Marginalia, Graduate Blog

FAQ: Part 1

Steven Spiel



So, you’ve been admitted into the Music Composition for the Screen MFA program? You are bound to have some questions as you are deciding what program is a good fit for you. Below you will see a list of questions that I get in my email pretty frequently. I thought I’d try to knock it out in one blog post.

1. There are other programs around the country for film scoring: NYU, Seattle Film Institute, USC—I’m wondering why you chose Columbia. What about Columbia stood out to you above the rest?

A year before receiving my undergraduate degree, I did intense research on graduate composition programs across the country and overseas. I listened to hundreds of pieces of music and read and studied various curricula. While I was excited with the skill, technical ability, and prestige of certain professors, no programs seemed to resonate with me—at least, none like Columbia College Chicago.

I was amazed with both the quality of the recordings presented on the website and the inspiring compositions done by the students. The two program directors, David McHugh and Gary Chang, are extremely well-connected and have made excellent names for themselves, as well as excellent livings during their careers. This became evident to me when I visited Chicago with my wife to see the program. Gary and David are so down-to-earth and have a wealth of knowledge that they are willingly share. It seemed to me, after just one visit, that the faculty and staff are very supportive and would provide any help or opportunities needed.

Other programs, to me, did not have the kind of quality, directors, and/or connections I was looking for. USC seemed less-than-appealing because it is only a one-year program, and you leave with not a degree, but a certificate only. This limits your opportunities. Also, there are no financial aid options available, and tuition is extremely expensive. Columbia, on the other hand, gives the best of both worlds with their semester internship in LA, which is in the heart of American cinema. Two years in Chicago gives you plenty of time to learn from great minds, record with professional studio musicians (through the school), and build your portfolio to prepare you for making a name for yourself in LA. The internship is guaranteed, and students have worked with some of the most accomplished film composers and institutions of the time, such as Hans Zimmer, Danny Elfman, and Disney. This internship provides a fabulous transition into composing for films in LA (if you decide to stay), or great background, connections, and experience to prepare you for other projects (if you decide to go).

2. How much of the program is dedicated to working with live musicians? Is it mostly MIDI mock ups, or are there many opportunities to work with live musicians? 

Much of the first year work is MIDI demos and production. Professors here can’t emphasize enough how good your demos need to sound when you are working on a film. Most of the time, 50% or more of your demo ends up in the final mix while live orchestras often sweeten it. That’s why there is a heavy emphasis on that in the first year.

In the second year, the program has contracted with a studio, Union Orchestra in Chicago, so we each can do a few recording sessions. We use works that we want to put on our reel and send to LA for our internship demos, and they end up sounding great! We prepare scores and parts, click tracks, and learn how to get everything in order for recording sessions. We can then either conduct it ourselves or swap with another person so we can listen in the studio.

3. What are composition lessons like?

I get individual lessons every other week, which seems to be just about right, and honestly, it’s more tech-related things that we go over, though you may choose to go over what suits you best. David said he used to do individual composition lessons every week with each student, but that he became worried because the other students couldn’t listen in on each lesson or hear the other composers’ works. So, he quickly changed it to group lessons. They are three hours long, and 6 of us meet with him at a time. We go over our assignments for the week, and I have to tell you that I learn just as much from my classmates as I do from David. It is invaluable to see their work, their approaches, and to have a bar that we are always trying to clear. It is something I would have never seen in private lessons. Obviously, we want our music to sound as good as others’, and the friendly competitiveness drives us to do better work. If you are interested in other private lessons, the professors treat us like family. I have their address, phone number, and email, and they invite us to contact them anytime. We can set up lessons if we want to or stay after class and talk. I had a one-on-one, hour-long lesson with Gary after one of my classes with him last week. They are very eager to help us.

4. Are you currently working part time? Do you know other students who are and if that’s manageable?

I work part time for the graduate office and as a Graduate Ambassador. I also do some freelance work on the side. Almost everyone has a part time job, and it is totally manageable!

5. I can’t make Admitted Student Day on April 2nd. Can I still come up to see the campus and meet with you?

If you absolutely can’t attend the Admitted Student Day, you can also come visit campus some other time. I would be happy to set up a time to meet with you. April 2nd will be awesome, because we have a recording session that day with union musicians, but if you can’t make it, we can figure out another time!

FAQ: Part 1

So, you’ve been admitted into the Music Composition for the Screen MFA program? You are bound to have some questions as you are deciding what program is a good fit …

Music Composition for the Screen MFA Steven Spiel,
600 S. Michigan Ave. Chicago, IL 60605