In the late 1980s, while sitting in Convocation in the Performing Arts Center at VCU, Darren Otero never dreamed that one day he would be living in Los Angeles, working on film after film for the Walt Disney Studios and other studios around Hollywood. His credits to date include the 2012 Oscars
telecast, Up, Cars 2, all the Pirates of the Caribbean and Transformer movies, the entire runs of LOST and Desperate Housewives, and many more.
Darren works in the small, but critical field of music preparation. “We’re the people who put the dots on the page for the orchestra — the composer will send us a score and we generate the individual instrument parts for a soundtrack that will be recorded in post-production,” Darren explained.
He describes it as part-copyist, part-proofreader, and part-librarian. But to hear Darren speak of his work, it becomes obvious that it requires much more than just incredible musical chops.
There is considerable time pressure, usually only a few hours at best to turn complex scores into individual parts. One must quickly analyze the score, both horizontally within each part, and vertically as each part works into the entire score.
The speed must also be accompanied by unerring accuracy — an accuracy that may be difficult to produce if the score itself has errors in it. In the case of a suspected error, politics come into play — is it really a mistake or an intentional choice by the composer? Is it worth a phone call to the composer? Fix it or leave it? All while the clock is still ticking.
Recently, Darren and his small team received 25 cues (about 20 minutes of music) for the CBS drama “Person of Interest” at 7:30 a.m. The recording session would begin at 10 a.m., so in two and a half hours, they turned the cues into readable parts for each orchestra member.
His recent work on the Oscars telecast involved prepping more than 100 individual pieces of music in just two weeks. And with so many moving parts involved in a telecast, Darren was responsible for making sure the right changes made it into the right player’s book in the right order — every time a change was made.
Darren also holds a secondary position at the Walt Disney Studios as an archival librarian. Since the music for Disney is played almost everywhere, there are always requests for new arrangements. “For instance, if an orchestra wants to perform a larger arrangement and needs the original score to work from, we’ll go back and forth with them so that they can get what they need, but we also care for the legacy of the music, some of which is 70-80 years old and requires special care,” Darren said.
Darren graduated with his Bachelor of Music degree in Composition and Theory in 1990, having studied composition with Dika Newlin and Allan Blank and piano with Dr. Mary Jane Fitzpatrick. He went on to Peabody Conservatory and completed his Master’s degree in Electronic and Computer Music Composition in 1992. That same year, he married his college sweetheart, Lynn Kowal, (BM 1989, an accomplished composer whose credits include “Homicide: Life on the Street”) and they began their careers in Baltimore working for a commercial music house — writing commercial jingles and underscores for cable television. In 1997, they moved to Los Angeles and began the arduous, but for them, rewarding, journey to Hollywood music careers. They make their life there now with two daughters, Juliana (7) and Isabella (5).
Turning his musical skills into a career in Hollywood, has required another set of skills entirely. Darren’s success has also relied on his ability to make friends. “It’s good to not make too many enemies,” he joked. “It’s such a small industry here in LA that we all depend on each other for our next gigs. Keeping friendly relationships around town with as many people as I can is important… I try to smile at people!”
For the student who is intrigued by the field of music preparation, Darren has some advice:
“Don’t be afraid to ask for a job. But have a lot of patience too.” It’s a small field in LA and there are many applicants, but patience and persistence can yield that first entry into the music prep world. It took a full year for his resumé and samples to float to the top of the pile, Darren said.
His other piece of advice? “Don’t let the little things beat up on you too much. With so much hope and excitement riding on a move out to LA, it’s easy to get demoralized by the things such as a missed phone call, or the emails that don’t get replied to, or getting stuck in traffic and missing a meeting,” Darren said.
“There’s a saying that anyone who can survive their first 10 years in Hollywood should consider themselves a success,” Darren continued. “And it’s true… It’s also about being in the right place, at the right time, with the right skill.”