Today we have the pleasure of speaking with someone we’ve wanted to have on the show since day one, a long-time collaborator at Musical U and at Easy Ear Training before that, Sabrina Peña Young.
Sabrina is an award-winning composer who created the first ever original fully-animated opera, Libertaria. We’ve long been in awe of the range and scale of projects Sabrina manages to take on and bring to success, and for the first time we got to sit down with her and actually dig into the question of how she manages to do all that she does.
Sabrina is certainly someone who people would be quick to call “talented” or “gifted”, yet we knew from working with her that she had as little belief in the importance of natural talent as we do – so we were utterly curious to know: if it’s not talent, how does she do it all?
In this conversation we talk about:
- Sabrina’s musical upbringing and how helpful attention to detail can become harmful perfectionism
- The remarkable college environment that transformed who she was as a musician and shaped who she’d become as a composer and film-maker, and
- The role that mentors have played in her journey and her advice for aspiring musicians seeking a mentor themselves.
With Sabrina’s extensive experience, fascinating projects and deep expertise, this conversation was never going to be a short one! And honestly, even after running a bit long we felt we’d only just scratched the surface. We’re hoping we’ll be seeing Sabrina on the podcast again before too long! And we think after hearing this episode you’re going to be feeling the same way.
Listen to the episode:
Links and Resources
- Sabrina Peña Young’s website
- You’re Invited to Composer Boot Camp, with Sabrina Peña Young (interview)
- Interview with Sabrina about her Boot Camp
- Composer Boot Camp (book)
- Songwriting 101, by Sabrina Peña Young
- Filmmaking Crash Course, by Sabrina Peña Young
- Libertaria: The Virtual Opera, on YouTube, iTunes, and Amazon
- Futurist Music Anthology
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Sabrina: Hi! This is Sabrina Peña Young, I am the creator of Libertaria: The Virtual Opera, and the author of Composer Bootcamp and this is the Musicality Podcast.
Christopher: Welcome to the show, Sabrina. Thank you for joining us today.
Sabrina: Thank you for having me.
Christopher: So I was joking with you via email that it’s bizarre to me that you have not been on the show sooner and I was kicking myself recently when we were doing an episode all about clave and Latin rhythms and I was just like, “Why is Sabrina not here with us? This is stupid.” Because obviously you’ve been a really long-time collaborator of Musical U and Easy Ear Training before that, and I consider you such an important part of our team, and so I’m really excited to finally have you on the show here with us today.
But I realized in preparing for the show that although I know quite a lot about your recent projects of which there are many and always impressed me, I don’t actually know all that much about your back story. So I’d love if we could begin by talking about a bit about your own musical background and how you got started in music.
Sabrina: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Well, so when I first started playing, I started playing I was 10 years old. And I had a choice between taking study hall or band and I can’t sit still so I decided to take band. And what happened was we had this amazing guy come in. He was this big guy, tattoos, bald, one earring and he just started jamming on the drums, and he was like incredible! And I said, “I wanna do that when I grow up!” And so I decided to start playing the drums and I started playing the typical thing in band and then I joined orchestra.
And then I just kept playing through high school and I really, really, really wanted to be a professional orchestra so I spent hours and hours and hours and hours just practicing and playing and learning all different kinds of styles of music. I kind of moved away from just being a heavy rock drummer which would have been cool in the ’80s but maybe not so much now, you know?
And eventually I expanded everything in college when I went ahead and I ended up studying composition and music technology and started doing film as well.
Christopher: Got you. And you mentioned spending hours and hours there, what was the process of learning percussion like for you? Were you someone who found it, it was always a delight to sit at the drum set or was it kind of a slog and a grueling challenge to get through your practice each day?
Sabrina: I would say yes.
Christopher: All of the above.
Sabrina: I would say … I think I’m a bit of a perfectionist, and so I literally would spend an hour and a half making sure a simple crash sounded just right, or I would sit there with a metronome and instead of spending my summers out with my friends, I’d spend hours in beautiful sunny Florida with beaches in a practice room just trying to get things done. So I was a little too obsessed with it I think. Because now that I’m older I realize that music is enjoyable, it’s fun, it’s a wonderful experience and I think I just got a little too much into the nuances.
I think practicing triangle, playing eighth notes on a triangle for 45 minutes, there are so many better things I could have done with my time. And I did get better, but I also burnt out. So in college I burnt out entirely because it’s only sustainable, that kind of … It’s only sustainable for a while before your brain shuts off and says, “I can’t do this anymore.”
And so, I think that I kind of pushed myself too hard. And I actually had a lot of friends that had played as long as I had that we all burnt out about the same time. And so, I kind of had to reintroduce myself to music and performance. I had to drop it for a couple years. Just studied composition, worked on composition, writing music, writing songs, doing music technology and electronic music in audio engineering. And then kind of eased back into playing to where, honestly, when I perform and I play … I actually just did a Christmas thing the other day at my church, jamming away at the drum set and stuff again.
And you know, it’s just enjoyable now. It’s just fun. It’s an expression of myself, but it’s not this big, stressful, nervous breakdown kind of thing anymore. So, that’s really good.
Christopher: Got you. I’d love to dig into that a little bit if we may just ’cause I know that perfectionism and the challenge of how repetitive and systematic to be in your practice versus enjoying the process of learning music. I know those are two things that can be really challenging, particularly for adult musicians who are coming at it with a lot of background in different kinds of learning, some of it musical, some of it not.
What was the reaction to that perfectionism growing up from your parents or from your teachers? What was the kind of environment that lead to you being so diligent and focused like that?
Sabrina: Well I’m a third generation musician. So my grandmother was a professional opera singer in Cuba. And my mom was also a pianist. But she just played for church and things like that, she didn’t do it professionally. My sister’s also a professional musician, and she’s in Ohio. She’s a music educator primarily but she’s a vocalist and pianist. She was even more dedicated than I was. She used to wake up at 6 AM and play her scales for two hours before she went to high school, that kind of thing. I also feel like pianists have a tendency to be …
I’m a drummer, for me half of it’s a lot of fun, you know? Playing on a drum set for two hours is fun, even if it is a little crazy. But playing the hand and études for that long is crazy.
We had an environment that really … It was a home environment that it was very important to be excellent at what you did. You had to be good at it. My dad’s a perfectionist, he’s an engineer. He’s a very good engineer. He’s designed incredible houses. And my mom had the love of music and so it just kind of combined for both myself and for my sister where we just kind of got it.
And so, it was very much a very focused environment. And of course educators and teachers, once you get to high school you’re thinking about music scholarships and going to college and so it kind of promotes that kind of thing where you practice and practice and practice. I think one of the negative things about it is the tendency to compare yourself to others way too much. Where you sit there and let’s say you have this big solo or you have this thing that you did or just even a small part, and you’re just sitting there going, “Man, I could have done that better because I know so-and-so did it better.”
And it kind of becomes this obsessive thing where instead of enjoying the performance, you’re just constantly comparing yourself and saying, “Someone else is doing it better, I need to do it better.” And that’s a perfectionist part of it and I think that’s the part that damages you as a person because you become more focused on that and comparing yourself to others and there will always be somebody better because that’s just the way life is. And that doesn’t mean that you need to tear yourself down or give up or force yourself to practice 10 hours a day to where it’s a detriment to yourself.
So I think that on the one hand it’s good that I’m detail oriented ’cause I do compose large works and things like that. On the other hand, I think that it’s a balance. I think one of the easiest ways to balance things is to have kids.
Christopher: You can’t help it.
Sabrina: Because of all the sudden you’re sitting there going, “I really wanna write an opera but I have to change diapers.” And so, all of the sudden there’s this reality. In college, I had some health problems and some family issues going on that really slowed me down in terms of what I could performance wise. And it kind of really made me have to drop everything that I loved for a while while I tried to deal with just the basics of getting myself back on track as a person and as a human being.
I kept doing music throughout it all. Music will always be what I go to during any stage of my life. So, I think that yeah, I’m still a perfectionist, I’m a recovering perfectionist. But I’m also more forgiving of myself and I also realize that hey, it doesn’t have to be the best of the best of the best. I don’t have to sit here and compare myself to these imaginary people that I never meet that I think are better than me.
I really just need to do as best as I can right now. And just enjoy the process. I mean life is so short, there’s just no reason to stress about it, you know?
Christopher: Yeah, it’s so interesting hearing you talk through that because obviously we know you now as someone who’s had great success at a high level as a musician and a composer, and it’s always hard to know, for me anyway, what degree of perfectionism is a necessary evil and when I look back on my own journey, I can relate to a lot of what you just said. My high school environment was a fairly serious, classical music style music department and everything was let’s ace the exams, let’s perform it note perfect, let’s aim for excellence.
And it took me a long time to realize that actually I had felt like a mediocre musician throughout that period and when I stepped out in to the real world, I realized actually I was a pretty good musician in a lot ways. And still today in my work there are things I take for granted in terms of rhythm, or pitch, or music theory that I learned as an eight year old and have always had.
I see people struggling to learn it as adults and I just count my blessings that I was in that really excellent oriented music learning environment. But on the flip side, I felt mediocre throughout that and it was very frustrating and as you say, it would affect your identity and it took me a long time to feel comfortable identifying as a musician because to me, I was always the guy kind of bodging it while the guys that were really good at music, who were really natural in music were able to do it easily.
So, I struggle to decide how much of that kind of thing is a good thing, and how much harm it does. I think maybe the word you mentioned there, balance, is the key one.
Sabrina: Mm-hmm (affirmative), mm-hmm (affirmative). I agree and I think it’s kind of interesting too because I shared with you earlier that … I had played in drum line and my senior year I was expected to take on the head of the drum line and I was told I couldn’t because I was a girl, and they didn’t think the girl could handle the boys. That actually, for something so small now that you think about it years later, it actually kind of wrecked my life at that time and made me change my course to where I said, “Okay well you know what? I’m just gonna focus on going to college and being the best percussionist I can be.”
And just really just honed in on focusing on my music. Unfortunately I’ve had to deal with that numerous times where … And I think that that does affect you, where you’re sitting there going, “I’m gonna play drum set but I know that … Or I’m gonna play whatever and I know that I have to be really, really good because if I’m mediocre, they’re gonna say, ‘Oh that’s ’cause it’s a girl.” And even though that’s not the situation today, that was the situation I had growing up. And so, it kind of sits back there where you’re sitting there going, “Well am I good musician? I don’t know if I know what I’m doing. Maybe I don’t know what I’m doing.”
And the other day, I’m just playing drum set playing White Christmas. It’s a simple jazz tune and I’m sitting there going, “Man I hope I can do this.” And I’m like, I did this … I was like 12 and I could do this.” It’s not really … It’s not even that difficult but because that self doubt keeps creeping in there for whatever reason, it can affect how you perform and how you feel about the performance. So, I did have a good time by the way, it was a blast.
But yeah, it was one of those things where I’m just sitting there going, “Can I play White Christmas? Well of course I can play White Christmas.” It’s ta ta ta ta ta ta. How hard is that? So, anyway … But, yeah …
Christopher: Yeah, that little voice in your head never goes away completely, does it?
Christopher: So you mentioned there that in college as you turned your attention away a little bit from performance and instrument technique, you got into the music technology side of things. Can you talk a little bit about that and I guess what are we talking here, I don’t want to cause offense! But I guess we’re talking about the early 2000s, are we?
Sabrina: Yes, that’s good. We’ll just keep it around there. A lady never tells her age. Okay, anyway-
Christopher: What was music technology like and what was it that got you excited?
Sabrina: It was actually kind of a really great time to be a musician in music technology because we were… At our school, we were a public university, I was at the University of South Florida at the time. I had taken composition lessons earlier at another school with Dr. Clare Shore. She’s an excellent composer, really writes lots of choral music. She actually still helped with Libertaria and she’s still a part of my life because she’s just this mentor that’s stayed with me this entire time.
But then I transferred to the University of South Florida and they have a technology department there. It’s called SYCOM which is a System Complex with Performance Arts. But it’s also just a really crazy group of creative visual artists and musicians and we just get together and do really crazy experimental music. It was a great time because we were just transitioning from … We still had a giant E-Mu and all this analogy synthesizers and everything.
We still had a basic studio with a microphone and everything but we also had a digital work station. I got to learn how to patch chords and all this kind of thing and create sounds and do basic sound synthesis and audio engineering with analog and then also with digital. By the time I got to graduate school at Florida International where I was studying with Dr. Christine Burns, it was all digital at that point.
But because I had a chance to learn analog first, I was able to understand the digital in an entirely different way. It wasn’t just clicking around, it wasn’t just hitting buttons. It wasn’t just copying a loop over and over again, I understood the processes behind it, remember that I had first learned, sitting there taking a patch cord and going, “Okay I gotta put it here and plug it in to there and then plug it in to here and then …” At the end of it, we did … I remember one day we got this ancient 1970s synthesizer that fits a room.
We had to do techno music and it wasn’t supposed to do techno music and my professor was not happy with us. ‘Cause he’s like, “What are you guys doing?” And we’re like “Yeah! Look what we did!” And he’s like, “No! No! That’s not … ” And we were sitting there playing with the lights and having a rave in the middle of this and he’s just sitting there going, “No!” I think we disappointed him that day.
So it was just a great chance and then because it was so experimental, we just did whatever we wanted. And then we collaborated with visual artists and filmmakers and that’s when I first started getting interested in visual imagery and film and things like that and just kind of realizing that music is powerful and visual images are powerful and when you put them together, they’re this crazy force that just … Audiences just … I don’t know, it’s just a different experience.
So I started incorporating imagery or collaborating with people. I even collaborated with dancers and things like that. And that kind of formed a background for some of my later work.
Christopher: Interesting. Okay, there’s two things there that I really want to unpack and one of them is you mentioned mentors and I’ve always been conscious with you, you’re very quick to name the people who have helped you and guided you. In your book acknowledgements, in your website, anytime you’re writing a press release and that kind of thing, you’re always quick to call out the people you admire and appreciate, who’ve influenced you.
This has come up a few times on the podcast, this question of mentorship or having a coach or a guide. And I know you’ve also, I believe, played this role in a few websites where people can get song writing coaching and that kind of thing, or advice on their career. I’d like to just hear your perspective on mentorship in music learning. What does it mean to be a mentor and how does it help a musician?
Sabrina: I think having a mentor is why I am where I am today. It wasn’t just the people in college like my first… I had several instructors but I had one in particular, his name was Jed Davis and he still teaches drum line and all kinds of things, and percussion in South Florida, and he has taught so many percussionists. I think every percussionist in South Florida has studied with him. It’s just to be able to work with someone who has done the journey, who loves and has a passion for music, and is able to impart that to you.
And not only that, but cares for you as a person. I think that’s the difference between somebody just being your piano teacher and somebody being a mentor. It’s somebody that sits there and goes, “You did a great job on this and this and this and stuff, but how are you really doing?” And I think, for myself, because I had a lot of family issues growing up, I kind of latched on to different people and looked up to them professionally and then also just as somebody to look up to for encouragement and just saying, “Okay this is going on in my life, am I gonna make it through this?” And they’re like, “Oh yeah, you can. Let’s do this. I’ve done this before.” And that kind of a thing.
I was very fortunate because I had two women that were composers that were my mentors. In the States that’s very unusual, even today there’s not a lot of women that are promoted to areas of professorships in the United States. And so, there’s more now than there were when I was growing up but… Dr. Shore, she was the first female to get a, I believe, accomplishing degree from Julliard. She’s gone over these massive hurdles her in life and then to be able to kind of follow along.
I remember Dr. Burns, she just did some incredible thing, she did an opera as well. She did a children’s opera. In fact, I wanna do a children’s opera soon and I think it’s kind of funny that I’m paralleling some of those things. But she also had to deal with some things too as well and she started her family later in life. I kind of, inadvertently, I had one child and then I had to wait a while to have another one and it’s just kind of funny to sit here as a professional and be like, “Okay I’m writing music and I’m still potty training.” That kind of thing.
So, it’s good to have people that are a little farther a long and can kind of show you the path and show you that it is possible. The nice thing about it is then you can make your own path and you can try to create new things and then you can mentor people underneath you. And so yes, I’ve mentored probably, through different websites and online things and consulting and things, like over 150 musicians I think at this point. Different levels of all different things.
Really, I just try to help people see that where they are is fine and you can get to where you wanna go and it might not be tomorrow. You have to give yourself time and patience and realize life is life. Sometimes you wanna do this big project but you might have to wait a few months, or maybe you get to do it right away and then what? Because that’s the other problem as a musician. You’re like, “Oh I just accomplished something great, now what?” ‘Cause you kind of get that high of like, “Yeah performance! It was awesome! Woo!” And then you get home the next day and you’re eating Cheerios and you’re like, “My life … What do I do with my life now?”
And it’s kind of that crazy mountain top experience and the next day you’re like, “I’m in the valley. I don’t know what to do.” And so, it’s just good to have a mentor. And I think also, I think it’s important for people to mentor others. Even if are not as far along as you think you would, even if you feel like you’re not that great of musician, I think you could always find somebody that you can inspire and you can encourage. And even if it’s a peer where you just encourage them and they encourage you and you guys move together in your journey. But I think it’s important that we remember that there is community in music and that we all work together to create something wonderful and that we don’t get stuck in the practice room and just forget about life and about anything and about everybody else.
It’s not just about me being good. It’s about, “What can I do to help others?” So, that’s kind of my idea about that.
Christopher: Amazing. That was a really wonderful description. And what you said just at the end there reminded me a bit of my conversation recently with Josh Wright on the podcast who’s a high level classical pianist and he was talking about his mentor and how one of the roles she performed for him was helping reign in his tendency to go too far down a rabbit hole and lose sight of what his taste in music should be, or could be, or would best be and it just kind of reset his perspective a little. And I think that’s what you touched on at the end there, there are a wiser, broader set of eyes that can look at your musical life and help you figure out what’s going on.
So I do feel obliged to ask on behalf of the listener, that mentor relationship sounds amazing. How do you find a mentor?
Sabrina: Well, I think, obviously if you are fortunate enough to be in a student teacher relationship, you’re taking lessons some where, or even if it’s somebody online you’re taking lessons with. Even if you are maybe in a community group, or a band, or a church orchestra kind of thing, usually there’s gonna be somebody there that you are gonna kind of just … I don’t know, hit it off with it. So I think that that’s probably the easiest way, is that if you are already in sort of a relationship where you’re playing and they’re the director or they’re your teacher or something like that. I think that’s the easiest way but not everybody has that.
I suggest not just playing music in a vacuum, don’t just stay at home and say, “I’m playing piano and I’m good at it.” And that’s it. Go out and meet other musicians, jam with other musicians. The great thing is that we have this thing called the Internet now and we can find out if there’s a group of … If there’s a drum circle going on, we can find out hey there’s a drum circle going on next Saturday and then you head there. And then I think it’s just really being open and just building relationships and eventually you will find that there’ll be people that maybe are a little bit farther along than you are that you’ll hit it off with.
If you’re younger, usually an older mentor helps but even if you’re an adult, usually it’s somebody that maybe a peer age-wise but they’re somebody that maybe they’ve done a little bit more than you have and they can kind of … You can talk to them and talk shop. I’m in the film community here in the area and we have a Facebook page and everybody’s constantly writing, “Hey, I had this really great idea for a movie, what do I do now?” And everybody just pipes in and just says, “Hey, do this, do that. Call so-and-so, do this. Don’t forget to do that!” You know?
And I think that online communities are really great because you can really just touch base with people from all over the world that have all kinds of experience. I think that that’s also another way to build a mentorship as well. I don’t think … The word mentor is kind of loaded where we think of like this great person with this massive brain that’s just like, “I know what I’m doing.” But that’s not really what it is. It’s just somebody that cares about you that’s maybe a little farther along in their journey and it’s a very basic definition.
I think almost anybody can find someone but you just have to be open to it. Just realize … You also have to be able to take criticism or take suggestions. And so, some people may not be secure enough in that and they just need to get over that. If somebody’s saying, “Hey, I like how you did that but you could do this.” Just say, “Great, thank you.” That’s just some free advice you didn’t ask for to make you a better musician.
So, I think that that’s a big part of it to, to able to take constructive criticism. Or even not so constructive criticism. And just plain honesty. So take that and be able to move forward with that as well.
Christopher: Would you explicitly ask them, “Hey will you be my mentor?” Or is it more of an organic thing generally would you think?
Sabrina: It’s always been organic for me. My drum instructor growing up and stuff, I looked up to him, I still look up to him. We’re Facebook friends, you know. And Dr. Shore, Dr. Burns. You just keep looking up to them and you just … It just happens. I never really asked them, “Can you be my mentor?” It just kind of happens one day where you’re like, “Oh my gosh, this is my mentor.” And you didn’t really realize it but then you see what they’ve done in your life and how they’ve impacted you and how they’ve influenced your journey. And I think that that’s a big part of it as well.
Christopher: Very cool. So two things you said there actually loop back to the other big thing I wanted to pull out of your talking about your university experiences. One was community. You talked in there about being part of a community. And the other was criticism and feedback from other people. What I wanted to bring out was actually the number one thing I wanted to ask you in this interview, or try and get an answer to which is, you are an astonishing mystery to me in the degree to which you can produce incredible projects year after year.
I’ve known you at this point for nearly a decade and-
Sabrina: Yeah, I was gonna say … Yeah.
Christopher: I’m constantly amazed by what you work on and what you manage to accomplish and that in a sense to me is in juxtaposition with the childhood story you just shared of being a perfectionist, being kind of rigid in your music learning and kind of doing things the way they’re meant to be done, and what really jumped out to me there was that I think maybe that university period is the crux of it, of how someone who came from that background became someone who is so creative and so, from my perspective, fearless in the projects she takes on.
Because when you were describing that melting pot of creativity and experimental things and projects, I’ll be honest, I got nervous. I was like, I would not be comfortable in that environment, I would be worrying. I don’t wanna experiment. I might get it wrong. Am I good enough to collaborate with that visual artist? That to me is not something I’ve dived into in my own life and so I am much more straight laced and restricted really when it comes to my musical creativity.
And so, I’d love to hear you talk a bit more about that, and the impact it had on you in terms of where you were coming from and where you went on to go in your music career.
Sabrina: Well yeah, it was crazy. It was a crazy time and a good time. At University of South Florida they have, like I said, this group called SYCOM, I believe it’s still… They had all the electronic musicians in this basement, which in Florida you don’t have very many basements. And it was like this bunker that was meant to be a bomb shelter way back in the day or something. It was some sort of weird story. So you’d shut this door and you were just stuck in this basement and you would just create music and it was great. We were like the mole people. We just were crazy people that did this insane stuff.
And I think … It was headed up by Paul Reller at the time and he was, at that time, I think he was in his thirties. He was very experimental in his work and he wrote big pieces and small pieces, acoustic pieces, electronic pieces. But he just really forced us as a group of students to just kind of take our ideas and then just take it to the next level, and to really just force ourselves to kind of have … to make ourselves have no boundaries whatsoever.
I know sometimes people say, “Oh well I’m a little outside the box.” And I say, “Well I don’t even believe in the box in the first place. There is no box. It’s in your head.” And so, I think that that was a great opportunity. We used to have these concerts every year and the concerts would … We’d lose like half our audience because we were so experimental that people were like, “That’s not music.” And they’d leave. And we’d cheer. We’re like “Yes! We’ve succeeded! We are the avant-garde.” In fact, it was a joke that we’d always lose the head of the music department, whoever it was would just leave after 20 minutes and we’re like, “Yes! We are the true … ”
We were really hardcore about what we believed in and what we did. But yeah, I think it was really great for somebody like me that was a perfectionist that was classically trained, that had been in orchestra to kind of sit there and go, “Okay so you’re on a skateboard and we’ve got some footage of rabbits and I’m gonna write some music to this. And we can do this!”
And I’m not kidding. We actually had one concert where we took a guy in this really dilapidated rabbit suit that looked terrible. He looked like he’d been run over. We took him all the way around town and then everybody synced their electronic music as a soundtrack to this guy in a rabbit suit running around. And that was something we did. I don’t do that anymore. But it still affects my work. So a lot of my work will have all of a sudden these sections that are very experimental, very out there.
And Paul Reller also was a percussionist just like me, and I think that was another part of being a composer that’s a percussionist, I think in terms of timbre and rhythm and sound and I think in terms of sometimes melody.
Sabrina: I think in terms of timbre, of sound, even instrumentation orchestration color. And so, since Paul was also a percussionist, he kind of encouraged those things in me. So, I think that that’s the difference between maybe some of my writing and maybe somebody else’s writing. A lot of the composers I know, a lot of them are pianist. Some of them are singers or … And I think with the pianist, the nice thing about a pianist is writing music whether it’s songs or whether it’s a full blown, some big orchestra kind of thing, is that their instrumentation is they have harmony, they have rhythm, they have melody.
And while with instruments like the marimba, you have some harmony. I don’t really think in terms of harmony and when I put harmony in things, I think more in terms of, “Well I want it to sound creepy or I want it to sound this way or that way.” And I don’t really think of, “Okay well let me sit down. If I have a four chord, what comes right after that?” And I might follow some traditional, vertical writing then I’ll just totally leave it and say, “Okay, well what’d I really want?”
And I think that’s why some of my music sounds a little bit different than some other people’s music. So in college I got a chance to really experiment with that. I was in the percussion ensemble at University of South Florida is nationally known in the United States. It’s a really, really good program under Bob McCormick. And what happens with them, they just do all kinds of music, every kind of music you could possibly think of.
And so, that really gave me an opportunity to kind of expand who I was as a composer through my percussion playing as well. And so, I would learn something new in percussion and then I’d apply it in my next piece that I wrote. It was kind of neat how that kind of just fed into each other. And then like I said, I started taking classes. I took classes in Photoshop, I took classes in film. I took a class in science fiction fantasy film which was actually a real class where I just there and we got to watch Sci-Fi movies for like half a semester whatever and that was it.
And so it’s one of those things that that’s where I started combining everything. And I think also what was nice is that we also had a big musical theater piece as well. And so every year, at least once or twice a year, the Theater Department, and the Music Department, and the Visual Arts Department would get together and do these massive collaborations whether it was an opera or a musical or just something else that was just this big piece that was nice to see everybody working together.
‘Cause in many schools, the musicians are here, the artists are there, the filmmakers are there, the writers are here, and nobody collaborates. And because everybody was kind of enmeshed with each other, it kind of help form who I was later as a composer, I think.
Christopher: That’s really interesting. So I think when we first started working together you were a celebrated avant-garde composer and I was definitely a bit intimidated by that and certainly felt guilty asking you to compose a basic three chord pop song for some of my training material-
Sabrina: That was fun though!
Christopher: And that kind of thing. I felt like I was not leveraging your talents to the best. But I think, as impressed as I was, it was your Libertaria project that really hit home for me. “Wow, she is doing some incredible things.” So I wonder if you can just talk a little bit about that because it seemed like a bit of a leap, even for an experimental composer to do a project like Libertaria. That’s not an obvious career trajectory. So tell us how that came to be. And we should probably explain for the listeners who haven’t seen the movie, what is Libertaria?
Sabrina: Right. Well Libertaria is an animated science fiction opera. And you can actually watch it on YouTube, you can watch it on Amazon. Actually one of the reasons I created it was so that way everybody can enjoy it for free on the Internet. Opera is kind of this thing that seems like you have to dress up really stodgy and get these really expensive tickets and nobody talks and everybody just kind of stares and politely claps. And I just wanted to change that because it’s the 21st century and things are changing so rapidly.
So Libertaria’s an animated opera and it’s a science fiction opera and it’s crazy! But it actually had roots in an oratorio that I’d written. I had written when my daughter was … Actually I was pregnant with her, actually. I got a commission from… Oh gosh, was it Millikin University, I think it was. Was it Millikin or was it Kansas State? I think it was Millikin. Millikin University.
And they commissioned me to write an oratorio, which is a giant choral piece, is essentially what it is. So I did this giant choral piece. It was 50 women, women’s chorus, percussion ensemble, synthesizer. I had animation. It was called the Creation Oratorio, and the animation was very … It was based on the creation story but I also had been pregnant at the time so it kind of intertwined the idea of being pregnant and having a baby with the creation story that the seven days or whatever.
And it also had a lot of Sci-Fi so a lot of the creatures were very weird looking bald, alien-looking things. Anyway, so it was this great piece. It was standing room only, standing ovation, it was just … Performed at this church, it was incredible. And it was just an amazing experience. But! I have never seen it in its entirety again and that broke my heart.
Now I have had people ask me to do arrangements of it. So I’ve done many arrangements of this particular piece for all kinds of different ensembles. There’s a couple of the songs from there that have actually done pretty well on their own as standalone pieces, but as for it being done as a single oratorio, I don’t think it’s ever … At least to my knowledge it’s never been done the first … Like it was the first time.
And that broke my heart. Because it was in the year and a half of my time spent writing this piece and I feel like it was my first real masterpiece. You kind of have these pieces in your life where you’re just like, that was a really good one. And I feel like that was my very first one where I was like, “Hey, I think I’m a composer.” And so, even though I’ve done many other pieces, that was the one I was like, “Oh my gosh. I think I know what I’m doing.” So, I wanted to try to create something new that it could be replicated, that it could be experienced not just by a couple hundred people or whatever standing there enjoying this …
It wouldn’t be limited by the size of your auditorium. It wouldn’t be limited by, “Okay well can we practice this for eight months?” It wouldn’t be limited by, “Oh well, we don’t do electronic with voice. It’s too hard.” Or that kind of a thing. So, I decided well, I wanna do an opera and I’m like, what if I did it like a film? ‘Cause I always wanted to do film too. I’m married to a coach, an amazing guy who is very supportive of my work and is right now with the baby. So he also as a coach, we moved around the country a lot, and so because of that when you have an opera, you have to have an opera company and you have to be in one spot and you have to have all these connections otherwise …
And it’s a very expensive kind of a project. It could cost six figures. Especially since, of course, I didn’t wanna do something easy that was one person. It was like this massive, epic with tons of … This huge cast members and there’s explosions and space ships … Anyway, so obviously it was gonna cost a lot of money. So I decided, instead, to try to do an Internet collaboration. And so what I did was … I’d done some animation with a program called Moviestorm which was … It’s called a machinima animation.
Essentially, you don’t have to create all the characters from scratch. You create some of the characters, you create them in an environment, and then you kind of direct them like you would direct let’s say a regular actor. So you could tell your character, “Hey, I want you to sing this and then run around in circles.” And then you type it in and figure it out and it does it. And so, I decided to use that program to create the cast in terms of all the splendor of this insanity.
And so what I did was I put out calls online. I had people from as far away as Europe and South America audition and we ended up … The funny thing is we started out with one cast of about 12 people and we ended up with another cast of about 15 ’cause half the people had to quit half way through and there was just … The process itself took about two and a half years I think.
I would audition people online and I actually created these audition packs where essentially you could download an album with the click track for your voice type and all the scores and then you could download that for free and then you can practice with that and then send me the files. So we had the cast members send me files. I had a thousand audio files that I had to go through because I had some musicians… I had Perry Cook and Matt Meadows. They were both doing the lead of Simeon and I had to… For each part, each of the main roles had at least two people, as two people in them.
So I would mix the two vocal takes together so it was kind of interesting because it gave each character a very interesting range. It even had character sing a duet with himself which is … You wouldn’t do live. Some of them … And then I would have, for example, Perry went ahead and for one of the songs, he sent me all these incredible takes in different dialects like different accents and voices and then I was able to mix that and create an entire choir of soldiers from his eight takes and I was able to replicate it and make it like 20 or so.
And so, that kind of thing happened. It was a big endeavor in terms of just the mixing. And then by the end of it, what I ended up doing was I ended up hiring somebody to do the final master because by then. It was like two years in, my ears were shot, I couldn’t tell … Everything sounded the same and I had no longer had the ability to kind of differentiate between. “Well that was a good take or a bad take or does that work? I have no idea anymore. What are the levels? I don’t know.”
So, he finished it up. At the same time, I was also doing the animation with a group of three other women. We created the animation. At the end, one dropped out and so I had to kind of animate 20 minutes that I hadn’t expected which in animation, that’s a lot of animation. And then by the end of it, we mixed it altogether, we premiered it down in South Florida. Dr. Clare Shore actually was the one that actually arranged for that premier. I think that was October 2013.
And then after that, it has been shown all over the world. It was shown at OPERA America in New York City. It’s been shown at film festivals, it’s been shown at music festivals. The album’s out there. It’s on YouTube. It’s on other websites as well. So it’s done very well. I gave a TED talk on it as well. So, it’s kind of interesting but yeah, it’s kind of an usual … I never thought growing up from being that little girl being like, “I wanna be a rock drummer because that’s what’s cool. Heavy metal.” To being like, “Yeah I’m gonna do an animated Sci-Fi opera, that sounds great.” It’s just kind of a weird … That’s not really what you wanna say when you grow up.
So now, it’s kind of interesting because I’m kind of known for this one thing and so, I have a lot of people contact me about doing an opera for them or whatever. And actually right now, I might be working on a collaboration with somebody from Australia. We’re trying to figure it out. It’s kind of hard now ’cause I have two kids and time being the way time is … ‘Cause at that time, I just didn’t sleep all the time. That’s how I managed to do that.
When I did Libertaria, I never slept. And now that I have two kids, and my son’s definitely much different than my daughter, sleep is very important. So I have not been able to do that as much as I would like. But I’m hoping to do that project, at least on a smaller scale, and then I’m also … I’ve been working in pre-production for a children’s opera and I wanna do that one also. Part live action, part animation. It’s actually gonna be more of a comic book opera. And so, I kinda wanna do that. I don’t know if there’s been other comic book operas but I wanna try to do one.
I don’t know if there are other ones but … ‘Cause I know with Libertaria, it was the first one with machinima animation and it might have been … It’s one of the only original animated operas. There are animated operas that are like Mozart or something. But as for somebody creating an opera and then animating it, it’s probably one of the only ones ever done. So yeah, I think I wanna do a comic book opera next.
Christopher: Amazing. Well, I definitely wanna circle back and talk about the fact that you took on this complete other role of film maker for that project. You weren’t just the composer.
Sabrina: Just for fun.
Christopher: Just ’cause you could. I have this really vivid memory. I’m a big Sci-Fi fan and so I was eagerly awaiting the release of Libertaria and my wife and I set up our movie projector and we watched it. It was such a vivid memory for me. It was fantastic. And I remember at the time, I was blown away that this was something that people have made in their owns homes, collaborating over the Internet, and in particular, that you had kind of spearheaded this both in terms of composing all the music obviously but also organizing a project of this scale.
I think having heard a bit of your backstory now, it makes a bit more sense in my head that you’ve been in an environment where people did just do these audacious projects and not even think twice about it. I wanted to kind of reign in that sense of what it means to compose for a minute because that is an epic project and it’s been such a huge success and really made a mark.
But I know that some people listening are like, I couldn’t even write one page of music let alone 40 minutes or an hour to be an opera, an… That was probably blowing their minds right now as it did mine when I watched it. So let’s just come back a notch or two, because you said something interesting a few minutes ago that with the Creation Oratorio that was a moment where you were like, “Oh maybe I can be a composer.”
I’d love to just unpack that a little bit because it’s such a loaded word and we’ve already talked about coming from a classical music background and that obviously has huge history and connotations of what it means to be a composer. But it’s also this very generic versatile word that we can apply to any kind of music creating.
So I wonder, particularly because you have really kind of tackled this subject head on with your book, Composer Bootcamp. I’d love to hear your perspective on what does that word mean? What should that word mean? And how can the people listening explore what the role of composer could be for them?
Sabrina: Definitely. I think you’re right, it’s a very loaded word. For example when I went to college, nearly every composer I studied had been dead for a very long time, was European, was male. And I think I only studied two female composers. And I also only studied two non-European composers and that was only because they were friends with the professor so he mentioned them in class and he talked about them.
I think that we kind of have this idea that all composers must be these stodgy old guys, they’re very dead, they’re not around anymore, they wore powdered wigs. They wrote for kings. I don’t write for kings. I wish I did. It’d be great, it’d be great. Any kings listening, hire me. Anyway … I’m sure there’s lots of kings on Musical U, right?
Christopher: That’s a whole other podcast.
Sabrina: Monarchs… Yeah, you know? Anyway, but yeah, so it’s one of those things that … It was an engine and it was this creation of music within this very specific system. But nowadays, especially today, I mean even when I started doing composition, at that time, like I said we were going from analog to digital. The Internet was just becoming. It had been around but it wasn’t really a thing of collaboration yet. It was more of a “Hey, I got an email from a weird guy.” Kind of thing still.
It was one of those things that we really weren’t exploring all the things that we could do. And the amazing thing today … I really feel like our definition of composer needs to be expanded so much more than dead guy who writes symphonies, you know? I think if you are sitting there and you’re jamming and you write this song, even if you don’t write it down and you just record it or you just play it and you play it for some friends, you’re composing.
I think that if you are playing the piano and you’re like, “Hey, I wanna try play with these chords a little bit.” You’re composing. I think that a lot of times composing can just be improvising, jamming, experimenting, expressing yourself musically. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be this really complicated thing that’s written on paper and handed to a conductor and played in a symphony hall. It’s something very basic, and I think what’s interesting is that in Western society specifically, we kind of assign composer as a very specific job, as a very specific person.
It’s funny ’cause I’m in a lot of parenting groups because I’m a mom and I don’t tell people I’m a composer, I kind of keep it as a secret identity thing. And then people are like, and eventually comes to, “I am a composer.” And they’re like, “You’re a composer?” And I’m like, “Yes!” As I have spit-up on me and I have my hairs a mess and I’m wearing yoga pants, and I’m like, “Yes! Yes I’m a composer.” I’m like, “What did you think composers were?”
I think that we kind of need to move past this. Even those famous composers from back then, when you look at their lives, I think it was Bach who had like twenty kids, and some of them had disabilities, and he taught them piano because he wanted to. Things like that that we really don’t think about them as people. We kind of idealize them and say, “Oh, Mozart.” Yeah, Mozart had a pretty crappy life, you know? You look at them and they’re people. They’re not these crazy god-like characters.
I think that we need to kind of take composers off their pedestal, and I think right now, half the composers are going, “Oh my gosh!” Yes. We need to get off of our pedestal. Take us off and just put us there with everybody else. In fact, my sister who … Her name is Christina and she’s over in Ohio, Christina’s always telling me … She teaches composition to 10 year olds. And it used to be that composition, and ear training, and music theory, and playing was all part of learning how to be a musician. It wasn’t this strange thing.
And in other societies, people create music naturally. You have people that they just … My family, like I said my mom’s side of the family’s from Cuba, and everybody there is playing the drums, and singing, and dancing, and it’s just an expression of hope and joy and just sheer expression. And nobody’s calling themselves a composer. They might be composer. They might be creating things from scratch that nobody’s ever heard of before, and they’re incredible, but they’re just expressing themselves.
I think that we kind of need to get a way from that term a little bit sometimes, while also respecting that there are people that make these incredible things that you’re like, “Wow!” But I also think that anybody can be a composer if they wanted to be. That’s kind of why I created the Composer Bootcamp, which I’ll show you right now, Composer Bootcamp.
But that’s why I created that. What I did was I took a lot of the exercises and things that I’ve been teaching for years, and I compiled it into just very practical exercises. Some of them are meant for people that don’t have any musical background whatsoever, or barely any. So they can’t read music or they don’t have music theory and they’re mostly prompts, creative prompts to go ahead and kind of get an idea to write music or jam.
There’s encouragement to have community and to do things with groups and to not just do things by yourself. It’s also for intermediates. People that maybe have music theory or college students and that kind of thing. And then also there’s exercises there for people that maybe they’ve done this for a very long time and they just wanna do something that challenges them and so there’s a handful of exercises as well for that kind of thing.
The main reason I made that is to kind of take the mystic out of composing. I don’t think that we need to sit there and go, “Well I’m not a composer. I can’t do that.” I don’t think that’s possible. I think anybody can do it. If you’ve only been playing for six months, I think you could compose music. And I think what’s interesting is that, I have a couple friends that I keep … They play piano or they sing or whatever and I’m like, “You gotta write music. You have to write music.” And they’re like, “No I can’t do that. It’s so hard.” I’m like, “You improvise every week. You do this every week. You can sing. You can do that. You understand this. Write music. You can do it. It’s not that hard, I mean, it is hard, but it’s not hard. You just have to learn the skills and then it’s there.”
So I think that it’s very important that performers and musicians whether they can read or not read, that they explore creating music. If we went away from being like composing music and just saying creating music, I think that it’s a much better description of what you do. It’s not just you’re composing and sitting there and … You’re creating music, and if you think of it as creating music instead of just composing it, I think that people would understand it.
‘Cause if you were like, “Oh do you improvise, do you jam, do you create music?” I think people would be, “Yeah I totally do that.” But if you’re like, “Do you compose?” “Oh no. I don’t do that.” So, I think that that’s … We need to take away some of that stigma. And I also think that a lot of being a composer is having others hear your music, and I think that we need to be more open to people sharing their music and having their music performed. Because I feel like part of the reason that we have this mystique about composers is that a lot of, at least in the United States, a lot of our institutions are not open to people that are what I call living composers and not decomposing composers.
So a lot of times you’ll see these programs, and these are great programs and of course I love Tchaikovsky and I love Stravinsky but it’s 2018 now, and it’s gonna be 2019. We’re already 20 years into the 21st century. We shouldn’t be sitting there going, “Our symphony just played something from 1935, we’re so current.” Imagine if the medical profession was like, “Hey, they used to do this in 1885 and we’re doing it now.” Imagine if the medical community acted like the classical community sometimes …
And to that credit, I think a lot of organizations, especially a lot of smaller ensembles have been created to promote new music, and so you’ll have groups of musicians that are like, “Hey, I play violin, I play percussion, I play piano. Let’s write something for ourselves, let’s ask other composers to write things for us. Let’s just create something.” And they’ll go out and they’ll do it. And because of the Internet now, they don’t necessarily need to have the support of a giant arts organization. They can actually do it on their own.
I think that while, at least in the United States, some of the bigger organizations are struggling financially and things like that, there are lots and lots and lots of little ensembles, people just doing all kinds of things. You can find them on the Internet, you can buy their albums, you can go to their concerts. And you can support new music. So I think that’s kind of cool, too.
Christopher: Terrific. Yeah, there was so much I loved about this book when it came out and still do. I think the two major things that stick in my head were that you have designed it to be completely accessible. So yes, it’s useful for the trained musician who wants to learn about composing properly, but it’s also something that, as you say, anyone who has just a little bit of musical training, even just instrument playing, can pick it up and start creating, start composing, and start to feel like, “Yes. This is something I could do.”
And the other thing is you, as you always do, bring in a lot of the practicalities. You just talked there about opportunities to get new music heard and the book also touches on things like how do you market music, or how do you get your music out there, and how do you find opportunities that it can be performed, which I think is really valuable, too, so that you’re not just sitting in your bedroom scribbling on a piece of paper and hoping it’s a good composition.
Sabrina: Exactly. Well I think, that actually … When I was in college, actually at the University of South Florida, that was actually one of the things I realized. I had had a semester where I think I wrote like a dozen pieces and out of a dozen pieces, I think a handful got performed. Because you know college kids, we write for each other. You’re like, “Oh hey, I’m a percussionist, I mean, I’m a composer. And you’re a bassoonist, let me write something for you.” And so, I know that it was one of those things that we just kind of were trying but it didn’t always work out.
At that point in my career, which I was just in college, I said, “You know what? From now on I’m not writing a piece unless I know that there is a performance, a concert. There’s a concert date for it.” And I know that that’s kind of … It doesn’t mean that you don’t have to write music and assume that it’s never gonna have a concert date, but it was more of a thing that what is the point … It’s like if you write a novel and then you keep it in your drawer and you just leave it there and you’re like, “I wrote a novel!”
And nobody ever reads it. You never know what the audience thinks, you don’t know if it was good or bad or needs help, or should you do a sequel? Should you keep doing this? Or should you just go ahead and do something else? So I feel like for musicians that are exploring creating music, have other people listen. I know it’s embarrassing sometimes. I know for myself it’s hard for me to have a half-finished piece shown because I’m like, “Okay, well I don’t think this is finished yet but what do you think about this?”
And then just kind of have their input on it. But I think it’s really important that if you are creating music that you have it performed. So when I was in college, I started setting concert dates. In fact, I remember I had a lesson with my professor and he was like, “Sabrina … ” I was like, “Yes … ” He says, “Can you please come in here one day without a finished composition that has a concert date?” I was like, “What?” He’s like, “Yes. Every time you come in here, you’re like, ‘Yeah I wrote this and it’s being performed next week.” And I’m like, “Well, yes.” And he’s just like, “No.”
So he actually forced me to write this piece that is still unfinished and has never been performed. He forced me to slow down my writing process extremely slow to where it was just nit-picky and I still have sketches that I managed to orchestrate, I started as a piano piece, and then I orchestrated it into like five to 10 parts, and it still needs to be finished. It just sits there. It’s my unfinished piece. It’s probably a masterpiece but yeah.
My professor also forced us to write everything by hand. He didn’t let us turn in scores by computer because he said that too many of us were depending on computers to write our music, which I think is kind of an interesting thought, that I think that it’s important that if you’re writing music, that you do it with your instrument, your voice, and a paper and pencil. Start there. Because it is very easy to go into a song writing program and just go, “That sounds good! Copy paste, copy paste, copy paste, copy paste, the end.”
By forcing his students to sit down and actually write everything painstakingly out, no matter how long the piece was, it was a lot of work. Of course then later on I had to transcribe it into music notation because nobody takes handwritten scores anymore. And so I’d have these pieces that are really great pieces that I had to sit and go, “Now I have transcribe this.” But I don’t know, it was kind of crazy.
Christopher: Coming back to music technology then, you took on this major project Libertaria where you weren’t just composing an opera, which presumably you didn’t do it entirely with pencil and paper. Did you allow yourself a computer?
Sabrina: I actually did allow myself a computer but I don’t know if I have it right next to me, I don’t think so. It might be back there. I actually have a journal. It’s like this thick, and it has a lot of the musical ideas. I keep trying to think if it’s around here. Usually I keep it close by but right now, if you saw my station, it’s a disaster.
But anyway. I would go ahead and I’d have… Nate would watch my daughter, my husband would watch my daughter. And then I’d go to the coffee shop and I’d just there and for a couple hours just write down lyrics, write down libretto, write down how I want the film to go in terms of the story board, musical ideas. I would try to take moments here and there and write down melodies. A lot of times when I write a piece of music, I will sketch out kind of a graphic notation kind of idea version of it.
So I’ll have a melody and then I’ll start trying chicken scratch. Lots of times it does look like chicken scratch, it’s just a bunch of scribbles and then a section that says, “Really big here!” And then a decrescendo and then maybe in parentheses “Flute maybe, question mark.” And that kind of a thing. So I’ll have these massive graphic notations things that I understand what they mean, nobody else in their right mind ever would.
And then I take those, and I would take those into the computer. Now, the challenge was that for these, not everybody that was on my cast could read music. So, not only did I have to have scores and click tracks where the click track would allow the singers to sing right in time to the score so it’d just be click, click, click. I also had to have the piano parts play what the musicians were gonna sing because some of them would just listen to the piano part and then sing their song, which was fine except once in a while, of course I’m human, and I went ahead and I would have a wrong note in there.
And I’d get the recording back and I’m like, “What happened there?” And then I’m like, “Oh that was my fault. Yeah, okay, we’ll just tweak that.” It was challenging because essentially, I kind of had to go from sketches then from sketches to a more musical kind of a sketch with a piano. Usually I write a piano part out first, and I’ll do it within the program. I do work in Logic.
So I’ll work within Logic and I’ll have the piano part. Then I start orchestrating it down. And then I had to figure out obviously the lyrics and the rhythm of the lyrics and everything like that. Then I have to go ahead and give them the click track with the piano part. Then I’d have to take their version without any music and then kind of mix it in. And then we have the final master at the end of everything, and then I keep adding instruments and making it more complicated. ‘Cause there was a lot of sound synthesis in the whole thing and stuff like that.
So it was just this really crazy process where, it wasn’t just one stage of pencil and paper. It started pencil and paper then it went into the computer then it went another stage. It was probably like every song went through six to 10 stages before it got to its final version. So, it was a little crazy.
Christopher: Yeah, but I think having heard you talk a bit about composing there and what it means to you and how people should think about it, it’s maybe a notch less staggering to hear you talk about a project like Libertaria because people understand it’s a step by step process. Composing doesn’t mean immediately writing down your note-perfect orchestra score. It can be an organic thing. It might still be a bit of a leap for them to understand how you were able to take that composer’s mindset and also take on this mantel of filmmaking, which I think in a lot of peoples eyes is a completely different art form. What was that like for you? Had you done much film work? You had animation, obviously, in the Creation Oratorio before that.
Sabrina: Right. Well, when I was at University of South Florida, I actually had wanted to go to film school and I got rejected. So, I had started … So I actually had started doing … Gosh, I want to say I had started doing experimental films. The kind that you see that you’re like, “What was that? Why was that … What were they thinking?” And these were things that I have them up on YouTube and I’m just like, “Oh … ” You know? Just crazy pieces that some of them made sense, some of them didn’t.
I got my masters in music technology at Florida International University and I actually went back a year later and I studied film for a year. So, I actually did get to go to film school for at least a year. By the time Libertaria came around, I had done dozens of short films. I hadn’t done any features, Libertaria is my first and my only feature that I’ve done myself, where I’ve directed it, I’ve produced it, I’ve written it. I’ve worked on other peoples features, I’ve written music for features, but this is the only one that’s like my film, that is a feature.
It was my first feature film. Obviously it was my first … I would say it’s my first opera. I did an operetta, it’s like a lost piece of music. There’s a sheet of it somewhere and I don’t know what happened to it. I totally forgot I even had it and then I found it one day and I was like, “Oh that’s right, I wrote an operetta once.” Anyway … So it was my first opera I would say, but I had already done an oratorio. I’ve written a lot of choral music before then.
It does seem like a different process but for me, I had learned how to do video editing, and for me, video editing is very similar to audio engineering. You’re moving around images instead of moving around sound. And actually, sound plays a massive role in film. Sound design, doing the voice, the dubbing, the recording audio, the dialogue. You would be surprised how much, if you know to audio edit, how much you could do film. Because really, it’s just a matter of now I’ve got images in there … And obviously the images have to be good, but you know, if you have cinematographer, they can do the images and you can just drop them in.
It actually isn’t that far of a leap. If somebody knows how to do a little bit of music processing software, music editing software, even GarageBand. Moving over to video editing actually is not that difficult. Now the whole process of creating a film is different, I think, than music because for instance, with music, let’s say I come up with a melody and I’m like, “Oh, that’s a really cool melody.” And maybe I repeat it a few times, add some lyrics, maybe we add some sort of instrumentation to it and it’s done.
But with a film, you can’t just sit there and go, “Hey! What if I wrote a story about a dog and a boy?” And that’s all it was. You have to have an arch, you definitely have to think it through. There’s expectations that I think are different than there are in music. I think people are willing to listen to some pretty strange music and they’re like, “Yeah!” But if you have a film that doesn’t make any sense, you’re just sitting there going, “Why did pay for that? Why am I here?”
To me, it was … I had already done stuff so it wasn’t like it was new. And at one point in my life, I had wanted to be a filmmaker. And actually, when I was really young I wanted to be a writer. And I have a stack of rejection letters there, too. Like this big. ‘Cause I wrote really awful stories and thought I could get them published when I was in high school. I was like, “Yeah! This is a really great story It’s rejected, why?”
That’s the funny thing. You always think that people do these great big projects but you don’t see how many failures are stacked up behind them. There’s like this many failures and then there’s one thing that worked. It was kind of … It wasn’t actually that big of a leap for me, it was actually more of a natural transition. And that’s why I think it’s interesting that now, I think I’m kind of going more into filmmaking. I’m still writing music, I’m still composing, I’m still video editing, I’m still audio editing and doing other things, but I am finding that now I’m working on film more, and actually getting people together to do films.
I’ve helped produce a few films now at this point because I guess I was really good at getting people together and now I’m trying to experiment with that in just film. That kind of thing.
Christopher: Got you. And I’m sure at this point in the conversation, listeners won’t be shocked to hear that you’ve actually written a book to help people that are in that situation of feeling intimidated by film making.
And so, tell us a bit about Film Making Crash Course and who it’s for.
Sabrina: Well, the Film Making Crash Course is definitely meant for people that are just beginning to do film. I would say … It’s actually funny that a lot of the … Buffalo, New York has a very big film community, and it’s an independent film community. It’s not like Hollywood, it’s not like Bollywood, it’s not like New York City. So it’s definitely a lot of people working together. Everybody has families and jobs and real lives, and they just get together on the weekends and they create these crazy projects.
What I noticed was that there were people that were like, “I want to do a film but I have no idea how.” And so, what I did was I kind of just put together a list of exercises that I was teaching. I actually do a Film Maker Bootcamp now where six weeks they create a film. So we’ve done three films so far. And our last film was called Welcome to Space Force, and it was done at the Buffalo Dreams Fantastic Film Festival which I think was … It was incredible that this crazy thing we did over the summer in six weeks was actually shown to a bunch of people at a film festival.
I’m like, “Wow that’s incredible.” But really, it was just some people in the community that are like, “I want to do this but I have no idea how.” Maybe they’re a writer and they don’t know how to act, they don’t know how to direct, they don’t know how to produce. Maybe they’re a director that doesn’t know how to write, maybe they’re a director who can’t act, or somebody that doesn’t know how to do sound, or somebody that doesn’t know how to do cinematography. And so I just kind of took the basics and I kind of compiled it all into one book.
Actually I’m using this book right now for my bootcamp class and then I’m also using it … I’m teaching a film class to teenagers and so they’re working on … Next semester we’ll be just doing this massive Sci-Fi film. I don’t know if it’s gonna work out. We have to have giraffes and goats. Apparently somebody has a friend at the zoo so we might actually get the giraffes. But anyway, we’ll see what happens but really, it’s meant for beginners. My Composer Bootcamp is really meant for anybody that’s beginner, intermediate, advanced.
I would say Film Making Crash Course is great if you’re a beginner, or if you’re intermediate, or even if you’ve done filmmaking for a while but maybe you want to get better at say, writing specifically. There’s a lot of writing prompts because I’ve written … I’m a writer as well and so I’ve written for a long time. So there’s a lot of writing prompts as well. A lot of this stuff are things that people have taught me and then I just kind of elaborated on.
A lot of these exercises that my professors gave to me, my teachers gave to me. I remember Paul over at University of South Florida, one of his most infamous, infamous assignments was that in a week you had to write 10 short compositions. They were short compositions, but they had to be entirely different from each other. They couldn’t even be remotely the same. And everybody would spend like 30 hours that week just writing. He wouldn’t let us use a computer so we had to write it all out and we’re writing it all out and it had to be totally different from each other.
There could be nothing the same. And so you just give him this … I remember I didn’t even get 10 done, I think I got eight done. I went over there and I was like, “Here are my pieces.” And then he sat there and just put them all out. He says, “Well from this I can tell you, you do this all the time and you do this all the time. You need to stop doing that.” And you’re sitting there going, “What?” And so, it’s things like that where you take ideas that like that and you just expand on some of those ideas.
Honestly, if somebody was very serious about composition and wanted to write 10 pieces in a week, God bless them. But you don’t really have to do something like that, but it is challenging yourself and saying, “Okay well I know how to write for piano, or I can jam on my guitar. Well what if I jam on my guitar and I write some lyrics? I’ve never done that before.” And just kind of challenging yourself to that next step. So, Film Making Crash Course, essentially has a lot of exercises that are really, really great for filmmakers that are just kind of at that beginning level to intermediate level and that kind of thing.
I do want to expand on it in the future. Especially with the audio section. Everything’s really introductory but I kind of feel like since I am a composer, I can probably expand even more in that section than I did. But this was just kind of I wanted to make sure I got something out there that we could use right away. So the film making community can use this right away.
Christopher: Yeah and I love that like with Composer Bootcamp you’ve made it highly practical, this is not a text book of theory. This is exercises to start doing right away, it’s very cool.
Sabrina: Exactly, exactly. Well I think that a lot of times, especially with composition, you can get bogged down by the theory. It becomes very, very daunting and stressful, and people pay lots of money to take classes specifically on this theory. And it’s not that it’s not important, it is very important, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t start writing even if you don’t know it. And I think that it’s to take away the roadblocks, I think is the point, is to take away the roadblocks.
Christopher: Tremendous. So, I’m sure everyone listening now understands why I am constantly impressed and astonished by the range of projects and the scale of projects you do. Tell us a little bit about the latest … You were recently awarded a prestigious fellowship by the CINTAS Foundation. Tell us a bit about that.
Sabrina: The CINTAS Foundation hands out fellowships for visual artists and architects and composers of Cuban descent. They have been doing this for decades. I was very fortunate, I received it actually very recently. I went down to Miami and I received a fellowship. With the fellowship, now I’m going to be able to buy some much needed equipment. It kind of … ‘Cause you receive a monetary award with the fellowship. And what’s nice about it is that I’m going to be able to upgrade some things.
I’m going to be able to move forward on some projects that I would not have been able to. Not because I wouldn’t want to but like everybody else, I have obligations to my family that I need to do and I have certain things that I have to do, as in work. I’m a writer now, so I have clients that I have to write for and things. But this allows me to have the time and the breathing room to say, “Okay now I can move forward with some of these projects that I really wanted to do but I couldn’t because I didn’t have the equipment.”
And so, what I’m gonna be doing with it is I’m going to be buying myself equipment mainly for film making so I’m gonna buy myself a high grade camera and I’m gonna buy myself the gear that goes with that as well as buying sound recording equipment for on-site film. ‘Cause right now, I have a production studio set up in my living room. I don’t have what I need to record good audio for film projects and because I’m moving more in that direction, that is one of the things that’s kind of preventing me from going to the next level with what I wanna do.
Like I said, I want to do another opera, a children’s opera. It’s loosely based off of Alice in Wonderland, it’s called Alicia, and it’s set slightly in the future in New York and it’s got more of a Latino flair to it. I have that, the libretto for that is mostly written. I need to kind of start working on that, but I needed a camera for that because I want to try to do some live action and animation mixed together. I’m kind of moving away from animation in terms of just doing animated pieces. Although, I am finishing up a project called Spiritus which is an animated film that … It’s a Sci-Fi film we’re working for like two and a half years and I’m hoping to finish it up by Spring, is the hope.
So the CINTAS Foundation awarded me this fellowship, it was amazing. It was at an art gallery down at the University of Miami. There were hundreds of people there. It was nice, it was amazing for me because sometimes you get caught up in life and you kind of feel like, “Ugh, I’m not doing anything. I’m not … ” You kind of get down on yourself and you’re like, “Oh my gosh … ” And just to have people say, “Here, we think you deserve this.” It just … And it comes at a time of my life where I really felt like the last two or three years I’ve just been busy with … I had a baby and been dealing with toddler things, and just being a parent.
It was just really neat to see that okay, I can still be a composer and still be a parent and that balance in life. It just came at a really good time where I think I was starting to get kind of like, “I don’t know what I’m doing as musician.” Excuse me. That kind of thing.
Christopher: Wonderful. Well I think you managed to accomplish more when feeling like you’re not doing anything than most people manage at full speed. I’m sure everyone, like I am, is feeling inspired by the fact that even to you from the outside looking like that, from the inside there is still that voice in your head, there is still that sense that you’re not achieving your fullest, there is still a desire to do more. I’m sure there’s a lot that we can all learn from that.
Sabrina, tell us where can people go to stay up to date with the latest on these projects we’ve been talking about, and to find links to your books and Libertaria?
Sabrina: Okay, well Libertaria, you could just go to either Amazon, IMDB, or you can go to YouTube, and it’s Libertaria: The Virtual Opera. All have you to do is look for it and it will be there. If you want to go ahead and get Composer Bootcamp, Song Writing 101, which is also … it’s a song writing version of the Composer Bootcamp. So if you’re just interested in vocal writing, you can look at Song Writing 101. And also, the Film Making Crash Course. They’re all available at Amazon and Barnesandnoble.com. You can also go to my website which is sabrinapenayoung.wordpress.com. I’m gonna get something shorter at some point this year. But I haven’t done it yet.
And that’s S A B R I N A P E N A Y O U N G.wordpress W O R D P R E S S.com. I’m sure that there’ll be links below the podcast or whatever that’ll be helpful. And then I’m also on Facebook and I’m also under New Music Composer on Facebook, or you could just look me up Sabrina Pena Young. You’ll find me on Facebook. And if you join me on Facebook, you’ll get the latest projects, you’ll get the latest information about upcoming books.
I have sales coming up for Christmas time and all kinds of things, and all the projects that are coming up and just anything else that I might be doing like speaking engagements and things like that as well. So you can find me on Facebook, that’s also another great place to get a hold of me.
Christopher: Fantastic. Thank you. Well yes, as you said we will definitely have links to all of those in the shownotes for this episode. All that remains is to say a huge thank you, it’s been such a pleasure on a personal as well as professional level to have this chance to sit down and chat at length and learn more about the back story, because as I said, I’ve wanted to solve this mystery of where Sabrina came from and how she manages to do everything she does, and I feel like I’ve got a little bit of insight on that now…
Sabrina: A little bit, just a little bit.
Christopher: A little bit. So I know that our listeners will be taking a lot away from this too. Huge thank you for joining us on the show today.
Sabrina: Well thank you so much for having me. It was fun.