Ester Na is an internationally acclaimed music producer, composer, and performer from Vienna, Austria. Her musical path began early in childhood at Austria’s classical conservatories, where she honed her performance skills on the piano and cello. However, despite being steeped in Vienna’s long classical tradition, Ester couldn’t help but fall in love with the improvisational nature of American Pop and R&B.
Today, she resides in Los Angeles, working in the studio with Hollywood heavyweights like Chris Brown and Jennifer Hudson. In our interview, we discussed how Ester successfully bridges the gap between such wildly different facets of the music world.
Your training on piano & cello began at a very young age. What has sustained your passion with these two instruments for so many years?
Well, with piano, I always love to learn new chords and progressions. There are endless ways you can put chords together and create a song, so I think the constant room for growth keeps me going. It’s like a song that you just love to listen to over and over again. The first time you listen to it, the song is absolutely amazing, but then the second and third time you listen, the song just keeps getting better. This is how I feel about playing music and learning/writing chord progressions.
I fell in love with the cello when I was 8 after hearing the instrument on the radio for the first time. The cello is the perfect instrument for expressing my feelings, whether I am sad or happy. I think that the ability to express my emotions through music has sustained my passion and kept me going.
You started with classical training, but eventually gained an interest in American Pop, R&B, and Jazz. What led your genre interests to shift? Did this influence your move to the United States?
I always loved Pop, R&B, and Jazz. I used to listen to the Pop radio station in Austria that played American hit songs. I think with R&B and Jazz, improvisation is a big part of what fascinated me. One day I was playing a Schostakowitsch piece on the cello and I started improvising and loved it. My teacher was a bit shocked and told me I could not improvise with classical music. This led me to explore Jazz and R&B. I especially loved American R&B music because of the groove wrapped up in one song. I knew that if I wanted to become a great producer of Pop and R&B, I needed to go to America. I studied Jazz at the University of Austria, Vienna, but I knew that if I really wanted to learn American music, the best place to learn it would be in the States.
You’ve trained under some iconic musicians, including Frank Sinatra’s trumpet player. Have any particular mentors been important to your development as a musician?
My cello professor, Lilia Schulz-Bayrova, played a crucial part in my development as a cellist, and also as a human being. She really taught me what it means to be a true musician. She showed me real humanity and was such a genuine person in my life. Vadim Neselovskyi was my Berklee piano professor, and he had such a richness in his heart. He helped me realize that great artists are also amazing human beings. Renese King was also an amazing mentor in my life. She is an Emmy award winning gospel vocalist, but despite her prestige, she always treated me as her equal and encouraged me to be brave with my performance.
The typical classical conservatory has very clear rules about music and how to have a career as a classical musician. But when you’re in the jungle of showbiz, you have to improvise; there are no clear rules/paths. I like improvisation so much, I managed to fit in.
I got connected to Harvey through a Berklee friend. She saw an ad that Harvey Mason Jr. was looking for a producer and keyboardist, and she immediately connected me with Harvey’s general manager. I then sent my demo reel to Harvey and the next day I was scheduled to come into the studio for an interview. After the interview, I started working for him as a producer and keyboardist. The experience of working in Harvey’s studio is absolutely amazing. Harvey has entrusted me with projects such as writing and producing the music for Pitch Perfect 3. He has also asked me to start working on future projects such as the upcoming TV series, “Unsolved: The Murders of Biggie and Tupac” and also the MGM remake “Valley Girl” set for release in 2018. It’s just a dream come true to work and produce such incredible projects with a man that made music I grew up listening to.
What is it like to transition from classical conservatories to the showbiz world of Los Angeles? How do the musical cultures compare to each other?
Yes, I suppose that question doesn’t get asked of many Pop producers. I’m very grateful for the strong musical background and technique I have from my classical training, but, of course, there was no room for improvisation. I had to move on and pursue what I loved. I think the conservatory is very by the book. Black and white. Just very traditional. When I came to Los Angeles and started my music career, I realized that showbiz is kind of a jungle. There are not a lot of clear rules and many paths lead to success, but you have to choose which paths and survival techniques work best for you as an individual. The typical classical conservatory has very clear rules about music and how to have a career as a classical musician. But when you’re in the jungle of showbiz, you have to improvise; there are no clear rules/paths. I like improvisation so much, I managed to fit in.
Do you think your classical training gives you a leg up in the music studio? Is this a common skill among composers?
Because of the intensive ear training, I developed the ability to hear music and transcribe it quickly. I think this does give me an advantage in the studio. I have to use my ears constantly and decide what sounds work best for a song if an instrument is out of tune, if somebody played a sour note during the recording session, if the singer hits a flat note, or doesn’t put the right emotion into a phrase. I’m constantly listening for all these little details, and am able to make decisions quickly and accurately. I also think I have an advantage because I am a performer as well as a producer and composer. I understand the performer’s perspective, which enables me to communicate easily with the instrumentalists when I am in the studio. I know what’s going through their head or what notes and phrases may be difficult for them because I have gone through the same experiences as a performer.
What advice would you give to up-and-coming musicians to achieve success in this rapidly changing industry?
This is a great but difficult question. It’s hard to answer because everyone is different and there is never a clear path to succeeding as a musician. But here is some advice that I think almost anyone can take:
- Learn and hone your skill like crazy while you’re in school and develop a really strong portfolio you can show someone immediately. Everything is so fast paced in the music industry, and you have to be ready when an opportunity comes your way. If I did not have a strong portfolio, I never would have gotten the gig with Harvey Mason Jr.
- Don’t give up – everyone successful looks so amazing and talented, but you know what, most of them had years of no recognition and hard times. For every “yes” that I received in the music industry, I also received ten “nos”. So when you’re in a slump and nothing is happening for you career wise, don’t give up! Keep going! Your next “yes” may be just around the corner.
- Surround yourself with your heroes – read about and learn from the people that inspire you. This will really keep you going and encourage you in your journey as a musician.
- Don’t listen to “Chicken Little”. There will always be people in the music industry that complain or run around screaming that “the sky is falling” and the music industry is losing money. They’re always stuck in the problem and thus they can never see the solution. Don’t be that person. Analyze the problem and find a solution.
- Work on your character. Nobody wants to work with a jerk. When you treat people with respect and are easy to work with, you will always be asked to come back for more gigs. By the way – it’s just the right thing to do. career or not.