Valley musicians score with the movie industry


A film score is like a car. When it’s good, you don’t notice it.

So says composer Todd Maki, who is the founder and director of the Youngstown Scoring Stage.

It’s a unique service.

In a nutshell, Maki, of Canfield, will obtain a contract from a film or television producer, and then deliver a “score” — the background music.

The YSS has more than 100 classical musicians on call, and all of them are local residents. Sometimes Maki writes the score, and sometimes he just assembles the orchestra and performs a composition that has been supplied to him.

All recordings are done at Stambaugh Auditorium, which has superb acoustics.

So far, the YSS has completed seven scores, mainly for lesser-known European or Australian films.

But some were for the U.S. market, including “Small Town Santa,” which is on Netflix, and “Sandcastles,” which was screened on the festival circuit.

The YSS also scored the Travel Channel series “Wreck Trek,” in which old cars are taken out for road trips.

Maki started the YSS two years ago, but says the project didn’t hit its stride until a few months ago. He sees it as a way to help an area that has a wealth of quality musicians.

“My goal is to get people working,” he said during an interview at a downtown bar-restaurant. “There are a lot of great musicians in this area. I want to bring work to an existing workforce.”

That sentiment was illustrated — perfectly on cue — before the interview even started. As soon as Maki walked into the bar, he was recognized and greeted by a waiter named Stephen Cline who also happens to be a French horn player in the YSS.

“A French horn player of [Cline’s] level should be playing, and not working a day job as a waiter,” said Maki.

The Dana School of Music at Youngstown State University, coupled with the low cost of living in the Mahoning Valley, are the two main reasons for the area’s wealth of classical musicians. Maki passes on the savings to his clients.

Almost all of the musicians in the YSS are professionals, working as music teachers, members of regional orchestras, or as otherwise paid performers.

The YSS is producing three to five scores per year at this time, while building its reputation among filmmakers.

It is kept on pace largely through the efforts of four key people: Mariana Szalaj, administrative director; concert master Natalie Sahyoun, who handles stylistic expresssions between Maki and the orchestra; engineer Mike Talanca, owner of Tune Town recording studio in Newton Falls; and recordist Jack Ciarnello, who manages all takes and records them.

Maki works full time as a composer, and does not take pay for his work as director and conductor of the YSS.

His clients are mainly indie filmmakers with modest budgets. Contracts are obtained through his film industry connections.

Work begins with Maki reading the script and watching the film to determine the best way to handle the music.

“I’m more interested in seeing the film than the script,” he said. “There can be pacing issues. For example, a script might simply say ‘car chase’ but in the film they might do it in slow motion for artistic reasons.”

There is a lot of back-and-forth between Maki and the director as the score is fine-tuned. it requires a high degree of cooperation and often results in repeat business.

“When a director finds a composer that he can work with, he will continue to do so,” said Maki. “It has to be someone who doesn’t take offense at being told to make changes, who wants the film to be as good as it can be.

“There is a lot of give and take. Sometimes I have to start over.”

The goal is to make music that enhances the film, seamlessly and unobtrusively. Maki gave an example: “When you hear the score of ‘Rocky,’ it makes you go ‘yay, Rocky,’ not ‘yay, music.’”

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