Working in Los Angeles

A look at the careers of four self-employed professionals in Hollywood’s music and film industries
By 

First One In, Last One Out

Tariqh Akoni and Josh Groban
"Word of mouth is very powerful, but it's really nice to have a strong advocate." —Tariqh Akoni

When Josh Groban’s management offered guitarist Tariqh Akoni ’91 the chance to leave his role as a sideman and become the music director (MD), he initially balked. “I told them that I wasn’t interested,” Akoni says. “I knew that job could put me in a political spot, and I just wanted to play guitar.” But working with an interim MD prompted Akoni to reconsider. “I knew they needed someone to step in and be a strong leader, so when they asked me again, I accepted.” Akoni has been MD and guitarist for Groban since the singer’s 2007 tour. But this offer to become the MD for a major artist didn’t come out of nowhere, Akoni had paid his dues.

After studying at Berklee, Akoni remained in Boston for another five years playing local clubs with various musicians, including saxophonist and Berklee professor Walter Beasley. Later, when Beasley was on tour with an L.A. group that included saxophonist Gerald Albright, the band’s guitarist left. Beasley recommended that they call Akoni to finish the tour. 

“That was all I needed to convince me to move to L.A.,” Akoni says. “Through working with Gerald, I met other people and that led to work with George Duke, Tom Scott, and Eric Benét. It all started happening during my first six months in Los Angeles and was primarily by word of mouth.” Studio bassist Larry Kimpel and fellow Berklee alumnus Jetro Da Silva were among those recommending Akoni to bandleaders. “There were a number of times when people stuck their necks out for me,” Akoni says. “Word of mouth is very powerful, but it’s really nice to have a strong advocate.”

One opportunity led to the next and Akoni was hired for a succession of tours with Chaka Khan, Whitney Houston, the Backstreet Boys, Christina Aguilera, and Jennifer Lopez. But after years of backing pop artists, Akoni was looking for a new musical challenge. “A friend of mine had been playing with Josh Groban and asked if I would sub for him on some gigs,” Akoni recalls. “He tried to explain Josh’s music because he was a new artist at the time: ‘He sings in Italian in 5/4.’ I did the gig and fell in love with the music. I told myself that if the opportunity to work with him ever came up, I’d drop everything to do it.” When Groban called him for his 2004 tour, Akoni signed on. “We started doing theaters and they sold out immediately, so they booked an arena tour next. We were on the road for about a year, and I’ve been working with Josh ever since.

Before Akoni became Groban’s MD, he had observed how veterans like Rickey Minor, Patrice Rushen, and Tom Scott had led bands on tour. Akoni understood that to get the best performance each night required managing logistical challenges and working well with people inside and outside of Groban’s organization. It often means that Akoni is the first member of the team at the venue on show days and the last one out. 

“In each city on the last tour, there was a different chamber orchestra and choir,” Akoni says. “I’d rehearse the orchestra from 1:00 to 2:00 P.M., and after that, we’d rehearse the choir. Next, there was a sound check and rehearsal with the band. Around 3:30 or 4:00, I’d get the orchestra and choir onstage for their sound check. At 5:00 Josh would do his sound check. I’d have dinner around 6:00, and after that, I’d check in with different departments and put out fires where needed. Then I’d just shut down—maybe take a nap before we went onstage between 8:00 and 9:00.” Finally, I give it my best onstage as a guitar player.”

Akoni knows that it’s important for his musicians to have the right frame of mind for every concert. “There is a very positive and loving attitude among our musicians,” he says. “I need to make the goal very clear so everyone can bring his or her unique talents and abilities to the success of the project. Regardless of what has happened during the day, I tell my band members that we are not allowed to lose. We are what people see and hear, and if we fail, Josh can’t do his best, and that affects ticket sales.”

When asked if there is a path to a career as a music director, Akoni replies that there are parallels to building a reputation as a producer. “People have to know what you can do,” he says. “Through action, interaction, and opportunity, you prove yourself. This was not something I sought out. I had gotten to do some production and work with a few people as an MD and established a reputation.”

When Akoni and I spoke for this interview, Groban wasn’t on tour, but the high-energy Akoni had filled in his calendar serving as the MD for Weezer’s tour, playing gigs with Huey Lewis, working for American Idol, and flying to Kuala Lumpur to work with producer David Foster. “The work is very eclectic, and I love it,” Akoni says. “We all got into music for the creative aspects. I would still do this work even if I won the lottery tomorrow.”

Matching Picture with Sound

Chris Brooks
"I guess it's my fault that Pro Tools has become ubiquitous with music editors." —Chris Brooks

Sitting in a café in Sherman Oaks, California, Chris Brooks ’80 tells me that he originally came to Berklee from his home in Ohio during the late 1970s as an aspiring vibraphonist hoping to study with Gary Burton. But their schedules never aligned, and Brooks ultimately changed directions to pursue a film scoring rather than a performance degree. After graduating from Berklee, he started doing music editing for movies in 1982, when he was hired by Segue Music Company—then Hollywood’s largest postproduction house. That’s when he found his niche.

Over the course of his career, Brooks has served as a music editor, music score producer, and on occasion, music supervisor, for more than 100 film and television productions. He’s worked on such box-office hits as Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, Goodfellas, Lethal Weapon 1, 2, and 3, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Mr. Holland’s Opus, and many more.

Brooks entered the business just as the first digital music editing systems were being introduced, and he was instrumental in helping Segue decide to go with Digidesign gear. “Segue bought it as an educational tool rather than as the system we would use,” Brooks says. “But after a week, all the editors had learned it and started using it. I used it to dub Wilder Napalm, which I believe was the first feature film done with Pro Tools. Since Segue was doing half the feature films in Hollywood at that time, the system caught on. So I guess it’s my fault that Pro Tools has become ubiquitous with music editors.”

Brooks left Segue in 1994 to freelance and became composer Michael Kamen’s music editor and score producer. “He was in his heyday then,” Brooks states. “One year we did 12 films—it was nuts.” Brooks worked with Kamen until the composer’s unexpected passing in 2003. He has also worked with other top composers including Hans Zimmer, Klaus Badelt, William Ross, and Marc Shaiman among others.

Describing his job, Brooks, says, “The music editor starts by selecting and adding temp score music for previews, executive screenings, and more, and is usually working before the film’s composer begins.” The music editor becomes the technical liaison between the film and the composer and oversees everything from spotting notes, timings, reuse of musical material, and organization of guide tracks, to the mix. “We are there to represent the music in the final dub of the movie,” he says, “to make sure the intention of the composer is maintained.”

Having a composition background is a huge plus for Brooks. “If a scene gets cut in half, I need to make sure the theme isn’t cut in half and left dangling and that sync aspects are still intact,” he says. “That could involve taking a piece of music from another part of the film and using it in the shortened spot. Some music editors aren’t able to look at the score and make decisions, but I do that. If there are transposition issues with shortening a theme, it’s easy to just look at the score to figure out how to make it work.” 

In addition to a music background, Brooks says a music editor needs strong people skills and technological facility. “But if someone came to me and said, ‘I want be a music editor, I love music and film—I’m not great at Pro Tools, but I’m willing to learn.’ I’d tell them that’s what I want to hear. You need to learn all of the programs, but the lion’s share of the job is making sure that the music sounds good. And since it’s a service industry, you also need to have the humility to do whatever is asked of you with a smile on your face.”

When Brooks started in the business, 12 to 14-hour workdays were pretty common, but it’s different at this point in his career. “I try to work in a smart way,” he says. “I’m fast at what I do and can get a lot done in a short time. As well, a lot of people have gotten fed up with having to work all night. I like to associate with the people who know there is more to life than that. I actually care more about the people I’m working with than what the project is. At the end of the day, you don’t remember much about the show or the film. It’s the people and the work.”

While Brooks has on occasion written music for some projects, he realized early on that composing required a singular focus that he felt he didn’t possess. “Feeling that way helps when I work with composers. They never think that I’d rather be doing their job or that I’m doing music editing as a stepping-stone to becoming a composer.” 

After three decades in the industry, Brooks has gained a lot of knowledge and shares it with students at the University of Southern California. He offers a one-semester course on scoring for motion pictures and television and penned the textbook Visual Music about the techniques, organization, and aesthetics of making music for film. His forthcoming book targets student filmmakers, and explores the value and functions of music in film. But teaching is a sideline: Brooks still loves postproduction work. “I plan on doing this as long as there are filmmakers I’m interested in working with.”

Keeping the Heart and Mind Open

Christina Abaroa
"I didn't imagine I'd soon be working with the great producers, studio musicians, and engineers I'd read about in album credits." —Christina Abaroa

Cristina Abaroa ’91 has watched her career in Los Angeles blossom in unexpected and serendipitous ways. She arrived in Los Angeles in 1991 open to any possibility. Various opportunities have unfolded placing her in situations in the Latin music field she never envisioned. Career highlights include working as a copyist, arranger, and production assistant to legendary Spanish songwriter and producer Juan Carlos Calderón. She later served as the production coordinator for the eponymous debut album by Enrique Iglesias, and then as the production manager for recordings by such Latin stars as Marco Antonio Solís, Ricardo Arjona, Luis Miguel, and others. For the past four years, she has served as the music producer for the Latin Recording Academy Person of the Year television broadcasts. Most recently, she made a foray into artist management for operatic soprano Barbara Padilla, a runner-up on America’s Got Talent in 2012.

“I never had a plan for my career,” Abaroa says with a smile. “I had no idea what I was going to do when I got to Los Angeles. I drove around Sunset and Wilshire boulevards in my old car just looking at everything. I felt on top of the world simply because I was here. I didn’t imagine I’d soon be working with the great producers, studio musicians, and engineers I’d read about in album credits.”

Abaroa traces each successive break she’s gotten back to a chance meeting with the late Juan Carlos Calderón, but her story really begins in Mexico City, Mexico, where she grew up in an extremely musical family. Her brothers Alejandro and Mauricio went on to work in A&R for Warner Music, and brother Gabriel is the current president and CEO of the Latin Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences. 

After Cristina earned her Berklee degree in commercial arranging, with one year left on her visa, she went to Los Angeles to poke around the music industry. Through brother Mauricio and others she met at Warner Music, she tagged along on major recording sessions at Ocean Way, Westlake, and other studios. That’s how she met Calderón.

“I’d grown up listening to his songs,” she says, “and he became an important person in my career. At first, he thought I worked for Warner and started calling me saying, ‘Cristina, what are you doing at home? We are recording bass with Abraham Laboriel. I need you at the studio.’ Juan Carlos had the top L.A. session players on his records, and I met them all through him.” 

Calderón soon hired her to do copy work, arranging, and assisting with the logistics of his productions. “I worked with him on Ricky Martin’s Me Amarás album and helped write arrangements for a Myriam Hernandez album,” Abaroa says. Soon she was handling budgeting and scheduling of studios, musicians, and engineers for Calderón. “Instead of saying, ‘No, I’m an arranger,’ I opened my mind to the possibilities and learned the business-side of record production.”

Around 2000, she made the first of two albums featuring her own songs and drew upon her connections to get great rates on studio time at Ocean Way and House of Blues studios and to hire the best players for the recording. On her debut album Cristina, bassist Lee Sklar and percussionist Paul Gonzalez support Abaroa’s voice and guitar work. She later branched out to children’s music. That material has been used extensively in Mexican TV shows airing on Televisa’s kids channel. 

Then a door opened to work on the Latin Grammy broadcasts. “I was called four years ago when Placido Domingo was chosen to be Latin Person of the Year,” she recalls. “They wanted to do something really special and asked me to be the show’s music producer.” She tapped Cheche Alara ’94 to be the musical director. He wrote the arrangements for the celebrity guest singers, and Abaroa did the music prep work. They also hired top-notch musicians and engineers. Despite heavy pressure and unexpected last-minute changes, the show was a huge success, and Abaroa has continued to produce the person of the year shows annually. 

Abaroa’s latest endeavor, managing soprano Bárbara Padillo, is another unexpected opportunity. When Padillo initially asked Abaroa to be her manager, she declined. “I said, ‘I’m not a talent manager,’” Abaroa relates. “But then she kept asking me, and I remembered that early in my career I never said no to anything. I agreed to manage her because she is a huge talent. She has a story to tell and an amazing voice.”

Abaroa is excited about the prospects of introducing Padillo, a Latin woman, to the operatic pop market alongside the likes of Andrea Bocelli, Jackie Avancho, and Sarah Brightman. Abaroa is currently preparing to release Padillo’s first classical crossover album recorded at Abbey Road Studios on her own label (visitmoonmoosic.com). 

“This is like entering a new field for me, and I am excited about it,” she says. “Everything I have done in the past applies to this work. If you are in the business because you love music, you’ll enjoy whatever part of it you are asked to do. So I change hats continuously and keep my heart open to all possibilities.”

Channeling the World’s Oldest Man

Kevin Kaska
"I'm always working on something—even if it doesn't pay. Just working often leads to other." — Kevin Kaska

Kevin Kaska ’94 lives by advice he heard in an interview with a man reputed to be the world’s oldest living man at the time. “He attributed his long life to three things,” according to Kaska. “He said eat two meals a day, not three; embrace change; and always have something to do.” During his years in L.A., Kaska has learned to embrace change, and by working as an orchestrator for film composers Hans Zimmer, John Debney, and others, he’s always doing something. When he isn’t orchestrating under a tight film deadline, he’s composing music and making his own recordings. (Kaska never mentioned the third item, the number of meals he eats each day.) 

Originally from Seattle, Washington, Kaska came to Berklee planning to study commercial arranging. But when a faculty adviser looked at his scores, he found that Kaska’s former teacher—famed Hollywood arranger Vic Schoen—had already taught him most of the techniques. After a conversation with Don Wilkins (Berklee’s film scoring chair at the time) Kaska decided to become a film scoring major. Upon graduating, he started working as an arranger for the Boston Pops Orchestra. Composer John Williams, the pops’ conductor at the time, approved his work and also became a friend to Kaska. “We would sit around the green room talking about music,” Kaska recalls. “He was intrigued that someone from my generation was so familiar with the arrangers of the music he grew up listening to.” More pops arrangements, a commission for a brass fanfare for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and requests for classical concertos for BSO musicians and others followed.

Kaska was hired in 1998 to re-orchestrate music of Williams for the movie Superman for a recording with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by film composer John Debney. “After that, Debney asked me when I was going to move to L.A.” Kaska recalls. “When I finally got here in 2003, John was the first person I called.” Debney subsequently hired Kaska to orchestrate a chase scene in his score for the movie Chicken Little. “That started my working relationship with him,” Kaska says. “He later asked me to orchestrate the concert version of his music to the Mel Gibson movie The Passion of the Christ for a concert premiere in Rome.” Kaska has since worked with Debney on such films as Evan Almighty, Meet Dave, Swing Vote; with Hans Zimmer on The Lone Ranger, Man of Steel, The Dark Knight parts one and two, Sherlock Holmes parts one and two; and orchestrated cues for Mychal Danna’s Academy Award-winning score for Life of Pi. Kaska has also worked with Debney on music for the video game Lair, and has orchestrated scores for other popular games.

When asked about advice for musicians hoping to become orchestrators, Kaska doesn’t recommend a cold call to a composer. “All of the big composers have a lead orchestrator,” he says, “that’s the person who might hire you. If you are on their lists, you could get work. To succeed in this business, you need to be a people person and clever about how you promote yourself. You have to be persistent but not a pest. It’s a gentle balance.”

About the film music industry’s notorious punishing deadlines, Kaska says that the amount of time orchestrators get to complete their work hinges on when the director gives the music his or her final approval. “Sometimes I’ve gotten the final version of the score [usually as MIDI files] just a couple of days before the recording session,” he says. “If you have a 200-measure chase scene, it might take one person two or three days to orchestrate it because of the number of notes. That’s when they need five orchestrators on a score.” 

Regarding the world’s oldest man’s advice on embracing change, Kaska accepts that musical styles are cyclical in Hollywood. “Today’s scores have lots of drumbeats, loops, and pads. That’s the current sound. There is orchestral music in scores, but there are few sweeping orchestral melodies. But the sound of movie scores always changes and will probably cycle back to orchestral scores over the next five or 10 years.”

He’s also seen changes in the way film music is orchestrated and recorded. “It’s different than it was 30 years ago. The full orchestra isn’t used as much. A composer may just write for brass and string instruments and use percussion samples. The recording process is different too. They may do the strings in the morning and the brass at night. An orchestrator needs to be up on how things are being done now.”

Kaska stays busy working on as many as 12 or as few as three films in a year. “If it’s slow,” he says, “I’ll work on my own music. I write a lot of classical music on the side using the money I make in the film industry to fund those projects.” This year, he released Shades of Rio, a CD of his orchestral jazz works featuring trumpeter Arturo Sandoval and top L.A. session musicians. He also helped orchestrate and produce a CD of classical works by Berklee composition professor Louis Stewart.

“I’m always working on something—even if it doesn’t pay. Just working often leads to other work. I’ve done a lot of things for free, but so many times there was someone there who saw my work, and then a paying job came out of it. Think of it as investing in yourself.”