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Alumni Spotlight
Brian McKenna ‘00


Where are you from, and what brought you to Rome?

Well, working backwards, I was brought to Rome because my mother remarried a Roman man when I was 14. So, right in the middle of my high school career, I was brought over to Rome to live with them and attended St. Stephen's for a brief period of time. I didn't technically graduate from St. Stephen's because I went back to my high school in Cambridge, Mass., to finish up. So, I am from Cambridge, and my tenure in Rome started by virtue of my mother being remarried.

How long did you stay at St. Stephen's?

I was technically there for a semester, but as I'm sure you hear from everybody, the friends I made and the connections I made there have lasted my entire life since. So, the period of time I spent studying at St. Stephen's doesn't justly represent how the experience I had there became a part of my life that has never gone away, luckily.

And this is the beautiful thing about our community. Some come for four years, some only for one, some for a semester, some for only a trimester!

No doubt a common thread shared by international students is the difficulty in relocating – at that time, the move was against my wishes. It was not something I wanted to do. I was very tight with my community in high school. I ran track. I was one of the top runners, a state championship athlete, and my music endeavors had started well before that. So I was deeply ingrained in the culture of my high school experience in Cambridge, and it was a great one. And so when I had to go to Rome, I was not happy about it. But in retrospect, it was one of the greatest experiences of my life, hands down.

Can you describe your experience at St. Stephen’s? What are some of your fondest memories of that time?

The first thing that happened when I got there was meeting one of my dearest friends to this day, Cynthia Baker. I remember walking through the Cortile to the staircases on that first landing, where I met this girl who looked straight out of SoCal and was just so friendly and warm. And I was like, "oh, cool." So I started talking to her, and I immediately realized that she knew everybody; she attended St. Stephen's from 9th grade until graduation. Cindy was the first person I met, and we had so many great times together throughout my semester at St. Stephen's. And when I went back to visit Rome after returning to Cambridge, which happened every several months thereafter, I always visited Cindy and my other friends. The experience I had at St. Stephen's was such a lovely, warm experience. And the academic rigor opened my eyes to so much stuff that I was previously unaware of—for example, Mrs. Christie's art history class. She was such an inspiration to me.

To be able to study art history in Rome was mind-blowing. It was incredible to be able to simply walk out the door and see exactly what we were studying in the books. I had never been exposed to that before. I had traveled a little bit prior to living in Rome, but I'd never in my life seen anything quite as old. In Boston, we pride ourselves on our history, but you're looking at George Washington's history, you're looking at things that are just a few hundred years old at best, and then to skip over to Rome and study things that are centuries old and being able to touch this stuff, that was just incredible.

Did your time at St. Stephen’s prepare you for your career as a music producer?

I would say that in my time at St. Stephen's, I learned certain interpersonal skills tied directly to planting yourself in a different culture that have been very helpful. Music-wise, I had a great time with Trevor Pilling, who I used to gig with. He's a phenomenal jazz pianist. He was a physics teacher at St. Stephen's at the time. So, yes, my time at St. Stephen's definitely prepared me for my career as a music producer. I would certainly say that the multicultural atmosphere there and the need to adapt to different types of people were very helpful.

Your company, BtOVEN MUSIC, which you founded in 2009, has provided the scores for various films, tv shows, commercials, and video games, as well as produced music for a host of artists from Katy Perry to Kelly Rowland to Sarah Charness. Your company has worked on some really diverse projects, from music for the horror film, Clown to Toyota Prius and Cover Girl commercials. So, working across these diverse industries, how do you find the right music? What’s your process when a new project arrives? Do you have a research and experimentation phase; what does that look like?

That's a great question. The work I've done and the work that passes through my studio is so varied from project to project. The common thread is simply recognizing how the music we’re commissioned to create and the production thereof should sound. So it's really a question of being ingrained in the pro audio world and fusing an understanding of various genres and types of music and seeing them through to their maximum potential. The important part is that my history in studying and performing music is quite varied between styles of music. And that has been very helpful. I've had the opportunity to train in a lot of different types of music. So, how do you find the right music? Well, most of the time, we’re directed through some form of creative-brief by clients. It's really an interesting space to work in because I've got my own taste in music and my own preferences for certain types of music, but I'm in a service industry where you're hired to help. There is a certain artistry to it, but it's not such that I'm typically given carte blanche to decide what is coming out of the process; it's a collaborative process during which I work with clients, help them brainstorm, help them find the right sound and ultimately produce their projects.

The way you describe it, music production sounds very similar to consulting.

Yeah, consulting and project management. I'm not always the one writing music for everything; I also oversee and collaborate with teams of other producers and engineers, composers, musicians, etc. And that's a skill set I was able to develop mainly through my work in the jingle industry, writing music for ads. I started my career in New York City with an internship at a jingle house, which is vernacular for a production company that composes and produces music for TV and radio commercials. And through that process, I was able to cut my teeth, so to speak, in an extremely high-performance environment, with some of the best people in the business, some of whose names you might not be familiar with, but that's because they were behind the scenes for so many other projects that you are familiar with; which refers back to your prior question because when I saw how much you can be exposed to, from a workflow standpoint, by being behind the curtains, as opposed to in the limelight, that was really the major turning point in my career. That was when I decided that I would rather be the guy you go to for help as opposed to exploiting a career of a limited scope and timeframe as an artist because it gives you access to more work and a greater diversity in your work. So, the word "consulting" that you used is very accurate.

So being a producer gives you this opportunity to experiment and do different things compared to being a full-time musician.


So this leads really nicely into my next question about your music: I know that you play the drums, and I don't know if you also play other instruments, but I was wondering specifically how you got into drumming; I saw online that you've also taken courses in African drumming. So, why the drums?

Well, I started the violin when I was four or five and piano when I was about eight, and then maybe a year or two after that, my father, who was a musician, bought me my first drum set. When I started playing the drums, it was as if something clicked, perhaps even love at first sight. My dad was in bands and worked in production throughout my childhood. So I was backstage a lot already while growing up. And it turns out that on my father's side of the family, the McKenna side, my grandfather was a drummer during the Swing Era, and my uncle is a heavyweight rhythm and blues drummer in the rock tradition based out in New Mexico. Of course, I wasn't alive in the Swing Era, and I didn't meet my uncle until I was in my mid-teens. There was something about starting to play drums that felt right. The exposure I had to the West African drum and dance tradition is actually something that started in high school through a network of academic programs in the Boston area. I was lucky to attend the Berklee College of Music during summers when I wasn't in Rome, and that was a truly awesome experience on a lot of levels.

I began studying West African drum and dance there, and then I went to Wesleyan University, which has one of the premier academic West African drum and dance programs in the world. Some of the top dancers and drummers from Ghana have a very close relationship with Wesleyan and historically have run that program. So I was very lucky to gain that exposure; I didn't seek that stuff out so much as it perhaps found me. I was lucky to be in these places where the programs were strong. I do play other instruments; I play guitars, keyboards and arrange for strings and horns. I also occasionally dabble in work as a lyricist and singer for various projects. That's an important trait as a producer, to be able to sing because it helps you communicate to vocalists you're working with and oftentimes gives you a sort of secret weapon during the process of executing a project where there are certain things to be filled out in the end because you can do it yourself instead of having to call singers back or arrange background vocals and that sort of thing.

That's such a unique program and a cool opportunity to be immersed in another culture. I wanted to ask you, related to this topic, in addition to the U.S. market, your studio has also produced soundtracks for the Spanish and Italian markets. Do you find that you have to change your approach when working outside of the U.S.? Is there music that works for a cartoon in the U.S. that would never work in Italy, for example?

You know, that's a really good question, and I'm not necessarily sure that the international aspect of these different clients is what differentiates the approach as much as their personalities. What varied clients are used to is the difference. And so, I don't know that I would change my approach, but it's true that clients who are in different countries expect things in a certain way. So, why do people base themselves in New York City? In New York, there's a certain cache around creative industries, and there's a benefit to being based here and learning from the people here. There's a certain sort of swagger and allure to what the city has to offer. So, ultimately, I would say that it's important not to change up the approach but rather to stay true to what we do because that's what is sought after.

The New York brand; that’s what your clients look for?

Yeah. And to be honest with you, most of the "Spanish" work I've done has actually been more for the Latin market here in the U.S., which is huge. There are many productions that are launched from square one in Spanish and not retroactively translated into Spanish, especially in this day and age. The demographic of Spanish speakers in the United States has never been bigger, and it's only growing. It's a huge industry. And as for the Italian clients I have, I was very lucky, through a network of folks I have here in New York, to be introduced to a phenomenal client called "Rainbow" that's based in Loreto. I've had a wonderful opportunity to build with them. In fact, we're just coming to the end of a series called "Summer and Todd." The music that works for this particular series, as it's based on a farm, is more rooted in the Western, North American tradition. It took us the better part of about a year and a half to develop the direction for the music. This ties into one of your earlier questions because I worked very closely with Rainbow to identify what type of music they wanted. And naturally, what we landed on was something sort of in the Bluegrass tradition, sort of like Mumford and Sons meets Looney Tunes plus some traditional bluegrass stuff thrown in.

That sounds like fun.

Yeah, it is fun because they wanted something with a certain pop appeal, but that also made sense for a farm. At first, they started out not wanting anything too specific, like bluegrass music or banjos and that sort of thing, but it just made sense, and we ended up there. And so, to your point about working on certain things that might fit the Italian market or rather certain things that don't work for the Italian market that do work for the U.S. market; in this case, they chose music from the U.S. tradition. This is a well-established company that has been around for a while, and they've got some phenomenally talented composers, but my feeling is that what they could get from us would feel more authentic on some level. Music is like a language, and you're brought up with certain cultural sensibilities surrounding how it flows, how it sounds, the rhythm of it, the slang, the nuances, and you can't really learn that unless you were brought up in it. Now, you can simulate it by all means and even to a degree that is maybe indistinguishable at times or too difficult to differentiate.

But it's not the same.

It's not the same thing.

What would you say you enjoy most about the work you do?

What I enjoy most about my work is that it's different every day. Even if I work on a series or projects that extend over long periods of time, they're always different. And that's one of my favorite things; apart from loving what I do on a base level, I get to do something different every day. And for that very reason, it's exciting to come to work; it's exciting to face the challenges that await me. Sometimes they're more daunting than others, and sometimes they're just straight up a pain in the butt. However, it's fun to do different stuff. I am a creature of routine; I wake up early, I work hard, I cook for myself and my family always, so I'm not someone who is all over the place per se, but it's fun to not have to show up and do the same exact thing every day. It's also, to a large extent, having control over my schedule. I have two daughters, a one-year-old and an eight-year-old, so to be able to get hang time with them is the most important thing in my life.

Another thing I enjoy most about what I do is the flexibility to drop them off at school almost every day and oftentimes pick them up as well. My hours can be very long, so I'm not always able to do both, but it happens more often than not. And that's huge. That's a big part of why I love and enjoy what I do.

That's really nice. I understand what you mean about valuing variety in your work.So, either professionally or personally, what do you consider to be your greatest achievement thus far?

Sure. My greatest achievement personally is my family, without a doubt. I love my wife dearly. We just celebrated our 14th wedding anniversary. We were married very young, and our kids are our greatest achievement. There's nothing like it. I feel so blessed because I've also learned in my age and wisdom that the act of procreation isn't quite as easy as they chalk it up to be in high school Sex Ed class, where it’s made to sound like stopping off for gas or ordering takeout like it's just that easy– especially as you get older. And to address my greatest professional achievement, I'd say it's having my studio because that encompasses all of the rest of the bits and pieces. I've been able to build out a certain amount of business and bring in some of my favorite people, very talented individuals who I've built relationships with over time who work on projects and creatively contribute to things that go through my studio. And that's as short as I can make that!

And staying on this theme of the personal mixed with the professional, if you had to look back to the time that has passed since you left St. Stephen's and built your career, would you say that it's been a straight path for you in terms of achieving the goals that you've set for yourself or do you feel like you have taken some twists and turns? If so, could you talk about what some of those challenges have been and how you've been able to move past them?

I don't think that anybody achieves much of anything without trials and tribulations. I've definitely not had a straight path to where I am now, and it doesn't necessarily continue to be a straight path either. To specifically refer to some of the biggest tests and challenges, one would be when I lost the man my mom married, who brought me to Rome, Mario. He was a great man and had a profound influence on my life and unfortunately died when I was in college. He was diagnosed with cancer that was unexpected, unknown, and progressed very quickly when I was about 18 years old. I was 19 when he passed, and that was the biggest life challenge I ever had because it was new to me at that time. Unfortunately, as we all age, the concept of losing loved ones becomes more familiar, but that specific event, when I was a senior at Wesleyan, was a true heartbreaker and very difficult to deal with in many ways.

But it also set me up to be even further motivated. Then a few years ago, my biological father passed away as well, who, as I mentioned earlier, was the one who introduced me to the world of music and production. Coping doesn’t necessarily get any easier, but more familiar. Perhaps the uptick to losing someone is that you realize your own mortality and how little time you have to achieve what goals you have in front of you. And since then, some of the greatest challenges have been the moves I had to make to break into this business. I started out in the city working as an intern, making no money, so I had to hold down an extra job to see through my plan. And that was a lot to handle in my early twenties. Nobody made that easy. That said, I did have people help me, and without their help, I wouldn't be here by any means, but then there were the folks in between who, perhaps out of insecurities or spite, made things very difficult. And to get through some of that and just believe in my own talents and abilities at a certain point in time was a huge challenge. Perhaps even still to this day, you know, there's nothing better than a healthy sense of doubt or fear, and certainly self-reflection. In order to truly have confidence in yourself, you need that ability to self-reflect.

And to have a healthy dose of humility, perhaps.

Yeah, exactly.

Are there any important lessons from your professional experience that you could share with the St. Stephen's graduating class of 2022?

It's important to trust and believe in yourself above all else because if you don't believe in yourself and trust yourself in making difficult decisions that impact your future, your career, all aspects of your life, that's where the true loss can take place. That's where you won't achieve your goals. And to feed off of your own fear is something that I think is very powerful. It's only natural to be concerned and wonder, "Is this gonna work? Is this gonna happen?" If you become complacent and don't honor that sensation of "what if," and if you're not occasionally a little pessimistic, and if you're not able to acknowledge when you're up against something, you'll have difficulty finding the drive you need to get through major challenges and surmount them in order to find and achieve your full potential. You just need to trust yourself and believe in yourself. And that might be misconstrued as being overconfident or not acknowledging what you need to help yourself to develop further, which is why I bring up the point about fear. One thing informs the other. I wouldn't be surprised if the majority of folks who have found themselves in a place that they aspire to would agree. Maybe there are some hot shots out there who just win every time. Some fear and some struggle are likely going to be involved. It's important to learn from your mistakes as well.


The Alumni Spotlight series is directed by Natalie Edwards ‘14, teacher of City of Rome I, Core 9, and member of the Boarding Faculty. If you’re an alumna/us interested in sharing your story please contact us at

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