on future sessions.
While most of the video learning content can be completed on your own schedule. There are some instances that require live calls with the entire cohort (e.g. recording sessions). FSAE hosts composers from all over the world. This means they have to accommodate a wide range of time zones. The program leader does their best to choose times that suit the majority of students, but you can't please everyone. Most of my cohort live in Europe or America. As the only person studying from New Zealand, I often have to wake up in the middle of the night to make it to the session. There's a running joke that this is the "rock and roll" aspect of the film industry, which seems ironic given that our music is anything but rock and roll. Luckily, these sessions usually happen in the weekend which makes it easier to recover the lost sleep.
One of the biggest attractions to FSAE was the nine recording sessions. By the end of my study, I will come out with a live recording of a 52-piece orchestra performing my music. It's proof of what I can do as a composer and gets professionally filmed so that students can use the video footage as part of their portfolio. These opportunities incentivise the rest of the study, because in this industry your portfolio is your CV.
After two years of independent study and self-teaching, I'm grateful for the formal education. It's true that you can learn a lot on your own, but there are certain things that you just won't, until you ask for help. Sometimes you don't know what you don't know, and in those circumstances, the best source is a professional who has done it themselves. After just three months in the program, I'm already more confident writing in different styles, and orchestrating for live musicians.
FSAE doesn't promise to get composers jobs, but in an oversaturated market, it promises to set you ahead of the pack and give you the tools you need to succeed in this industry. I hope you've enjoyed reading about my journey so far. Part two will be coming later in the year. If you are interested, or even curious about studying film scoring, please don't hesitate to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Jordan Stevenson