Here’s the full interview with film composer and conductor James Sale B.M. ’91, conducted and transcribed by Tim Hare B.M. ’11:
What was your Berklee experience like as a musician?
First of all, I was grateful to have gotten in. I don’t think I was as good as some of the other musicians, but I felt I was given a chance to grow instead of being expected to be a complete musician. I felt like I had catching up to do. My initial experience was getting my bearings in a new city, in a school where I knew absolutely no one, essentially starting from scratch. I found out rather quickly that a lot of the things I knew as a musician, I didn’t have the vocabulary for it. Such as I didn’t know the term counterpoint, but I knew how it worked. I still had to study it, but I knew the basic concepts before I got to Berklee.
Did you know you wanted to study film scoring before you got to Berklee?
Yes, that is why I went to Berklee. They were the only school at that time that had a film scoring program. I could have gone to other music schools, but I wasn’t interested in just being a drummer. I knew in the long haul I wanted to be a composer. That’s what drew me to Berklee, you could study scoring to film and conducting to film. I was very excited to have found that. Initially when you first get there you’re not jumping into your major, you’re jumping into harmony and ear training, but I embraced that instruction. I was essentially self-taught so it was good for me to get educated properly, to get my first piano lessons as well.
Had you played any piano before you started Berklee?
Not really; one fiddles around and says, “Hey that sounds pretty cool.” I had not sat with a teacher who had rapped my knuckles with a ruler when I got off the metronome [laughs]. Berklee was the first place I had schooling and disciplines in multiple aspects of [the] Berklee [curriculum].
Was there a piece of advice you got in school or later in your career that really stuck out?
There was a piece of advice I had read from Drummer while I was in school. Ironically the advice was: If you really want to succeed it depends on what you’re willing to do for it. Will you stick with it no matter what or will you quit at some point? I really took that to heart. If this is an endurance game if it’s a marathon I will stick with it. It was never an option for me not to dedicate myself to being a composer. That was the piece of advice that stuck with me the most. If you’re completely committed to it it’s a lifelong pursuit. You’re not just trying it out to see how it works. It’s like a marriage—you can’t just try it out. If you give yourself a back door you’ll take the easy way out. That goes for both my marriage and my career [laughs]. You must commit to them both. There are going to be times when you don’t like what you’re doing, but if you dedicate yourself to learn and make money so you can survive, that work ethic will allow you to make it to where you want to go, to get hired on projects you are excited about it.
What is your daily writing process when you are scoring for a film?
Initially, I do a lot of walking around town and running. There’s a gestation period when you know you are working on a film and you’re just thinking about what is involved and the approach. If you’ve talked to the director, the director will tell you what they want to do. They might tell you they are afraid of the music sounding a certain way or the film turning out a certain way and they want you to guard against that. So that will inform your approach. There’s a lot of thinking of what you are going to do ahead of time, and part of that process involves writing little themes, motifs, little germs of ideas that thicken and grow over time. In terms of the daily process its 1M1 and going cue by cue. There might be a particularly difficult sequence in the film so you might start there if the material that comes out of that scene will inform the rest of the film. Sometimes the filmmakers will ask you to start on a scene that is very troubling for them and they’ll ask you “Can you fix this problem form me?” If you can and there is stuff that they like in that sequence than you’ll use material for the rest of the film. It’ll change and grow, but you’ll have a basis to work on. That’s a crucial moment when filmmakers ask you to solve a problem for them. There are times they just want to hear the theme. Does the theme capture what they think the film is?
When you’re writing do you start on a piano? Use an acoustic piano tone or do you write using synth libraries?
A lot of the writing or sketching I do is on the piano. The piano encompasses everything, not necessarily a neutral color, but if I write with a violin string patch I can only hear that timbre. With a piano I can play and envision all the different sections.
When you’re conducting for another composer what does your daily process look like?
I will look at scores ahead of time and see what pitfalls there are in terms of meters or tempo changes. Are there sections that are dense? I need to have a strong sense of how to explain to the orchestra what we are going for. Even when I have written the music, you have to know what is coming up ahead of time, otherwise the Orchestra will express that they don’t understand this or can you clarify what is supposed to be happening here? That’s where orchestration is helpful. If it is orchestrated well and as a composer you have clarified how you want the orchestra to play a section a particular way it can save a lot of time on the stage. If they play what’s on the paper properly and it’s placed on the paper properly a lot of it takes care of itself. A lot of it has to do with planning ahead of time and knowing what you need to be doing when you’re sitting in a room with 80 people.
If it is your first time up at the podium, what is the best way to win over the trust of such professional players?
Be confident. I know that is hard your first time, but if you’re standing up there, there’s a reason that you are up there and you have to believe in that and yourself. Also treat them well, treat them like human beings. That goes a long way. Don’t yell at them and don’t criticize them. These guys are on pins and needles just like you are, trying to make a living, and they don’t want to make a mistake. They don’t want to be yelled at in front of an orchestra where they are worried they might not get called back again. If they make a mistake there’s a way to deal with it so they don’t have to feel like the spotlight is shining on them. I’ve had players blow a take and so I will say to the booth, “Let’s do another take; I need another one for me.” Or, “Let’s try it again so we can work on this section.” Something to take the glare off of them and if you do things like that, the players will go to bat for you. Treat them well and encourage them. If they do something wrong explain to them how they can help you make your music better. Appeal to the musician side of them.
What obstacles have you run into in your career and how did you work your way out?
Well, the obstacle I’ve come across that I think we all come across is submitting for something and being rejected. Rejection is something we all fear, but it is just a part of our business. We get rejected constantly. You have to look at it properly so you don’t get discouraged. Getting discouraged is the first step in wanting to quit. You prevent yourself from quitting by realizing that there is a chance you’re going to get rejected by submitting for something. It’s like asking someone out on a date, they may say yes or no, but you’ll never find out the answer if you don’t ask. So you have to submit for stuff.
I look at it like fishing. You can put one line in the water or 20. If you put 20 lines in the water you’re going to catch a fish. The more the better. See if you can learn from rejection as well. See if you can find out why they picked someone else over you. Rarely will they tell you because they are picking the other guy or girl for reasons that have nothing to do with music. That’s why you can’t get discouraged or deterred. Most of the time the person got picked has a connection, or it’s nepotism, or they’ve worked with someone before that the director knows and so they feel comfortable with them, it has little to do with their music being better than yours. Your music doesn’t sound as good to people that don’t know you. When they know you, their music sounds very good to them, they believe in what they are hearing. When you’re a no name it sounds very different to them.
Someone did this where they submitted a famous composer’s music on a demo and they didn’t like it because in their ears it was music from a no-name person; they didn’t realize they were listening to, like, a Jerry Goldsmith, where if someone played it for them and said “This is Jerry Goldsmith” the same piece of music, they would have wanted to give Jerry the gig. That’s the most important message for people who get rejected. It doesn’t mean you don’t know what you are doing. Also it is important to play your music for colleagues and listen to them. When they say, “This is a really good piece of music you can submit this,” take that to heart, and if they say you can’t submit this because it will make you look like you don’t know what you are doing because of x, y, z. Find someone to help you with those things so when you are submitting music for a film you feel confident about your music and your abilities.
Is there a skill set someone needs to focus on coming out of school or in life to become a conductor or a composer or both?
Networking is very important to this business, but it’s only 1/3 of what you are doing. You can get the job, but if you don’t know what you are doing you’re never going to get hired again. The worst thing you can do is be put in a position to fail because you don’t know what you were doing and you make an ass out yourself and people will say, “He made us look bad; he was a disaster; he didn’t know what he was doing.” Don’t do that to yourself, be prepared—preparation is a big thing to focus on. In terms of skill sets, if you’re going to be a conductor, study the repertoire. Study scores, try and play things at the piano. It’s good for you. Things don’t really work that way anymore, but it’s something you should try to do. Make the effort to do it. It’s painful, unless you’re a pianist, but make the effort. Nowadays people submit MIDI mockups for new premieres, the days of sitting at a piano and learning a piece completely from scratch—there isn’t a lot of time left for that. It is still a good skill set to work on. Play a brass passage on the piano and try to hear the different sections in your head. That’s why learning a passage on the piano is best because your inner ear can hear the brass sounds or the string sounds, where as if you’re using a synth patch it’s done it for you and it isn’t helping your inner ear develop. To be a good composer and good conductor you have to develop your inner ear.
What advice would you give to a Berklee grad who just wants to have a career in music?
I would say keep an eye on the one thing you want to do most in music, but don’t be afraid to make a living doing other things related to music. Don’t think being a copyist for five years ruins your chances of being a composer. If anything, it will give you a different set of skills to help you become a composer. I say that having worked as a music librarian, as an orchestrator, as a copyist, all of those things will help you… Remember you are in it for the long haul, this is a marathon. Survive, keep going, and keep learning. That’s what it comes down to.