Mark Baechle on the current state of the music education "funnel"
Photo of Mark Baechle. Credits: Charmaine Landicho
Mark Baechle is a Swiss-born, New York-based composer, orchestrator and music producer. Most recently he composed the score to a four-part documentary series (Tending Nature, co-written with Marcus Bagala). He's a sought-after arranger and orchestrator and has worked with the likes of Elliot Goldenthal, John Corigliano, David Newman, Clint Mansell, and others. Among his recent orchestration work is the critically acclaimed Judas and the Black Messiah.

Studying piano and percussion from the age of six, Mark enrolled in the Academy of Music and Schola Cantorum Basel in his home country of Switzerland. "I was naturally inclined to come up with stuff, [but] composing wasn't always my goal," he begins. Although there were a lot of things that he was interested in, the composer decided to apply to only one school — Berklee College of Music — and give it a try.

It was there that Mark discovered film scoring as a profession. "I always liked film music, I loved movies, but it was really a far-fetched concept for me to study that," he says. "It sounds like it was … an accident but it felt almost like it was waiting for me." Entering as a drummer, the young musician switched to a film scoring major. Although the first two years weren't film immersive and had a lot of basic musicianship classes instead, he knew that this was what he wanted to do.

Describing his experience at the institution, Baechle compares it to a garden filled with fresh fruit that he previously never knew existed. Moreover, the music education, and especially composition, in Switzerland was heavily skewed towards European classical new music at the time. "I had a real problem with that. It was a very rigid academic culture and there was only one avenue," he admits. Going to Berklee, he was suddenly exposed to a diverse offering of courses that mesmerized him, while having a sense of belonging in a nurturing and open-minded environment.
After graduating Berklee, Mark remembers how, as an international student, he had one year to work and establish a career. "It felt [like] you had 12 months to make or break it," he laughs. The decision between moving to Los Angeles or moving to New York was difficult, the composer sensed that the latter was closer to what he wanted to do musically, and geographically more fitting.
"I felt that in LA, there's too many people fighting for the same thing," the musician adds. "I didn't really want to intern at a place with 15 other people. To me, that's not the right way of getting your foot in the door — that just feels like you're entering into a factory and punch[ing] your ticket."
Mark (center) with Geoff Foster (left) and Clint Mansell (right) during the recording session for Noah. Photo by Niko Tavernise
After moving to New York, Baechle did a lot of assistant and engineering work. His strategy was simple, and one that he believes is still what works best: "find your way into the door — that's the first step. Once you're in the room, it's up to you what you can make out of opportunity."

The first gig that Mark got to do in New York was music copying. Hired to copy parts of a string arrangement by Teese Gohl, who became a very important figure in his life, the composer was especially nervous as it was for The Black Crowes, a band he had been a fan of for years. "I just had to show up [for the session] and make sure everybody had the parts, but it was a moment I will never forget," Mark smiles. "Although probably nobody in the room noticed what I was doing, it felt like that was the beginning of the rest of my life."

Gig after gig, Baechle eventually landed an assistant position to composer John Corigliano, which is a popular route for aspiring composers. Trying to get the job mostly by doing cold calls, he notes that you have to be prepared for a lot of rejection. The way Mark met John, however, is quite unusual: at a masterclass that he read about in a university newspaper. "It was not an official thing — nobody showed up, [and] apart from a handful of students, we were the only audience members," he recalls. "It was lucky because it enabled me to go up to him and introduce myself. He was looking for someone and I was at the right place at the right time."
Credits: Maurice Haas
If before the music education system was more old school where you studied five things for a specific career track, as Mark says, it is much more diverse and interdisciplinary now. At Bard Conservatory, for instance, every student has to pursue a double major, one of them being outside of the conservatory, which opens your mind to a plethora of new knowledge and offers opportunities to network with people.

Although it is his first semester teaching at Bard, the professor talks about how diverse even his own class is. With students from different levels of education and interests when it comes to film scoring, Mark has structured the class to be as an introduction to the film industry, its facets, history, and technology, rather than a manual for how to become a film composer. "It's a glimpse into the world. If there are students that are toying with the idea of pursuing a career in the field, I can certainly guide them along and give them individualized coaching," he explains.
"That's the Bard environment," — to draw the same analogy — "let's pick tons of fruit in this garden and taste it."
Talking about education in general, the point that Mark kept returning to is how dangerous it can be to tempt people into a film music program and assume that it will prepare you for a career in film. "There are dozens of schools with film programs [that] graduate … a few hundred people [every] year [in total]," the composer elucidates. "It's going to be tough for people to get a job, and this machine, this funnel of making more and more film composers warrants a little caution."

With most students making such big time and financial commitments, educators should be responsible and ask themselves whether they are promising everyone a successful career.
"In this country, education is a business, which means a lot of colleges and universities benefit from funneling more and more people through the door. In our profession, that's not always to the advantage of those who graduate."
With this thought in mind, Baechle took a lot of time choosing whether or not to pursue a graduate degree. Feeling like, in his words, he had enough "book learning" about his profession, and taking some classes at the NYU grad film scoring program, he realized that it would be better to hone his skills and apply his knowledge to work in the industry.

"Culturally, we're not set up in a way to think about that," Mark shares. "[In] those formative years after high school and college, there's so much pressure to achieve stuff. The easiest way to make yourself feel like you're learning is to just cram in lots of classes and credits, but that might not be the only way to accomplish what you need to do."

At the same time, the composer thinks that for media composers, an academic environment is invaluable to learn the craft of composing and acquire skills required in the workplace. Mark also stresses the value of exploring other closely-related disciplines or enriching one's horizons with far-ranging subjects, developing critical thinking and cultivating a creative practice. "However," he muses, "I learned my most valuable lessons from teachers and mentors in the workforce, by getting a foot in the door and challenging myself, building a career by persistently seeking and carefully selecting work opportunities."
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