Although Jennifer Wilson has long had an appreciation of film music, when she first re-located from Toronto to Los Angeles in 1990 to study Scoring for Motion Pictures at the University of Southern California, she was simply looking for a new direction to take. After completing a Bachelor’s degree in Theory and Composition at the University of Western Ontario, and a Royal Conservatory of Music certificate in Piano Performance and Pedagogy, Wilson says, “I was toying with getting my Masters, but just felt I wanted to try something else.”
She’s since, scored film and TV projects including Rebellious (1995), Marry Me or Die (1998), and Del’s Crazy Musical (2010), and composed music for Princess Cruises, Ringling Bros., and Disney on Ice, among others. More recently, however, Wilson has been focusing on her online publishing platform, sheetmusicdeluxe.com, and developing new techniques and methodologies for music education.
Over time, her work in film composition, and a “visual sense” she says has always been part of her musical approach, have substantially influenced both her efforts as an educator, and her advocacy for composition as an integral part of the learning process for young music students.
“There’s something about movement – biking, walking, anything – that activates the creative process for me.”
Wilson was an early adopter of digital technology, but generally focuses on the act of composition over the technology with which it’s associated. “I made the decision a long time ago that I didn’t want to get caught up in the technical arms race of the business,” she says, adding that her preference is for a decidedly analog, “pencil and paper” approach to composition.
“I like laying everything out – over whatever surface area I need – because I like having everything visually in front of me,” says Wilson. “Left to my own devices I’ll mull over a harmonic palette and get comfortable with the musical DNA of the story, but I also like to move [while composing]. In Toronto I’d write on the subway. There’s something about movement – biking, walking, anything – that activates the creative process for me, and helps me get a sense of tempo, and a feeling for the characters.”
Working from the notes she makes in a variety of sketchbooks she carries with her, Wilson begins to visualize the overall structure of a work. “I basically lay things out like an architect would,” she says. “Then there’s a watershed moment where all of a sudden the notes start to fill themselves in.”
Wilson’s Tips for Young (and Not-So-Young) Composers
- “Get comfortable composing without an instrument – letting things drop in, rather than making your fingers find everything.”
- “Knowing is revealed by doing; so if you want to learn to write in the style of a Beethoven sonata, compose a sonata in that style.”
- “It’s imperative to compose – commit to more composition, and don’t be afraid to fail.”
Having faith that that will be the case, even on challenging projects, is in part, a product of studying with legendary composers like Henry Mancini and Jerry Goldsmith, among others, from whom she took a valuable lesson: “It doesn’t matter how high up you get, you’re always going to have insecurities when you start a project,” she says. As an example, she references a story Goldsmith told about being in a spotting session, and being asked what he thought the music should be like. “He said he was thinking, ‘I don’t know. Why are you asking me? What am I doing here?’ So, even after scoring so many movies, you can still have a level of insecurity going into it, which in a way is reassuring.”
Assuaging that type of insecurity in students, particularly children, remains integral to Wilson’s work as an educator, and was a primary driver of her 2005 book, Composition for Young Musicians: A Fun Way for Kids to Begin Creating Music. “Children are really good at the creative process,” she says. “My personal belief is that composition should be a core part of music education. And at that time, it wasn’t emphasized in the private piano lesson environment. That’s what the book was about.”
In essence, it’s an effort to foster a love of composition in children, without limiting their innate creative instincts. “If a kindergarten teacher hands out a bucket of paint and a brush,” says Wilson, “children know what to do. The book was about getting to compositional tools and devices without going through the theory door.” And without a teacher showing the student 75 percent of the ‘how,’ and having them fill in the rest.
“It’s about learning by doing,” Wilson says. “I came at it very much as a film composer, saying, for example, ‘Let’s make music that sounds like snow falling. How can we do that on a piano? Well, the white keys look like snow.’ Later you can say, Okay, that’s called a pentatonic scale, and tell them why it can sound like snow falling, but you don’t say that going in.”