Composing the Story

As industry demand for digital media scoring increases, so does interest among music composition students.

by Sally Parker

masked students at music practice

The Nazareth School of Music is one of just a handful in the country to offer film, TV, and video-game composition studies at the undergraduate level.

For music composition major Liam Frager ’22, the best part of composing is writing the story behind the score.

Like its peers, Nazareth’s School of Music gives composition students many ways to tell those stories — from premieres to recitals to an annual competition. But composing at the College has a unique, 21st-century twist.

The school is one of just a handful in the country to offer film, TV, and video-game composition studies at the undergraduate level, says Octavio Vazquez, associate professor and director of the undergraduate program. What’s more, it puts digital media scoring on a par with the classical approach.

“Traditionally in music schools, there’s been a hard separation between concert composition and film scoring. We don’t make a distinction whatsoever,” Vazquez says. “Of course students get solid training in both. But those who want to focus on film scoring can do that — and for those who are very interested, that becomes a big part of their degree.”

Roughly two-thirds of incoming composition students indicate an interest in media composing, he adds. A dozen students are majoring in it.

Film and animation media is a growing industry, and demand for composers has never been higher, particularly for video games, Vazquez says. College trustee Jack Allocco ’72, an award-winning film and TV composer, agrees. In 2012, he supported hands-on career preparation for all students in the school with a gift to build a digital recording studio in the Arts Center.

Students like Frager, who compose for digital media, can build impressive portfolios before they graduate, thanks to industry internships (including at composer Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control Productions) and collaborations with filmmakers and video-game developers at Rochester Institute of Technology, Fashion Institute of Technology, School of Visual Arts, and Pasadena College.

“What’s clear to me is there’s a long tradition at Nazareth of giving students real-world experience while they’re still in college,” says David Davies, who joined the school as director last September.

Case in point: In a twice-yearly creative mashup of more than 100 students, Nazareth composers link up on projects with filmmakers and video game developers at RIT. Frager has already scored nine short animated films with RIT students, and he expected to complete two more during the spring semester. “It’s my favorite part of every semester,” he says.

Forging relationships with budding filmmakers is a plus in an industry where who you know is as important as what you know. Frager has done three films with one animator alone. Down the road, he says, a former RIT partner in the business may hear of a need for a composer and recommend him.

Classes and experiences for students interested in scoring for media add to the stylistic diversity of the school, Davies says. He calls it the Yo-Yo Ma approach — having the ability to play a Bach suite one day and improvise with a bluegrass band the next.

“In today’s professional world, people need to be able to do it all. We want our composition students to write a challenging piece of concert music and also be able to effectively score for a video game,” he says.

Music composition students succeed because they are hardworking and motivated, Vazquez adds — a fact that makes it easy for faculty mentors to connect them to leads in the profession.

“If a student is ready, there is no lack of opportunities,” he says.

Sally Parker is a writer in Rochester, N.Y.

Aaron Siebert in the music studio

Nazareth faculty helped Aaron Siebert-Castiñeira '19, a composition major, get an internship at Remote Control Productions, the Los Angeles-based film score company run by noted composer Hans Zimmer (Pirates of the Caribbean, Shrek). Siebert-Castiñeira says Nazareth has stimulated his personal growth “at a multilayered level that goes beyond a specific degree,” by giving him “a scope of appreciation for detail” and the tools needed for making any kind of decision. “I actually observed a notable advantage over others during my time in L.A. due to this preparation,” he says.

He went on for a master's in music for film and contemporary media.