Sitting down with Schoenberg: Emmy-winning professor talks music, work and life

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Assistant professor Adam Schoenberg seated at his piano in Booth Hall at Occidental College in Los Angeles on Wednesday, Sep. 11, 2019. Miles Koupal/The Occidental

Twinkling piano ballads and the sounds of cascading water fill the courtyard of Booth Hall, home of the music department at Occidental College. Every day, students and professors alike compose and practice songs in the hall’s many studios, permeating the air with the sounds of musical instruments. One of those composers is world-renowned Grammy nominee and Emmy winner professor Adam Schoenberg.

Named one of the top ten most performed living composers in the U.S. by multiple orchestras, Schoenberg’s pieces have been performed at the Library of Congress, Kennedy Center, New York Philharmonic and the Hollywood Bowl. The San Francisco Symphony will debut the world premiere of Schoenberg’s percussion concerto “Losing Earth” Oct. 17. He composed the entirety of his new concerto from his Booth Hall office at Occidental, where he conducts master classes and holds office hours with music composition students.

One of those master class students is Schoenberg’s advisee Nina Marguglio (senior). Ever since her first year at Occidental, Marguglio knew she wanted to work with Schoenberg. Starting her sophomore year, she has enrolled in his music composition classes — part of the requirement of completing a composition concentration as a music major.

“He’s [Schoenberg] really inspired me to pursue that [composing],” Marguglio said. “He’s also extremely talented.”

This past year, Schoenberg won an Emmy for the hour-long KCET/PBS TV documentary “That Far Corner: Frank Lloyd Wright in Los Angeles,” alongside fellow Occidental professor Christopher Hawthorne.

“It [scoring the documentary] was an incredible, rewarding process, but also quite challenging,” Schoenberg said. “A lot of people don’t necessarily know the difference between scoring a film and writing a piece of concert music.”

Schoenberg has experience both scoring films and writing commissioned pieces, despite how different they are. For his upcoming San Francisco Symphony percussion concerto, the only limitation was the time constraint of 20 – 25 minutes. Film scoring requires more teamwork with the producer or director, according to Schoenberg.

“In the documentary that Christopher Hawthorne worked on, my job is essentially to provide a service,” Schoenberg said. “I am contributing and making a small contribution as the musical collaborator, and my job is to write music that fits to the picture.”

According to Schoenberg, film scoring is all about matching the music to the screen. Despite his own musical preferences, Schoenberg said the most important part is that the music aligns with the images on the screen. Throughout his film scoring classes, Schoenberg takes the time to impart this wisdom onto his students.

“I tell all my students who take film scoring, you have to let go of your ego and know that … you’re essentially at the service to the director and to the image,” Schoenberg said.

Film scoring is a crucial component to film production. At Occidental, the music department and Media Arts & Culture (MAC) department work closely together to provide opportunities for student filmmakers and composers to hone their skills together. Each spring, Schoenberg offers an advanced film scoring class that coincides with MAC seniors’ comprehensive films. According to music department chair David Kasunic, collaboration with other professors and departments is one of Schoenberg’s specialties. Together, students in Schoenberg’s class perfect the art of film scoring by composing original music for seniors’ films. Prior to taking “Dramatic Scoring Intensive” in the spring, students are required to take “Introduction to Film Scoring” the previous fall.

“The introduction to film scoring class and dramatic scoring class also collaborates with [MAC department chair] Brody Fox’s senior seminar Media Production because many of the composers score those student films,” Schoenberg said.

Prior to taking a film scoring class, students need to become familiar with what makes up an orchestra, according to Schoenberg. One of his favorite parts of teaching at Occidental is helping students excel in a variety of different musical genres.

“At a place like Oxy we have such a diverse group of students, and people come in with such different backgrounds,” Schoenberg said. “I love the variety of music we get. You know, I have people this semester … interested in jazz, musical theater [and] more minimalist type of music.”

As the father of two boys, 4 and 6 years old, and the husband of a TV writer who works between 60 to 80 hours a week, scheduling can be an extremely difficult task. Yet Schoenberg still finds time to compose various commissioned projects year-round, teach a variety of classes in the music department and hold weekly office hours for his students. Schoenberg attributes his excellent time management skills to playing varsity soccer at Oberlin College during his undergraduate years. As a collegiate student-athlete, Schoenberg realized that his free time was precious and learned how to be productive during breaks in the day.

“I felt that my time was always so limited, that I just had to be incredibly efficient,” Schoenberg said. “That just sort of stays in you through life.”

According to Kasunic, Schoenberg is extremely passionate about his students and classes. Schoenberg was also Kasunic’s first hire as chair of the hiring committee. Kasunic stated that since Schoenberg’s appointment in the Fall of 2014, his dedication to his students and Occidental has been remarkable.

“He threw himself into the work headlong and that’s what I think all of his colleagues have noticed since that time he arrived,” Kasunic said. “He’s constitutionally unable to phone it in. He cares to a fault.”

Fellow colleagues are not the only ones who have noticed Schoenberg’s profound devotion to the music department. Like Marguglio, Max Peng (senior) said it was an incredible experience to have a class with a working composer. Both agreed that Schoenberg went above and beyond to help students hone their craft and learn to compose beautiful melodies.

“He often gives us opportunities to go and listen to recitals and rehearsals that an average person may not be able to get to hear,” Marguglio said. “As a nationally renowned composer, he gets to talk about his process. And everything that he plays for us that he’s made I’m in complete awe of.”

Kasunic echoed Marguglio’s sentiments, stating that Schoenberg always makes time for his students. If he ever has to miss a class for a masterclass or a premiere of one of his pieces, he will go out of his way to arrange for separate office hour meetings or Skype sessions with his students, according to Kasunic.

“They [Schoenberg’s students] always feel that they’re being fully addressed [and] that he’s fully present, regardless of his schedule,” Kasunic said. “That speaks to both his work ethic, but as I said, his conscientiousness where he realizes that he has an obligation to his teaching and will never shortchange that.”

Kasunic attributes Schoenberg’s perpetual eagerness and never-ending energy to his love of teaching and his students.

“We’re simply very, very lucky to have someone who is as accomplished and  simultaneously as committed to this institution,” Kasunic said. “He’s deeply committed to Occidental and to the education that we offer, and to the mission of the school.”