Leaving behind medicine for music

Brian Ralston — renowned film composer and graduate of Thornton School of Music’s Scoring for Motion Pictures and Television program — was once an emergency medical technician involved in clinical research for pharmaceutical companies and poised to apply to medical school. For any artist, starving or not, a career in medicine is a clear antithesis.

His turn to music was not without context. Ralston’s adolescence was defined by music. Beginning in first grade, Ralston was given private piano training and continued with lessons for 11 years before transitioning to the trumpet as a principal instrument. All the while, he was composing scores and organizing the music in his head.

When it came time to decide on colleges, Ralston chose the University of Arizona for its biochemistry program. After college, Ralston seemed to have made peace with a career in medicine.

“I completed my degree, became a nationally certified EMT and worked for a neurologist for three years,” Ralston said. “I loved the science of medicine and loved helping people.”

Nonetheless, Ralston’s passion for music always permeated his lifestyle, even when it wasn’t a critical focus.

“I would sometimes write music and re-score movie scenes on my own at the piano or a keyboard sitting in front of the TV in my dorm room,” Ralston said. He was also a performer in several prominent music ensembles, including the Pride of Arizona Marching Band.

While inundated with research assignments and medical school applications, Ralston came to a point where the music in his head was no longer negligible. It was blaring louder than ever before, and for the first time in years, Ralston really listened.

“I ultimately had a soul-searching moment,” Ralston said. “I came to the conclusion that in order to be truly happy in life, one has to follow their passion against all odds. I just did not have the courage until then to follow that dream.”

In response to this call, Ralston attended formal music theory and composition courses at the University of Arizona and was later accepted into USC’s scoring program in 2001.

“Upon graduation from USC, I got my first broadcast opportunity because of my USC participation,” Ralston said.

Since then, Ralston has been invited to compose for Luke Kasdan on his feature film debut Don’t Fade Away and Bob Degus, producer of Pleasantville. Ralston was also brought on to orchestrate and arrange an original musical, titled SnEauX! The SINsational Gothic Figure Skating Musical. The show was such a hit that it was nominated for six L.A. Weekly Theater Awards.

With values deeply rooted in music and a supportive family, what caused Ralston to deviate from a career in the arts? The answer lies in an area that is somewhat understated when it comes to following one’s dreams: societal constructs. This includes not only media influence but also impressions made by friends, teachers, counselors and other authority figures.

For obvious reasons, the traditional representation of compromise begins and ends in the home. Although true in some respects and certainly more prevalent in previous generations, it is not always the parents that mandate a medical career for their offspring.

“I was always involved in music and had a talent for it, but it seems no one really believes that you can make it a career,” Ralston said. “For myself, my parents have been nothing but supportive in my choice years ago to abandon a possible career in medicine for one in music. But I have heard many words of discouragement along the way.”

Oftentimes, young people are hesitant to express their true passions to others because society has made them believe there are five successful composers and the other 10,000 wait tables between recording sessions. Society has constructed a lens that contorts how young adults view artists. Yes, aspiring to be as brilliant as John Williams or Hans Zimmer should be a lofty goal, but who were either of these men at 17? They were just two talented musicians, faced with the same obstacles and the same fears.

Ralston was clearly affected by this construct, but what his story serves to say is that it is never too late to pursue your passion. At USC, we are blessed by a university staff that encourages the adoption of minors and possible changes in majors, and that campaigns for the arts in a visible way.

If in the end we fall, then perhaps we look in a different direction. But until that day, why do we insist on subtracting from the passions of talented individuals? Why do we stifle their dreams in high school instead of allowing them to construct a résumé that will give them a chance to succeed in that field? What if we started earlier and planned to be musicians at 12 or 13? No one should ever be made to feel ashamed of his passion, especially before he’s been given the chance to explore it.

Without regret, we must soldier on, for anything we have done or will do is but a necessary step. For Ralston, becoming an EMT was essential to his growth as an individual and an artist. He needed to study for the MCATS, score TV shows in his dorm room and search within his soul before dedicating his life to music.

He always had the gift.

Brian Ivie is a sophomore majoring in Cinema-Television Critical Studies. His column, “Dreammaking,” runs Tuesdays.