BMI Day at Berklee Featuring Film Composer Thomas Newman

by Ayanna Jacobs-El

Pictured from left to right: Alison Plante (Film Scoring Chair), Doreen Ringer-Ross (BMI Vice President of Film, TV & Visual Media Relations), Kara Talve (Senior Film Scoring Major and Scholarship Recipient), and Thomas Newman (Film Composer).

Every year a student in Berklee’s Film Scoring department is selected to receive a BMI-sponsored scholarship given in the name of a prominent BMI composer. This year senior Kara Talve was selected to receive this scholarship by the Berklee Film Scoring department based on her musical ability and potential for career success. The scholarship was presented by celebrated film composer Thomas Newman. As a part of this annual scholarship ceremony, BMI hosts a renowned BMI film composer to present the scholarship and participate in a day of sessions, Q&A’s, meet and greets, seminars, and a keynote open to members of the Berklee Community.

The day started with Newman conducting his scores for the End Title of  Shawshank Redemption and the Main Title of the Good German with an orchestra made up of Berklee students. This demo scoring session was a part of a collaborative class,  offered at Berklee, among orchestral student musicians, Music Production and Engineering majors, and 6 Film Scoring majors. Newman’s relaxed and friendly demeanor was apparent through his communication with the musicians and his stellar conducting and directing abilities shone throughout the entire session. The orchestra performed his two scores beautifully in the short session and everyone in attendance was able to get an inside look at how a professional film scoring recording session operates.

Following the demo scoring session, Film Scoring Faculty, Thomas Newman, BMI Vice President of Film, TV & Visual Media Relations Doreen Ringer-Ross, and scholarship recipient Kara Talve participated in a luncheon at which Talve was officially awarded the BMI Thomas Newman film scoring scholarship.

The main event of the day was the keynote presentation with Thomas Newman led by Film Scoring Chair Alison Plante. This presentation was open to all members of the Berklee community and the turnout was significant. In the presentation, Newman spoke about his film scoring career, compositional process, musical background, and provided advice to the aspiring film composers in the room.

Newman is known to be one of the most experimental composers in film scoring due to his background and talent in synthesis and his fearlessness when it comes to breaking orchestral scoring traditions. Something said that really struck me following the keynote presentation, was that the more we write, the less precious our compositions will become. He made the statement during a discussion about how he deals with making revisions or having a cue rejected by a director. I thought this was a great piece of advice for all the writers in the room because personally, I do form an attachment to my compositions and revisions have always been a challenge for me because of this.

Thomas Newman and Film Scoring Chair Alison Plante during the Keynote Presentation.

During the keynote, Newman frequently mentioned how much he enjoys working with live musicians rather than only composing with sample libraries. He said that over the years he has found a small group of top-notch musicians that possess a unique skill set and have the ability to play multiple instruments. He elaborated that working with live musicians is one of the most fun things he does and that he prefers to work with the same musicians because he already has a sense of their technical abilities, personalities, and he can allow them to have some level of free reign to experiment. He perfectly summed up this notion of limited free reign as, “not having the musicians on a leash, but in a corral.”

One refreshing to hear was that when Newman composes, he still experiences “terrible moments of discomfort,” and that he sometimes lacks confidence and has huge amounts of fear when working on a new piece of music. As a composition student, I know exactly what he means and I’m sure other students at Berklee experience this same range of emotions with regard to their writing process and abilities. It’s great to know that we are not alone in these feelings and that an extremely talented, award-winning composer like Newman experiences the same things that we do. He gave some reassurance saying that as composers we need to lift ourselves up and realize that we have the skills needed to be successful. He also included that we should be a little easier on ourselves, less afraid, and have more optimism; and that when we look back on the writing process we will realize that we successfully “rode the wave” of emotions.

During a brief anecdote, Newman mentioned that the people he likes the most are those who are useful to others. He stressed that we shouldn’t think we are too good or special to do something, that we should be patient with our career trajectory, and always seize an opportunity when it presents itself. In a short story, he spoke about a time when he was recording a cue at the Village Recorder in Los Angeles, and there was a serious problem with the playback of the recording that no one could figure out. Then the assistant engineer, who before that point had mainly just been getting coffee, suggested they try something that actually solved their problem. Newman was so impressed by the resourcefulness of the assistant engineer that he decided to hire this person to work for him full time.  I thought this perfectly represented the idea of seizing an opportunity because someone else in that assistant engineer’s place may have been too afraid to make a suggestion to those above them.

Thomas Newman with Associate Editor Ayanna Jacobs-El at the demo recording session.

Following the fantastic keynote presentation, Thomas Newman and Doreen Ringer-Ross attended the senior film scoring seminar class to speak about what the students should expect as they begin navigating their careers as professional film composers. The session started out with Ringer-Ross asking everyone in the room to say three sentences that would give a sense of who they are. After everyone gave their sentences Ringer-Ross revealed that she likes to do this exercise to gain a sense of their personality through the delivery rather than only listening to what they said. She and Newman stressed that they only like to work with people that are positive and have great personalities and that these two aspects are even more important than writing talent because in order to be successful in this industry having skill as a composer is the bare minimum of requirements. They also spoke about the importance of having a circuit of people that will help you and that you would want to help in return for the sheer act of bettering yourself and others.

Overall, this year’s BMI Day was spectacular! I have so many pages of useful notes from all of the sessions that by the end of the day, I had renewed sense of determination, excitement, and drive from all of the valuable information I gleaned. Thomas Newman is a great role model for aspiring composers because of his exceptional compositions, inventiveness, humbleness, kindness, willingness to help others and all around fantastic personality!


About the Author

Ayanna Jacobs-El
Ayanna Jacobs-El is a composer, producer, songwriter, singer, alto and baritone saxophonist, and DJ dual majoring in Contemporary Writing and Production and Professional Music with a minor in Writing for TV and New Media. You can learn more about Ayanna and hear her music by visiting