Author: Danielle Ferrari

The Importance of Women Role Models in This Industry

Two women posing on an orchestra stage together

Recently, I overheard a conversation between two educators about the lack of young girls interested in playing jazz music. One asked the other why it seemed like there weren’t as many girls as boys interested in playing instrumental jazz. The other person replied, “Well, where are the women jazz mentors?” Together, they concluded that it wasn’t that men aren’t able to properly mentor young female jazz instrumentalists, it just seemed that because of the lack of apparent women role models, young girls might get the idea that “maybe playing jazz music isn’t for me.” Overhearing this conversation led me to question why this seems like the case. And if this is the case, where are the women mentors in jazz, or—looking more broadly—in most genres of music? For me, having amazing female mentors and role models was and still is crucial to my growth as an artist.

Having amazing female mentors and role models was and still is crucial to my growth as an artist.

An Unsuspected Mentor

In the fall semester of my sophomore year, I took a composition class called “Tools, Techniques, and Analysis” taught by our school’s game audio composition guru Lennie Moore. Our first few assignments had been uniquely challenging, including tasks such as building templates, creating sound logos, and composing short exercises in different modes. As the semester progressed, I started to get nervous. I had looked ahead at the syllabus before the semester began and foresaw the heavy scoring-to-picture assignments coming up, something I attempted to do in the past and had fell flat on my face in failure. I knew my demise was approaching. Then the day came when our next assignment was to re-score a 35-second commercial for Ace Combat 5, a flight combat video game. Now I know what you’re thinking, “Thirty-five seconds, how hard could that be? Just fake it or something.” But I was practically immobilized with anxiety by the thought of having to score even a second of music to picture. That’s when I booked a tutoring session with Daria Novoliantceva, who was the official TAC department tutor at that time. That single tutoring session completely changed the trajectory of my path. I walked in with only three or four sketch tracks and a poor description of a concept written down. I explained to her what I wanted the music to be like and how frustrated I was with my inability to translate that into sound. She heard me out and replied, “Oh, that’s easy, here’s how you do it,” and proceeded to create the sounds I had envisioned in my mind. I remember thinking, “Is it that? Is this really that easy or is she just a musical genius?”

After that session, I religiously booked an appointment with her every week. Her insight was incredible; I was perplexed by how easily music came to her. I was amazed by how she could sit down at a piano and her fingers could effortlessly find the right keys to fit the emotion. She showed me her favorite production tricks as well as different ways to smoothly blend electronic elements into my orchestral writing. Any sort of sound or emotion that I wanted to express, she could say, “Oh you can do this!” and show me. Each lesson would consist of us excitedly ping-ponging ideas back and forth, in a never-ending cycle of inspiration. My idea would inspire a solution from her, which would spark another idea from me, and so on. Our lessons felt magical. Above all, I was impressed by her knowledge of and passion for music, her deep dedication to teaching, and her humility on top of everything else that came so naturally to her. Throughout our tutoring sessions, Daria helped me crawl out of my own cave of fears and into the light of my own compositional voice. She taught me the language of creating sound in a way that I’d never thought about before. Daria was, is, and always will be one of my biggest role models. I am eternally grateful for her teachings.

My Role Models

Another kind of mentor I’ve had the luxury of meeting on this journey was Penka Kouneva, my mentor for the Game Audio Network Guild Scholars program. She illustrates the picture-perfect image of a working professional who is deeply submerged in a successful career as a game music composer, and at the same time is willing to share her rich knowledge with a younger generation. She instilled in me the importance of being an enduring player in this industry and to keep my head in the game if this is something I’m truly serious about. She also invited me to a fancy networking breakfast meet-up with other established women in the game audio industry, a memory I won’t soon forget.

And of course, there is my beloved advisor, teacher, and spirit guide MaryClare Brzytwa.

With her patience like that of a wise sage, she somehow always knows just the right amount of force to push with and just the right things to say to nurture. Amidst my confusion phase, when I started heavily contemplating different career paths, instead of jumping in to stop me, she simply stepped back and let me figure it out by myself. She is always operating for the highest good of her students. By constantly creating a flow of new opportunities for her students, she stretches our minds while simultaneously being the role model of a brilliant, creative, and entrepreneurial-minded woman that we all could only strive to be like in the future.

Inspired By Successful Women

On April 23, the women of the TAC program organized a concert entitled “The Future is Female.” This concert was fully produced, engineered, composed, conducted, and performed by women in the program. I had the opportunity to produce a series of video interviews with accomplished women in the industry, such as audio directors, business owners, and mixing and mastering engineers. In an interview with Piper Payne, owner and chief mastering engineer at Neato Mastering, she points out:

There are all these social media posts that go out that are like, ‘Where are all the women? There aren’t enough women in the industry,’ and ‘They’re not very active on the forums or the social stuff.’ Well, guess what? We’re working! We’re busy. We’re here in our studios making records. We’re not spouting off about how we’re better than somebody else on the internet.

When I first started on this path, there was a small part of me that felt like maybe I didn’t belong here. That small part of me was immediately shut down and proven wrong when I opened my eyes to all of the extraordinary women around me in this industry. People may think that there aren’t working female mentors and industry professionals, but I’m here to tell you from first-hand experience that they’re everywhere – and they’re probably busy working in the studio or the office. If not there, then they’re out kicking some ass or conquering the world. We need to spread awareness that there are indeed women working full-time in this industry, and success in this field is achievable. Meeting these women has significantly altered my perspective on my own reality: what is possible for me and where I see myself in the future. Without them, I wouldn’t be anything like who I am today.

The Impossible Dream: Scoring My First Documentary

A smoky, black and white perspective shot of a man in a beanie

I didn’t grow up watching movies. I never liked sitcoms or reality shows. Ever since I was little, I always had a strong aversion towards watching TV because I always felt it to be meaningless mind poison. Playing, learning, and listening to new music have always been my favorite forms of entertainment and my main sources of enjoyment. Gradually, as I continued to explore different worlds of music, I found myself more and more fascinated by soundtracks. The more I listened to them, the more intrigued I became by the story, characters, and context of the movies themselves. I needed to know what was driving all of the passion behind the scores. I gradually came to see how music has the power to transform stories and make characters feel larger than life. Since this realization, it has been my mission to create music that supports the narrative of humanity’s beautiful stories. It’s incredibly fulfilling to create music that supports a theme or character by playing up aspects of the situation or personality that might not be so obvious to the audience. It was only a few months ago when I scored music for my very first documentary, The Impossible Dream, that I realized this was my path. This was the first opportunity I had to do what I want to spend my career doing.

The Impossible Dream, directed by Javid Soriano, is a documentary that portrays creativity, poverty, and addiction in San Francisco, as experienced by Tim Blevins, a homeless opera singer and Juilliard graduate living in the Tenderloin. The film, intimately capturing Tim’s journey of survival and redemption on the streets, has received support from The Sundance Institute, the Independent Filmmaking Project (IFP), and Skywalker Sound and Music Labs, among other film institutes/foundations around the country. The moment I heard about this project, I could not contain my excitement. I, along with other third-year TAC students, had the opportunity to collaborate with the director to not only score the documentary but also to arrange, perform, and record unique accompaniments for the classical repertoire that Tim sings in the film. When I found out that we could “try out” for as many scenes as we wanted to, I immediately attempted to write for all 13 scenes in one sitting. After about an hour, I stepped back and recognized that I was only human, so I settled on focusing all my energy and efforts on a select few scenes that really spoke to me. I ended up scoring three scenes, one of them being the “Comeback Scene.”

The Comeback

In the “Comeback Scene,” Tim goes through a hero’s monologue, explaining how real heros aren’t beyond getting their asses kicked every once in a while. He describes how, when it looks like they’re at the end of their ropes, they get back up and start working harder to make a comeback. Through sweat and blood, real heroes are reborn. I felt moved by Tim’s confidence, and wanted to highlight both the struggle of Tim’s daily routine and his unyielding determination. I decided that a bouncy staccato string bed with a striving legato violin line climbing up to the highest register of the instrument would work best to play up Tim’s perseverance. The director came back and noted that he’d like to hear a tinge of darkness to emphasize the sense of painful struggle that Tim will have to endure to overcome. I agreed with him; I had made the music a bit too positive and had missed the humanizing element in the story. I then altered the harmony to better fit the spirit in his monologue and the scene was instantly brought to life.

The Finale

Another scene I scored was “The Finale.” It’s the last and one of the more emotionally intense scenes in the documentary. This one was especially unique because in the very final cue of the scene Tim goes into singing Colline’s “Coat Aria” from La Bohème. On top of composing the music to accompany Tim’s singing, the director had also asked me to write in the style of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. These tricky notes combined with the pressure of scoring the grand finale scene caused me to experience a massive mental block. After days of trying different compositional techniques for this cue, I completely ran dry of ideas. Feeling defeated, I sat down in the studio and pulled the session up on the monitors. I watched the picture playback a few times, still trying to come up with any form of solution my mind could muster up at this point. I then decided to try a different route. Instead of thinking anything at all, I let out a deep breath, closed my eyes, placed my hands on the MIDI keyboard, and let my intuition take over. I completely surrendered, leaving whatever would happen next to be purely instinctual. I felt the weight of Tim’s story and his rich voice flow through me. I felt his pain, bravery, and heroism. I felt music that represented both Tim’s charismatic nature and hardship. For the first time in my life, I composed from the heart instead of through some learned technique. The next day, the director reviewed my work and wrote back that it was “chilling at the end.”

The entire experience of composing for The Impossible Dream was a transformative one. Never had I thought that a film project could come into my life and completely change the way I think about composition. Through this process, one of the many things I learned was that sometimes thinking less and trusting more is the best way to go. I see media like TV and film in a different light now. I see it as a medium to explore the narrative of our humanity. It’s this process of sharing our stories, our lives, and our dreams that makes it so compelling, and music can participate by highlighting these aspects. Music may be just a series of tones and pitches at different intervals, but when constructed in a thoughtful way, it can evoke even the subtlest of feelings, sometimes indescribable ones. Composing music for this story confirmed that this is what I see myself doing for the rest of my life.

Teamwork in the Conservatory: In the Game of Music, We Can All Win

Three people at the mixing desk of a recording studio

My yoga teacher once said something that really stuck with me: What helps “we” also helps “me.” Time after time, my experiences have verified this to be true. The occasions in which I have grown the most have all involved collaborating with my peers and coworkers. I strongly believe that no collective growth can occur without there first being individual growth, but that when an individual grows, so does the group. This is also a key component of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s (SFCM) Technology and Applied Composition (TAC) program, where there is a large emphasis on collaboration and teamwork. I want to see my peers succeed, so I’m constantly asking myself how I can contribute to their success. Through collaboration, we grow together.

One Friday night during my freshman year, a group of students and I got free tickets to see the San Francisco Opera. I arrived at the opera house and found my seat next to another TAC student, Thomas Soto. We began chatting about music and other career-related things. He offhandedly mentioned that there was a really cool professional development program for college students pursuing a career in music called GRAMMY U. He told me how the program hosts “SoundChecks” with big-name artists like Jason Mraz, The Weeknd, and Khalid, which include a Q&A session and a photo with the artist. I was intrigued. After the opera, I went home and immediately applied for a GRAMMY U membership. Fast forward one and a half years and I’m sitting in a corporate office interviewing to be the next GRAMMY U Representative for the San Francisco Chapter of the Recording Academy. Now, after having the job for nearly a year and four months, one of my many roles is to pair 10 to 15 high-achieving GRAMMY U members with a mentor in their field of study each semester. It all came back around this semester when I paired Thomas, the same person who told me about the program, with an awesome mentor who has been teaching him audio engineering, mixing, and arranging. Looking back at that night in the opera house, Thomas had no idea what wheels he had set in motion at that time. He was simply sharing a really cool opportunity with me and ended up benefiting greatly from it himself some three years later.

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A few weeks ago, after hearing a decent number of my peers in the TAC program complain about how difficult it is to find an artist manager, I decided it was time to use my rep position to make some magic happen. Through GRAMMY U, I organized an Industry Insights event on the relationship between artists and managers. I knew some GRAMMY U members at UC Berkeley studying artist management, and of course I knew members in my own TAC program who were in great need of management, so I thought it to be a perfect fit. I called up the music director of the Berkeley Careers in Entertainment Club (BCEC) to see if they wanted to co-host this event with us. They agreed, so I sent an invitation out to all of the GRAMMY U members in the Bay Area. We invited a guest speaker, Joe Barham, artist manager for the Stone Foxes and creator partnerships lead at Patreon, for a Q&A. During the event, I asked Joe about the roles and expectations of artist managers, how these relationships are built, and the red flags to look out for when searching for your perfect match. Following the Q&A, we gave out colored name tags and mock-business cards with each student’s info for them to hand out during the networking session. At first, when we announced that the networking session had officially begun, nobody moved from their seat. Only after an inspiring pep talk about seizing the moment from Michael Winger, the executive director of The Recording Academy SF Chapter, did students begin to shuffle around the room. Surprisingly, the networking session lasted longer than we expected, resulting in us having to move the event next door to a pizza joint.

The feedback I got was very inspiring. Some students admitted, “At first, I was scared to walk up to someone new, but after the fourth and fifth time it became surprisingly easy,” and, “I didn’t realize how cool everyone in the room was until I started talking to them.” This is a much smaller industry than we realize, and many students we sit next to in class will be the working professionals of tomorrow. Every day is an opportunity to make these connections and long-lasting friendships. These relationships will serve you for the rest of your life. Due to the huge success of this event, I’m now in the process of planning another Industry Insights session for production and engineering students in May.

Teamwork in the Conservatory

I didn’t know what I was in for when I signed up for a winter term class called Synesthesia and Microtonality this past January. There were only three of us in the class: Jonathan Herman, Jessica Mao, and myself. We showed up to our first class meeting to have the professor tell us that we had one week to figure out a solution to his dilemma. Our task was to program a keyboard to play microtones and another one to trigger specific colors on a screen for a live performance. The three of us, not yet knowing each other very well, had no idea how to go about accomplishing this on our own. It was only when we started to communicate our different skills that we realized where one person lacked, the other made up for. I knew just enough about the program Max/MSP to start building a color organ, Jessica started mapping out the different color combinations and how they would correspond to specific keys, and Jonathan, who is well-versed in Ableton, began on the microtonal tunings. The collaborative process was so seamless it felt like we were a machine. After only three days we had worked out a brilliant solution, something I never thought would happen when we began. The piece is scheduled to be performed at SFCM in May. Due to its unique curriculum, the TAC program at SFCM is collaborative by nature. Not only did I accomplish a goal I previously thought impossible, I also developed great friendships in the process. I learned a valuable lesson in trusting others’ abilities. That’s what a team is for.

There’s a place for everyone to succeed in this game. We come from different backgrounds with varying life experiences that contribute to our own unique skill sets. If I could do anything right now, I would want to encourage students to not treat work life as a competition, but more so like a game with only one team. Rather than competing against each other, we can utilize our individual knowledge to work together and create immensely beautiful things. Before entering the TAC program, I had not realized the mighty power of collaboration, nor thought about how my unique skill set could support the needs of others. Both the TAC program and my work with The Recording Academy have helped me see the tremendous value in teamwork. Life’s
much more fun when you work with others!

I Came Here With Nothing: 21st-Century Paths in Music Education

A woman and a man at a mixing desk

I applied to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s Technology and Applied Composition (TAC) program as a very lost graphic design major transferring from the University of San Francisco. While I didn’t come from a strict classical background, I was a multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and a passionate electronic music maker. Thankfully, SFCM saw a certain sense of originality and talent in my art, and I got accepted into one of the newest and most groundbreaking music technology programs that a conservatory has ever seen.

Why should a conservatory have a technology composition program? Music is always evolving, and conservatories should be the place where we can explore and pioneer this evolution. For 98 years, in general at SFCM you’d hear music from the 17th to the 20th centuries radiating out of its practice rooms and into the hallways. The game changed with the birth of TAC, founded by Executive Director MaryClare Brzytwa. With programs like TAC, students get the best of both worlds—the opportunity to study foundational classical music as well as the ability to explore new cutting-edge music technology. Coming from a graphic design background, using the latest tools and software had always been second nature to me. What I deeply hungered for was access to knowledge of the classical music world, something which most other music technology programs severely lacked. Every conservatory should offer an integral technology and applied composition program as a bachelor’s degree course.

The TAC program is designed to push students out of their comfort zones and into the realm of growth, experience, and discovery. From building musical applications in Max/MSP to cranking out a fully orchestrated score for a five-minute film cue, students are constantly challenged to learn more and perform better.

As freshmen, we are thrown immediately into the fire as one of our first tasks is to compose a one-minute suite for a fictitious video game. Only the work of a select few will be chosen to be recorded by professional musicians at Sony PlayStation’s studio in San Mateo. This assignment is especially challenging because most of us are scrambling to learn how to use a digital audio workstation for the first time.

It’s a fun ride to be on, when we walk into the classroom not knowing what to expect then suddenly have a ton of opportunities thrown at us. Last semester we worked with a local filmmaker on his documentary. The filmmaker himself had contacted the school looking to see if any composition students were interested in scoring his film, as the film had a heavy opera theme throughout. This became one of TAC’s main semester projects and, like every project, we poured everything we had into it. I ended up scoring 20 minutes of music for this project, and it became my first real professional credit.

Recently, TAC students have been working in collaboration with the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) on scoring their student film. The students at SFAI are creating a modern Macbeth, and our scores will be recorded at Skywalker Ranch.  Opportunities like these are continually laid out on the table for us, and we are responsible for grasping as many as we can and then running with them.

These are just some of the experiences we get, on top of having the traditional conservatory experience of studying music theory, orchestration, and harmony, as well as history and other general education classes.

If I were to offer advice to other conservatories based on my experiences in the TAC program, I’d say there are a few core ideas that will need to be implemented:

Recording Department
It’s important to teach students the most foundational recording studio skills. Recording, mixing, and editing know-how are invaluable for a lifelong career in music. Every live performance at the conservatory needs to be recorded, so teaching and allowing students to run this process achieves both goals at the same time. The recording department at SFCM is now almost completely student-run, with the head audio engineer being third-year TAC student Seira McCarthy.

Special Projects
Find outside projects that people in the community are passionate about and see if they would like to collaborate, or have students put together a seasonal concert of live electronic and avant-garde music. It’s important to be open and allow students to explore their creativity in a program like this. There is no straight path to achieving music nirvana, so it’s important to have an accepting and open program for students to show off their performance and composition skills.

A Badass Executive Director
My director and mentor MaryClare Brzytwa has pushed me further than I ever dreamed of going, and has never let me get away with cutting any corners. As an example, when I applied for a job to be a department assistant, she assigned me to be a recording engineer because during my freshman year, when other students were setting up audio equipment, she saw me hiding because I didn’t know how to do it. She wanted to be sure I would do the work I ran away from. And it worked. By forcing me to break down those barriers, I’m no longer afraid of setting up mics or running Pro Tools sessions.

Danielle Ferrari at the mixing desk

Photo by Carlin Ma

After four years of TAC, when you look around the conservatory, classical music is still radiating out of practice rooms. But now, there are also students playing synthesizers, building MIDI instruments, and collaborating as creators and musicians as well.

As that lost graphic design major, TAC was the gold mine I found that allowed me to learn everything I needed and more to be happy as a music creator.