It's not like Vaz had been a stranger to musical thrills. The New York native practically grew up backstage at Lincoln Center. As a child, she peeked in on the performances of her parents, who were both professional violinists for companies like the New York City Opera and the Bolshoi Ballet. Vaz herself started playing violin at age 6 and in her teens studied at Julliard, and at first, figured that she'd follow in the footsteps of her parents. "But after being at Julliard for six years, I saw how it was an incredibly competitive, cutthroat place. If you play a recital, they don't come to hear you play. They come to hear you sort of mess up," she laughs. So instead of going the conservatory route, Vaz studied English at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, where she also continued to play violin on a fellowship. But her calling didn't become clear until she found advertising. After two years at Automated, Vaz joined BBDO as an assistant music producer. Now in her 12th year at the agency, she oversees all the music and radio production and has won a number of industry accolades, including several Clios and Lions. In 1999, BBDO awarded her the agency's Founders Award and last October promoted her to senior VP.
"I really had no idea this existed, which is amazing because it's a really perfect fit for me," she sighs, apparently still with some disbelief about how it all came together. "Production is a lot about details, and there's also a lot of housekeeping that has to be done. If I hadn't studied music, I don't know if I'd have the right background to do this. A lot of the job is being a translator between language that's spoken by music people and language that's spoken by creative people. I'm in the middle, trying to make it all come together."
It came together recently for Pepsi, a client which has historically been backed by pop music behemoths like Michael Jackson and Madonna. Vaz oversaw recordings and final mixes for the latest celebrity-driven ads, featuring Britney Spears and Faith Hill. Working closely with Crushing music composers Mary Wood and Clifford Lane, creators of the original tune, Vaz helped to morph the humworthy "Joy of Cola" theme into a synth- and distortion-heavy arrangement for Spears as well as a country-inspired ballad for Hill. She's also presided over some of the most memorable dubs that have appeared in advertising, including the Pepsi spot where Hallie Eisenberg makes a Mafia-style threat in Marlon Brando's voice. There's also the Emmy-winning HBO "Chimps" spot, directed by Joe Pytka, in which simians recite famous lines from The Godfather and Animal House.
Of all the challenges she's faced in her career, Vaz is particularly proud of the 2000 "Open Doors" ad for Texaco, which tells the story of an inner-city boy who's hard-pressed to find space in his apartment to practice his violin. He finally makes his way to the building's rooftop, where he's joined by an imaginary children's orchestra in a majestic execution of a Bach concerto. "That spot is really close to my heart," she says. "In casting, we tried to find a kid who looked great and played the violin. It took many months to find him, and it turned out he was a beginner. The piece that we were asking him to play was about four years ahead in the progression, so it was an interesting challenge to try to get him to bow and finger in the right way so that it would look right on camera. It was pretty daunting because he could really only bow on two strings and he'd never played on all four." Vaz' musical expertise was instrumental in the process. She sat in on a lesson with the boy's instructor and at the shoot was his on-set tutor. "Whenever we had downtime I would work with him to go over the correct fingering and the bowing, which was also complicated because we wanted him to match the children's orchestra that was going to play behind him. They were young but very advanced, so he had to be able to look like he was matching them." Vaz was also a big influence in the cutting room. "I think I drove the editor crazy," she recalls. "There are a lot of quick cuts in the spot, so it was like 'You have to move it a little bit earlier so it looks like he's on the down bow,' so if one of these orchestra kids saw the commercial they would believe he was really playing." To top it off, Vaz joined the studio musicians playing violin on the final track.
Considering how she's managed to milk all her skills, it figures that Vaz refuses to be cowed by any concept or impossible schedule. "In general, what I'd say I've learned from all this is that nothing is impossible," she says. "There's always a way to figure out how to do something. You might not know what it is right away, but there's always a way. The more challenging the spot is, when they say 'How are we going to get that done? When are we going to squeeze it in?' Those are the jobs I really love." Even more important, the job is still as exhilarating as it was on that first day. "If we have a session and there are 50 players in the room, I still get choked up. It still has the power to move me."