How USC Thornton has changed, and here's how you can too
Photo of Daniel Carlin at the recording console at one of the scoring sessions. Photo by Christine Hals
Working in the industry for over 30 years, Daniel Carlin has collaborated on hundreds of film and television projects. An Emmy-winning music editor and an Emmy-nominated music director, he has a fascinating portfolio that includes the Academy Award-winning films: The Last of the Mohicans (music supervisor and conductor), The Black Stallion (music supervisor, conductor, soundtrack producer), An Officer and a Gentleman (music consultant and conductor), and Days of Heaven (music editor); the Golden-Globe winning films: Quest For Camelot (music production supervisor) and Steel Magnolias (music editor); the Oscar-nominated films: What's Love Got to Do with It (music supervisor, song producer), The Bodyguard (playback supervisor), The Preacher's Wife (music production supervisor), and Coming to America (music editor); and the Emmy winners: The Temptations (Emmy-nominated music director, conductor, soundtrack producer), Lou Grant (music editor, conductor), St. Elsewhere (music supervisor/music editor), Moonlighting (music editor/playback supervisor), and Copacabana (music editor/playback supervisor).

Dedicating his career to advocating for composers, performers, and musicians, Carlin served two elected terms as Chair of The Recording Academy (the GRAMMY organization) and 25 years on the Motion Picture Academy's Music-Branch Executive Committee. He also contributed to designing, creating, and funding the composer program at the Sundance Institute, was a charter member of UCLA's Film Scoring Advisory Board, and helped found the Alliance for Women Composers.

Now the Director of USC Thornton's Screen Scoring program, he was first the Executive Director of the Henry Mancini Institute before serving 5 years as Chair of Film Scoring at Berklee College of Music.

With the industry rapidly changing, University of Southern California Thornton School of Music decided to change its approach for its classical students in an effort to broaden their experience. "In the old days, [academic institutions] were preparing mostly classical students [to] go out and perform," Daniel Carlin begins. "For many, the goal was to become a soloist and the fallback position was to join a symphony."

In the United States, there has been a palpable decline in symphony orchestras, which are having a problem attracting a younger audience pool. "If you go to one of their concerts, everybody looks to be my age or older," Daniel smiles. In order to change that, a few started offering concerts of film music, video game music, and other forms of contemporary music that isn't written in the classical tradition, which is something that Carlin did at Boston Symphony Hall when he lived in Massachusetts.
Thornton Screen Scoring program's Class of 2020 holding bags containing jars of Mrs. Carlin's Famous Holiday Hot Fudge Sauce. Photo by Patrick Gilbride
While this is objected to by many traditionalists, the professor himself has seen how such initiatives have inspired an interest in music for many young people. "When I was at Berklee College of Music, I was running a program on video game music," he explains, describing the summer program geared towards high school students. "There was a mother who said she and her husband had been trying to get their son to go to a symphony concert with them for years, but he wasn't interested at all. Then, one day he told them that there was to be a concert of video game music that [he'd] like to attend."

The boy became enamoured of the violin so much that he has been studying it for the past three years, and although he is still interested in video game music, he now goes to other concerts too. "It isn't that students object to sitting in a hall with a bunch of people wearing ties and hairnets," Daniel says. "If we can get young people interested in hearing a large orchestra play the kind of music they like, we can then introduce them to Bach, Mozart, Debussy, Shostakovich, and the other great classical composers." Noticing this, the professor subsequently has worked on helping to adjust the curriculum in a way that classical students are more exposed to contemporary music.

Another huge change has come with jobs going away, symphonies retracting, and older musicians remaining in the orchestras, filling up chairs that younger people want to occupy. "Given that challenge, we need to find increased numbers of ways for younger musicians to make a living — so we need a broader training model for our musicians so that they can also work in studios performing and recording film and television scores, advertising and production music, or video game music," Carlin thinks. This need prompted Thornton and its three divisions (Scholarly and Research division, Classical division, and Contemporary Music Division) to redesign its introductory curriculum so that all students now take some classes, including music theory and history, together, whereas in the old days each division would teach these courses separately.

With this approach, young musicians get exposed to a wider application to the topic of music theory, for instance, but it is also a way of creating early networking opportunities for these students. "But, one of the challenges this creates is that we have some powerhouse classical musicians on Thornton's faculty and some of them are resistant to such change. I can't fault them too much because that is the way they were trained, and they are so committed to classical music that they don't want to promote an appreciation for or participation in contemporary music," he admits. Most students, however, are very open to this concept because it gives them a chance to participate in a wider scale of activities to broaden their skill set and be in a better position for their future careers.
Alan Silvestri speaking with students following his presentation on campus last fall. Photo by Sandra Silvestri
With that thrust comes great responsibility, because music schools want their graduates to be able to go out and find jobs. "It is hard to make a living as an artist, particularly here in America — the government doesn't support the arts to the extent that many Asian and Western European governments do," Daniel shares. "If you go to a law, engineering, or medical school and do well here, it is pretty much guaranteed that you will be able to … get a job that pays well right away; but if you are an artist, that isn't the case." The professor tells me that it takes, on average, about five years after graduating with a Master's degree for his screen-scoring students to get to a point where they don't have to worry about paying their rent.

Part of the solution is networking. In the Screen Scoring program, every week the faculty bring in an artist to the class — usually it is a composer, but it can sometimes be an orchestrator, conductor, or someone else working in the industry — who talks about one's experience. At the same time, there are 10 or 12 scoring sessions that the school provides at independent studios in Hollywood, where they use professional musicians, which is a unique feature of the school. "At these sessions, we build in time for the musicians to give feedback to our composers on their conducting, voicings, notation, etc., " Daniel elucidates, which gives the composers not only an opportunity to receive constructive criticism but also to build relationships.

A frequent email the professor gets in his inbox is from a newly admitted applicant who has trouble choosing between two or three schools. When someone is choosing between USC and NYU, which also has an excellent Master's program in film scoring, Carlin's only question is where that person intends to live, work, and build one's future. "If the answer is New York, I say: 'I think ours is a better program, but you would be foolish to study and graduate here and then go to New York and try to compete for jobs with students who already were there for two years networking and building relationships with faculty'," he states. Because faculty are professionals working in the industry, they are positioned to not only hire you when you graduate, but also recommend you to their colleagues, which is why it's crucial that you are impressing your faculty members with your talent, diligence and worthiness.

Thornton screen scoring students also have the opportunity to build connections with students from USC's School of Cinematic Arts, the world's most renowned film school. "If you are a student here, we don't give you any time to be working outside because the other part of our program, which is not for credit, has you collaborating on at least five projects with members of the cinema school across the street. I've had students do as many as16 of such projects, whether they be short live-action or animated films, documentaries, TV pilots, or games. I don't know when these students sleep," Daniel laughs. There also are many examples where a film director developed a relationship with a film composer during their years at university: to cite one, Ludwig Göransson, who composed and won an Academy Award for scoring Black Panther, and Ryan Coogler, who directed the film, met at USC.

The truth is that you're not going to get a job sitting at home writing music. "This is something that you get to do once you get the job. To get that job, you want to be mixing and mingling," Carlin says.
Students at one of the recording sessions with John Debney and some Hollywood professional players. Photo by Christine Hals
The competition to get into Thornton's Screen Scoring program is intense — last year, there were 173 applicants for only 20 slots. The average age of those students is 27 or 28, with a very small minority coming straight out of undergraduate school. "Our student population is comprised mostly of people who have graduated quite some time ago and have been out working," the professor mentions. "They realized they want to become composers, or they've been composers and realized they want to become film composers, or they've been trying to make it in the screen composition world and aren't having a lot of luck."

Of the people who come fresh from undergraduate school, the majority of them come from Berklee because it has an excellent undergraduate film-scoring program, and those students do very well with their submissions, the samples they provide of their work. "The ones who are most successful are those who have a dual major: that fifth year just adds enough to your skill set that it puts you in a very competitive advantage," Daniel explains.

This is not to say that graduates from other music schools aren't considered, but, in his words, almost always the Berklee student is submitting better samples since they have studied and been doing it longer. "Even if it's a four-year graduate from Berklee [and] they're a film scoring major, they've [had] three semesters of music editing," the professor continues. "And they've been composing, orchestrating, arranging, recording, so [they are] much further ahead than a student who has just taken a composition major even at Yale, for instance, where they just don't get that exposure to the technology and nuance of writing for film as opposed to writing for symphony."

If you are an undergraduate with a degree in composition from USC, however, and you take three courses in film scoring (Film TV Scoring or Video Game Scoring, a technology course, and Film Music History), you are automatically accepted into the program if you want to join.

There are four major pieces that make or break an application to the program. "We are looking, obviously, at artistic achievement and potential," Daniel says. "This is a graduate program, so you have to be presumed to have some sufficiency in technology — Pro Tools, Finale or Sibelius notation expertise, [and] a writing program; we prefer Logic and we teach in Logic."
Daniel sharing a carrot with his loyal friend Sterling. Photo by Jessica Hamper-Shields
On top of that, the selection committee looks at your personality because, as the professor states, "it doesn't do [them] any good to train you to be a film composer if you are obviously not going to be able to communicate with filmmakers." As a requirement, you have to submit a three-minute introduction video of yourself sitting at your workstation, talking about your workflow, gear, and history. This allows the committee to see how well you're communicating, if at all. "Not very often, but we've had to not accept talented students because they are talking down here the whole time," Daniel does a demonstration, kneeling forward so close that the video only shows his forehead. "That person is never going to get a job in Hollywood, so we'd be wasting their time and the slot."

Thornton also makes sure to be as inclusive as possible. "Our industry has a bad history, no questions about it, in terms of being inclusive of women [and] people of color," Carlin tells me. "Over the last couple of years it has been addressed at the professional level, but we've been looking at that here for quite a while." As a young girl interested in film scoring, I myself have discovered the big gender gap between male and female composers, and Daniel agrees that there aren't a lot of women you could look up to due to the fact that we've not accepted, encouraged, and supported lots of females in our industry. Last year, the program invited seven women composers, of which five chose to attend; however, this year they have invited 10 women, all of whom plan to attend.

A special selection committee comprised of several members of the screen scoring faculty looks at each student individually and rates them. Those applicants who survive the first round have their submissions distributed to other members of the committee for additional evaluations. In the next round, "I, and maybe two other members, will review and rate the remaining applications, after which we take all of those ratings, average them out, and rank the surviving applicants," the professor conveys. This is especially challenging because this isn't science — the opinion of one person can vary with the opinion of another person, which is why they don't absolutely go by the ranking. "In selecting the first 15 or so, we adhere to the ranking because it's [clear], but as we get down closer to the final 5 or so, what we find is that that cluster between 15 and 25 might [have] an average rating difference of only tone or two points."

For example, in the case where there are only four women in the top 18, the committee will look at the next six or seven candidates in the rank and see whether there is a talented woman in that group. "We don't jump to number 35 because what we don't want … is to invite you to come and it turns out you're not as accomplished as the other students, who subsequently might be prompted to say: 'oh, I see why she got in: she's a girl'. This contributes to sexism rather than helping to overcome it," Daniel says. "We want to ensure that if we skip over 3 guys in order to select a woman, that her score is very close to that of the men. And, again, the ratings are not completely objective anyway, so there is nothing pure about these numbers."

The same concept applies to people of color, or when the program already includes four students from China but nobody from Latin America. "Is there anybody in that group — six or seven down — … someone from Brazil, for instance, who is talented, [ we can] take rather than a fifth Asian," he shares. "This is not a matter of discrimination, it is an attempt to be more inclusive and have a more culturally diverse environment without compromising our academic standards. The rankings yield an average of 10 international students in our group of 20. We like this for 2 reasons: it creates an interesting cultural environment for these young composers as well as for the faculty, and, second, these international students bring different artistic and ethnic flavors to their music, which broadens the perspective of our US students, who are able to incorporate these artistic aspects into their own work."
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