When you’re given the chance to perform for the legendary “MTV Unplugged” series, you take it! And that’s exactly what Patrick Laird from Brooklyn Duo did when he had the chance to perform with Shawn Mendes. We were curious to know the behind-the-scenes details about Patrick’s unplugged performance, and he gave us a fascinating insight into the life of a professional musician, from arranging to performing, and everything in-between.

First, congratulations on your MTV unplugged performance! How did Shawn’s Team find you?

Thank you! Shawn and his team actually discovered Brooklyn Duo through our YouTube videos and reached out to work with us on putting together creative string arrangements for some of their songs.

What’s your usual creative process for arranging cello parts?

It’s different depending on the project. We have a lot more flexibility when we’re arranging just for strings/piano for our own arrangements – we can change the form of a song, change a melodic or harmonic aspect of the tune, and take over all of the lead parts (vocal lines, guitar solos, etc.). It’s a little trickier when you’re creating string arrangements to fit in to an existing instrumentation.

In this case, Shawn and his band are all playing their instruments as well, meaning we have to find a way to shine in certain moments, but avoid creating too thick of an arrangement when there’s a lot going on. As a result, we ended up keeping the string parts thin for louder and more band-heavy tunes. For one of the songs, we’re performing alone with Shawn, allowing us a lot more flexibility to create more interesting and full parts.

Another of the songs didn’t quite work with a full string section, so we ended up using just solo cello for that one. That took a more melodic line with a few small solos, complementing Shawn’s vocals. Once I have an idea of what the role of the strings is, I hash out most of the arrangements through notation software, and I’ll occasionally grab my cello to try out a few options.

When Shawn’s team approached you, were you given free reign, and was there a proofing process?

In the case of the MTV Unplugged project, it was a very collaborative process with the band. They have a really good idea of what they’re looking for in terms of sound, so there was a bit of back and forth. There were also decisions happening simultaneously with regard to the instrumentation of each song at the show, so we had to adjust the strings to fit in accordingly. I met with the band in New York before flying to LA where we had a chance to work on a few things in person before the filming. We also shared a lot of audio files back and forth with drafts of the arrangement.

How did your musical training (Eastman and beyond) help you prepare for the event?

I would say the primary purpose of my studies at Eastman was to become the best performer and cellist I could be. That was my primary focus, so I never really took any composition or arrangement courses there. I’ve learned to create better and better arrangements through simply doing a lot of them. With Break of Reality (and more recently Brooklyn Duo), I’ve been writing music and creating arrangements for almost 15 years now, and I still learn something with each arrangement. I think the only way to become a great arranger is to arrange as much as possible.

MTV unplugged is a legendary series. What was your favorite part of the experience?

The entire experience was a ton of fun. It was great to work with a really talented band, and Shawn himself was so easy to work with. He really loves strings, too, so he was always giving me room to do more in the arrangements. Oftentimes, strings get pushed to the back of an arrangement, and it was nice to have a little more room to have a little fun. While the two days of rehearsal and filming were a whirlwind, we were well taken care of and really felt like we were a part of the band instead of being just the backing strings.

Collaboration can play a huge role in improving a musicians skill set. How has this helped you?

We’re lucky to collaborate with some really talented artists, and it’s always a great learning experience working with new people. Oftentimes, our arrangements are for a different instrumentation, so I’m always learning how new instruments interact with each other. For instance, with Ensemble Connect, I had to learn how to blend a small string ensemble with brass and winds. That was a bit of a challenge for me, but it worked out really well. It’s also super helpful to work with really talented musicians, as they’re always listening really well to fit their parts in seamlessly to the ensemble.

Do you have any advice for the aspiring string players and arrangers out there?

Sure! For anyone interested in being an arranger, I would encourage them to arrange as much as possible and work with different musicians and different instruments as often as they can.

Also, it’s helpful to compose your own music as well, because once you find your own voice and style in composition, it’s easier to transfer that creativity into arrangements of other people’s music. It doesn’t hurt to listen to a lot of arrangements you love, trying to hear how everything blends. And for any string players, I would encourage learning how to do as many things as you can yourself: learn how to record you and your collaborations, how to create a good video, how to book gigs and market yourself online.

With the internet today, anyone can learn every aspect of creating music and promoting it, but it just takes passion and drive. And, of course, practice more scales!

We’re so thankful to Patrick for taking the time to answer our questions, and we want to congratulate the Brooklyn Duo on being a Brooklyn Trio this past year with the arrival of their baby girl! Be sure to check out Brooklyn Duo’s YouTube page and shop for their crossover classical hit sheet music here.

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