Being a female composer in the midst of a pandemic, told by NYU Steinhardt professor
"One of the weird things about being a composer is that you don't necessarily know, when you sign onto a project, whether this is the one that is going to go on Sundance, so you have to do your best every single time."
Photo of Lillie McDonough, provided by Lillie McDonough
Lillie McDonough is a New York-based composer and songwriter for film, television, video games, and other media. Recently, she scored Call to Spy and composed the music for Radium Girls. The talented musician also dedicates her time to teaching film scoring as an adjunct professor at New York University Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.

Having graduated with general and departmental honors in Philosophy and History from Vassar College in 2011, Lillie began teaching at a private high school in Beverly, Massachusetts. "I loved so many different things it was just hard to choose, so I spent the majority of my twenties not choosing," the composer begins. Feeling like her world was too small, Lillie approached her future from a very analytical point of view — she drew a scatter plot, finding that the intersection of all of her interests was film scoring.

Although she played piano since childhood and had a classical background in music, McDonough started learning about orchestration and composition on her own, taking certain Berklee Online classes to prepare. "That, coupled with passion and love of learning, helped me get in[to Steinhardt]," she believes. Discussing what sets a great applicant from a good applicant, the composer emphasizes the importance of voice, which beats both experience and knowledge. "You can tell when they are trying to be like a composer they know, which is a great way to learn, but [the school] is looking for an authentic voice," she says.

At Steinhardt, the faculty focus heavily on practicality. Whether it is teaching you how to write a budget or using your DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) to its capacity, you will be able to apply these ideas and concepts to your life long after you've graduated. At the same time, the institution is cultivating its collaborations and growing its network. "We try to bring in a bunch of guests," Lillie mentions, describing a class that is entirely dedicated to this purpose.

Because the school is located in New York, the students also have access to Tisch School of the Arts (which is a part of NYU) and Columbia University right around the corner. This year, the students were also able to travel to Harvard University to build meaningful connections with the people there, although most of it was cancelled due to Covid-19.

Speaking of Covid-19: the pandemic has raised a lot of serious questions about how institutions are going to pursue education in the coming years. "We are currently planning to do a hybrid version of education," the composer tells me, explaining that while some classes are going to be done partially in-person, the curriculum will include a lot of online individual work. This is of course subject to change in order to maximize health and safety as the pandemic develops. "We have the opportunities to focus on what is the best experience we can give our students, and how we can absolutely maximize learning." With that comes a lot of re-designing of a big portion of classes offered. As Lillie says, while this is challenging, if anything, education should be improved from the coronavirus.
Starting out as a composer, McDonough felt it was best to go where the filmmakers were. "It is so important to just go to film festivals, meet film students, and watch movies!" she advises. Engaging on a human-to-human level and not trying to just pedal yourself is so crucial, yet so many people tend to forget about this. Film composition is a team sport, and while you have to have talent to get you at the table, what will keep you at the table is being a good person.

On top of that, you have to engage as well as be present, and although these might seem the same, they are really not. "There are students who expect things to happen for them because they came, and they haven't gone to any networking events, replied to the emails, or shown up in any capacity except paying tuition and being in class," Lillie pauses. "Making a career is much more than that."

While there are no official internships positions offered for Steinhardt students in scoring — or students at any university really — the institution does have one internship with NYU. "My two colleagues and I work very closely with a few students who apply to run the summer workshops with us," the composer notes. The 10 students that are selected get to interact with the visiting composers, do programs, and solve issues that come up along the way. "Some of our guest composers have hired our student summer interns after graduation because they were impressed with the experience they had working with those students during the summer program," she adds.

Although young musicians have to search for internships on their own, the faculty is there to coach and help them through the process. Furthermore, the school has built connections with composers in Los Angeles, giving professors a chance to recommend their students for assistantship positions — a stepping stone for many once they complete their education.

Lillie herself landed her first gig a week before graduation, when she was contacted by Producer/Director (Radium Girls, The Darjeeling Limited, A Call to Spy), Lydia Dean Pilcher. Thinking it was probably a recommendation by faculty at NYU, the composer interviewed, and was put in a ring with a number of other candidates — Pilcher gave everyone a scene from the film that was being made, and all of them wrote demos. "I still don't know who any of the other composers were," McDonough admits.

Being a female composer, Lillie feels that while you certainly can be put in a box, things are really changing. "If anything, it is in vogue right now to be a woman because the conversation is so hot, especially after the MeToo movement," she shares. Talking a lot about how many women are invited as token hires, the composer does feel a little cynical. Yet, as she states, it is what you do that decides whether you stay.

"It doesn't matter why you got hired so much as what you do once you get there," McDonough believes. "All the women I know, of every background, when they get hired they're just so grateful and ready do dig in with two fists and do their best work." A much bigger impediment, however, is that young girls have a lack of role models, and they grow up subconsciously thinking that this isn't a career opportunity for them. That is, thankfully, changing too.
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