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August 10, 2017

Charlene Huang’s Journey to Becoming Director of Music at DreamWorks Animation

Charlene Huang (BM ’03), like many alumni, grew up as the best player in her small town in Colorado before moving to study music as a small fish in the big pond known as New York City. In this interview, Charlene shares her MSM story and how she evolved from a coffee-running intern at Hans Zimmer’s studio to Director of Music at DreamWorks Animation. 

Tell us about your work at DreamWorks Animation.

My role at DreamWorks Animation has essentially been that of “Houston,” aka Mission Control. My job on a film is to make sure all parties between the film studio and our outside music talent are in synch and in communication about everything from the beginning of music production through final delivery. This ensures that the contractual delivery of the film itself (to make release dates) is not ever compromised. I’ve worked on 19 films in 10 years here and my favorite film score is How To Train Your Dragon 2, composed by the great John Powell.

What are the coolest things you get to do at your job? 

Some of the coolest things about my job have been getting to oversee scoring sessions in London at Air Studios and Abbey Road and work with some of the top composers, recording artists, session players, singers and music technicians in the world. This decade-long corporate music career has also helped give me different perspective in a lot of situations where I’ve had to straddle the line between business and art.


Kung Fu Panda 3 cast and crew wrap party

Tell us about your path from student to professional and how it took you to DreamWorks.

The summer before I graduated from MSM, my sister arranged an internship for me with her boss – Hans Zimmer, one of my idols and favorite composers growing up. I would go on multiple coffee-runs every day as the team worked on Pirates of the Caribbean. I got my foot in the door that summer but had to work hard from the ground up to prove myself. The following year I took on a full-time job working as a production assistant for Hans Zimmer and left NYC for LA. My work with Hans ran the gamut of playing violin on sample sessions to taking his dog to get acupuncture to working as a de-noising engineer, which I was terrible at!

With long work hours, I was itching to play more gigs but didn’t know how to break in. I actually went to Craigslist and ended up meeting someone with whom I’d be in the crossover, chamber pop band One Trick Pony for many years. Playing in bands (100 shows per year on average for many years) turned into recording sessions which turned into studio and contracting work.

In 2006, after 2 ½ years with Hans, a friend put me up for an interview for a music coordinator position at DreamWorks Animation. Even though my soon-to-be boss knew my office experience was limited, she saw my potential and gave me this opportunity (having worked for Hans Zimmer herself for many years prior to becoming a music executive). I had steady promotions every two years but after feeling jaded by the corporate world and wanting to pursue my performance career, I left DreamWorks in 2011. A year and a half later, my former boss asked me to come back as a music consultant while she was out on maternity leave. What was supposed to just be 3-4 months turned into another 5 years, including my appointment to Director of Music in 2014.

In this time, I also started to play and record with more high profile artists (Guster, Fun., The Used) and have been lucky enough to tour and perform in all of the major cities and venues in the U.S. all while simultaneously holding down my corporate job.

One Trick Pony performance shot

What does MSM mean to you?

MSM is my “coming of age” story. I got my butt kicked when I needed to and experienced a lot of firsts: my first apartment and living alone, witnessing and experiencing real diversity in people, food (real pizza!), neighborhoods and communities…my first love, first serious chamber music partners, mentors and access to so many resources in the city, appreciation of new music, the first death of a friend from cancer, and of course…9/11. MSM was part of the journey of how I learned to play from my heart, which I attribute largely to my work with my teacher, Burton Kaplan. My time in NYC and the events that unfolded during those years was also about tuning in to my own humanity.

How did your education at MSM impact or prepare you in life?

Speaking of humanity, John Pagano’s Humanities classes had a big impact on me. At that time, it was understood that if you got a gig during school, it was important to take the job. However, at times I would turn down a gig in order to write a Humanities paper that was due the next day. It was important to me early on to have a well-rounded education and to find the balance between academia and performance.

David Noon’s Stravinsky class was especially inspiring because it introduced me to ideas outside the box and a feeling for the first time that maybe I didn’t have to go the traditional, classical music path. Performing with Tactus [MSM’s resident contemporary ensemble] and in student composer projects also opened my eyes to different paths as a violinist, which, looking back now, makes sense why crossing over into playing in bands when I moved to LA felt so organic to me…like I was remembering something familiar yet new.

Performance with Guster

As you think about all of your accomplishments, what are you most proud of achieving?

I am most proud of the fact that I ultimately carved my own path and didn’t end up relying on anyone or anything I thought I needed to, to propel me forward. I built and grew my own networks, created opportunities for myself and others and became a connector of all things creative. I never stopped listening to my heart and have stayed true to who I am.

Name something outside of music and your career that you are passionate about.

In the past year, I’ve launched a life-coaching practice to help others connect with their inner source of creativity. The modality for this self-development/self-inquiry/self-expansion work is something I developed called creative soul investigation (CSI).

Ensemble photo with The Used

Guster Performance shot

When you are introducing someone to new music, what is your “go-to” piece?

For those in the film and crossover music world, I always recommend listening to the opening of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet ballet. For me, the experience of performing this piece live with orchestra in my late teens was so profound, it left a permanent imprint. The energy around what I’m talking about can only be experienced by performing it or watching it being performed but knowing about the tension and sonic duality [portraying the family rivalry] that is happening on stage.

What living composer is KILLING IT for you right now? 

Alex G. He is an Emmy-nominated and Grammy award-winning songwriter and film composer and the son of world-renowned Lithuanian cellist David Geringas. He’s such a versatile artist (started his career as an actor in Germany) and is the nicest, most humble guy you’ll ever meet to boot! Fun tie-in:  Alex is the composer of the DreamWorks Animation TV/Netflix show “Home: Adventures with Tip & Oh” and has contributed opening titles and other songs to shows like “All Hail King Julien” and “Voltron” among others.

Charlene with MSM classmates Kiku Enomoto (center) and Sita Chay (left)

What is the most useful/inspirational piece of advice you ever received from an MSM teacher or coach?

It was this response (not quite advice) from my violin teacher Burton Kaplan who said to me after I played the opening of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto for him the first time: “Well that was good…now try it again but this time from your heart.” I had no tools or clues how to access what he was getting at. How could my days, weeks, YEARS of practicing to be perfect and right culminate in this moment where good, bad, right or wrong didn’t actually even matter as it was just a matter of the heart? This defining moment was the beginning of my story – a journey through music and awakening to higher purpose. And it centered around this one question: “What is the story I want to tell through the instrument that is actually not my violin, but that is me?”

One Trick Pony

Charlene performing with Guster

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