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Oscars 2013: Striking up the band at the Academy Awards

Musician Steve Becknell a member of the academy orchestra.
Musician Steve Becknell a member of the academy orchestra.
Kevin Ferguson/KPCC
Musician Steve Becknell a member of the academy orchestra.
Musician Robert Matsuda has performed on film scores, but he says the work is hard to come by.
Kevin Ferguson/KPCC

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Before the first acceptance speech, before any winners are announced even before the opening number, during this Sunday's Oscars, the very first thing you'll likely hear will be the musicians of the Academy Awards.                                    

They lead the ceremony into and out of commercial breaks, back up the live performances, play samples from the nominated soundtracks, serenade the presenters on and off stage, and cue the award recipients that it's time to wrap it up.

But who are they? And what do these musicians do when it's not awards season? KPCC's Kevin Ferguson has the answer.

It's Wednesday morning — just four days out from the Academy Awards — and amid a row of pristine homes in Porter Ranch, French Horn player Steve Becknell is warming up. 

In about an hour, Becknell will head to the Capitol Records building in Hollywood for rehearsals and a few recording sessions. Yes, you heard right. Some of the ceremony's 'live' music is pre-recorded. This is Hollywood, after all. 

For Becknell, this is all pretty routine. He's principal French horn for the L.A. Opera, a 40-year veteran of the instrument, and this Sunday won't be his first time playing the Oscars:

"I was trying to remember exactly but at least my 7th or 8th Academy Awards I’ve gotten to do over the years," said Becknell. "First year was really exciting. We got to be on stage, so we were on camera; it was 1998 … That’s the only time that’s ever really happened."

The ceremony Becknell first played in was the same year that "Titanic" sank the competition with 11 awards, including nod for Best Original Dramatic Score. A score Becknell performed on. He says it's really common that many of the people in the orchestra pit can also be heard performing in the films nominated. 

But while Becknell has made a really good living off of music, many other musicians aren’t as fortunate.  

Like Steve, Robert Matsuda is also a professional musician. The two have even worked together on some of the same films, but their careers could not be more different. After losing his day job at a museum, he's been on and off unemployment since 2002. 

While Steve had a rehearsal to get to that afternoon, Robert had a very different agenda for the day.

"I’m gonna go to the credit union and take money out of my savings to live off of, a bit terrifying," said Matsuda. "And actually this afternoon I’m showing the downstairs of this house to somebody. So maybe I’ll get some rental income."

For musicians like Matsuda, work is few and far between. He’s never played the Oscars and it’s unlikely that’ll change, as the Academy’s orchestra doesn’t hold auditions. Matsuda hasn't scored a film since last fall. The last time he worked, it was a music video last month. That was just four days on the job. 

These days, you hear more and more stories like Matsuda's. Major motion picture studios have begun recording in places like London and Prague, where the you can score a movie at two-thirds the cost. TV shows have all but abandoned live musicians for their soundtracks. Lots of local, orchestral sound stages have either shuttered or been demolished. 

That means fewer jobs, and more musicians.

"It’s sort of like a watering hole, the amount of available work for people in town. And before there used to be a number of watering holes, I was at one particular watering hole," said Matsuda. "And these other ones started drying up and the animals came over to my watering hole! And that’s where the politics of the business come into play. Because you might get muscled out. If you’re relying on that for a great deal of your work, then it’s a major blow."

But the place the orchestra comes from has little bearing on whether or not a film gets an Oscar. Last year, for example, "The Artist" took home five awards, among them Best Picture and Best Original Score.

Even though it was filmed entirely in Los Angeles, the composer went to Belgium to tape the score. 

Steve and Robert both belong to Union of Professional Musicians, Local 47. The union says this is growing problem for their members: budgets tighten, composers are forced to cut costs and go abroad. But there isn’t a lot they can do about it. 

Musicians are forced to work day jobs, but John Acosta, the union’s Vice President is careful to point out that a little under half of their members have never been able to play music full time. 

"But that harkens back to the days, I mean Mozart was teaching in addition to his composition work. So musicians have always been kind of a versatile group," said Acosta.