Danita Ng-Poss and Jason Poss are versatile musicians working in Los Angeles, where they are active in music preparation, transcription, proofreading, arranging, composing, orchestration, and more.
They’ve worked on video games including Assassin’s Creed and World of Warcraft, feature films like The Two Towers and Return of the King, studio recordings with diverse artists (from Mary J. Blige to Toby Keith, Lady Gaga to Tony Bennett) and have experienced the unique world of live TV on shows like Dancing with the Stars, The Emmy Awards, and the Academy Awards.
I enjoyed speaking with them at length about live TV, Finale, and other aspects of their music careers:
You two have been credited for many different jobs, from music transcription to composition. Does the size of the project dictate whether you wear multiple hats or become more specialized?
DANITA: There is a difference in specialization between big and small jobs. It often has to do with the amount of work required. On a big film or a large concert, there is so much music and so many individual tasks that no one person can handle it all. For example, I’ll get hired as copyist and/or librarian on a show, and that will be a full-time job for the duration of the project.
There will still be a need for a proofreader, so the project will hire someone to do only that. In the case of a large project it won’t be just us. There will be other copyists, proofreaders, people who print and tape the music, and other jobs. Then you need someone to be the point of contact for the client, to supervise the whole operation, and make sure everyone’s invoices are submitted properly so they can get paid.
On a smaller project Jason and I might be the only people dealing with all of the music prep. We can split the copying work and then proofread each other. We might also do all the printing and librarian tasks at the rehearsals or recordings. If it’s our own gig, we’ll bring in additional people as needed.
JASON: I also work as an arranger and orchestrator, so I may not be able to assist with the other parts of preparing music. At some points on a project I may be writing new charts or sorting out on the phone what needs to be done on a particular cue. At the session I may be conducting, or I might be in the booth listening as a score reader providing quality control.
You both met while attending Berklee. How did you end up in L.A.? Were you both planning on a career in Hollywood all along?
JASON: I never planned on going to Hollywood or working in the film, TV, or videogame industries. I played jazz vibraphone and percussion and just wanted to make a living as a gigging musician. I didn’t think that serious musicians did film work. Ah, the naiveté of youth!
DANITA: I got an internship at a studio that did TV commercial work in New York and eventually I was hired full time. My boss was pitching for a worldwide TV commercial and needed more options to show the ad agency. He offered me the chance to write a few tracks really just to fill out their pitch.
I went home and told Jason that we were going to write the tracks together. They were for vocals and percussion. I love writing for vocals and Jason’s a percussionist. We presented our three tracks and they were all received very well by the ad agency.
JASON: They actually loved the tracks and we won this big account for Danita’s boss. Our first real writing gig ended up being a worldwide TV ad campaign for Crest Toothpaste. I think it played on six continents during primetime on major networks. What were the odds of that?
DANITA: I took the music we wrote and submitted it as an application for a BMI fellowship. When our music was chosen Mike Post invited us to do a fellowship with him in Los Angeles for about six weeks. At the end of the fellowship Mike sat us down and told us that he thought we had the potential to make a living in the film and TV business, but we were on the wrong coast. We needed to save up our money and move to L.A.
JASON: He told us that before moving we should save enough money to live in Los Angeles for a year without working. He said that was how long it would take before anybody would be willing to hire us. That was some of the best advice we ever got.
Back in New York I got a call from an orchestrator-copyist friend saying he was being offered a job to work for Howard Shore. He couldn’t do it and wanted to know if I was interested. I said I was, so he recommended me and I ended up working on the Lord of the Rings films. It was because of that job that we were able to save enough money to move to Los Angeles.
How does working in live TV differ from other types of work you’ve done? How is the music prep different for a live show?
JASON: What makes live TV different from other work is the “live” element. It’s a bit of a cross between a live performance and a studio recording. Like a concert performance, everything has to happen in real-time and it has to go
off without a
hitch. However, you also have all the recording and broadcast logistics that go along with television. It’s not just about the music. There are plenty of other elements in live TV that are at least as important as the music.
DANITA: Keep in mind that the conditions on a live show may not always be ideal. The musicians may be in the dark and reading from a little stand light, or there may be glare from bright lights. They usually don’t get to see the music before rehearsal, and there is often very little rehearsal time – sometimes just one quick run-through. Plus they have the pressure of doing this live on air in front of ten million people or more.
These factors make clarity and readability of the printed music very important. We can’t go back and do another take. As a result, we’ve developed a particular style of copying which focuses on making everything big and bold. The music needs to jump off the page and be easily readable in almost any circumstance.
JASON:As an arranger or orchestrator, I need to make sure that things work the first time without need for explanation. The lack of rehearsal means that there isn’t time to tweak things.
You also have to be aware of how to make things work within a show’s setting. If the show has a small ensemble, how do you make it sound big? Can we be subtle or will the live audience and other noise of the show just drown it out?
You mentioned that some music for the Academy Awards show is pre-recorded, but the live orchestra still has to be prepared to play these cues “just in case.”
DANITA: The way the Oscars have been done for the last several years, the orchestra is actually a few blocks away at Capitol Studios in the Capitol Records building. They perform live from there and the sound is piped back into the Dolby Theater. It’s similar to the way pit orchestras on Broadway have been moved out of the pit.
The orchestra pre-records everything on the show – even the cues that they will be playing live. During the show, the pre-recorded music is cued up and ready to be played back just in case something goes wrong with the feed or communication between Capitol and the Dolby. That way you don’t have “dead air” if music director doesn’t hear the cue from the director or the sound doesn’t make it back to the theater.
However, there are also cues which the orchestra records that are meant to be used as recordings during the show. The orchestra still has the music on the stand, ready to play, at the time the recording is played. That’s just in case something goes wrong with the playback of the recording. It’s rare, but even in the 21st Century there is still the possibility of a computer crash or a bad cable or something unknown. If they hit play and it doesn’t work, the director can always call out “Music, go
!” and the orchestra can play the cue. I can remember at least one time in my ten years on Dancing
with the Stars when a computer crashed right as a cue was supposed to be played back. The director immediately shouted “Go
! Go live!” into music director Harold Wheeler’s headphones. Harold was able to cue the band and nobody watching the show on TV or in the studio audience ever knew that anything had gone wrong.
What do you each like about Finale? What would you like to see improved?
DANITA: I like that Finale allows us to tweak the fine details of the notation. In our template we’ve altered the notehead sizes, the spacing widths, default fonts, all kinds of things to make it look just the way we want. Lots of those changes came from what we’ve learned working with experienced copyists in Hollywood who started out as hand copyists. They have a very different approach to thinking about notation.
JASON: When they’d say, “I don’t like this default. I would never do it that way when working by hand,” we listen to what they would like to do and then see if we can bend Finale to follow that standard. It may involve digging into some rather arcane parts of the program, but there is almost always a way to get what you want. I don’t think any other desktop notation program has quite that unique power.
DANITA: However, it can sometimes be tricky to figure out exactly where to go to make those tiny, low-level changes. It often requires shifting your thinking to Finale’s way of viewing notation. Some musicians don’t want to do that, so those things can be hard for them.
JASON: Finale is a very deep program, but some parts could still use a bit of improvement to make it more intuitive. That’s the challenge with any feature-rich software. You have to balance all those features with accessibility. I think most people don’t understand the complexity of achieving that balance.
DANITA: Finale has gotten much easier to use in the last five years or so. I still work with a lot of former hand copyists, and I notice that they don’t fight with it as much as ten years ago. I see it too. It’s much easier to look at the screen and understand where to click or what to do to get the desired results.
Have any Finale tips you’d like to share?
DANITA: Learn the keyboard shortcuts and metatools for different functions you use repeatedly in Finale. Program your own if you can, and use a macro program to automate things you do often. Avoiding all that mousing around in menus will save you a lot of time when you are repeating the same action over 100 times.
JASON: Build a template. Have all your favorite expressions, lines, fonts, and formatting specified in your template so you don’t have to load or alter them each time. Then use your basic template to create a specific template for each project.
Have any advice for musicians who’d like to do similar work?
JASON: Don’t expect that a notation program will teach you how to notate. That’s a bit like relying on a word processor to teach you spelling, grammar, and punctuation. You can write a lot of things that sound correct, but you’ll never know the difference between, “Look ahead in the road!” and “Look! A head in the road!”
DANITA: Notating music on paper is an art form, as one of my composer friends puts it. The music on paper must have some sort of musical sense when you look at it. That way, a player can quickly make music from what is put in front of them. They play differently when the music is copied well.
JASON: Yes! It needs to look like it sounds. It takes years of doing this work before you really start to understand what that means to a musician reading it.
DANITA: Many musicians think that all you have to do is to hit “Print” from a sequencer or notation program and the work is complete. We know that’s not the case. Sadly, I see a lot of bad copying work out there because people don’t understand all that goes into properly creating a good part or score.
Respect the art and take the time to learn how to do it well. Then hire a proofreader. Eventually everyone makes errors, so proofreading is like insurance. Nobody wants to pay for it, but it’s far less than the cost of something going wrong. It’s very important make sure everything is ship-shape before it reaches the stand. It’s your reputation on that page!
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