The Fear I Share with John Powell

One of the best composer talks I have ever heard was from the final guest at a day-long LA Sundance Composer Lab event. We had already heard from the likes of Thomas Newman, Alex Wurman and other fantastic composers, music supervisors and industry legends. Last up was John Powell. I had been a fan since the Bourne movies. A composer who can make a bassoon solo work in a blockbuster spy movie is my hero. He does melody, he does energy, he does texture, and it all sounds So Freakin’ Good. And then we have the score to How To Train Your Dragon, which frankly should have won the Oscar in 2010. Did I enjoy the Social Network score? Yes. But Powell should have that Oscar (IMHO). However, I digress.

On that day, we the audience were exhausted but eager to hear what Powell had to say. He woke us up very quickly with his English wit and filthy language. I have never heard so many “F bombs” from any composer except maybe Ron Jones (Family Guy and Star Trek Next Generation composer). Powell described how Brass should sound – I can’t repeat it here word-for-word because honestly it would offend some people as it involved the words “rape” “bees” and “tits”, but let me tell you,  it was a hilarious and real moment.

Then Powell took us all by surprise. He said he was leaving the film scoring world for a while. He wanted to spend more time with his family, but also he wanted to fill what he felt were gaping holes in his knowledge of music. His goals were to improve his piano skills, study Bach and better understand counterpoint. This was fascinating to me. I also feel like I have embarassing holes in my music knowledge despite my extensive music education. (I have the student loans as proof!) Hearing him talk about this issue so openly was fascinating to me. As a result I had a burning question in mind and I waited in line afterwards to ask him.

It was finally my turn. I shook his hand and said the appropriate “big fan, love your music” type of things.

Then I asked the question. It felt highly inappropriate but I just needed to get it out!

“Do you ever fear that people will find out you’re a fraud?” (I couldn’t quite believe I was asking this of John Powell!)
“I flushed a little when you asked that,” he responded. (I couldn’t believe Powell totally understood the question!)

He went on to say that he absolutely feared this exact thing. I felt vindicated! And I was fascinated. I had to find out more…..

The fear of being called out as a fraud  has haunted me my entire professional music life. I have always looked at my peers, mentors and heroes and wondered if what I was doing even began to measure up. Did I have the right education? The right experience? The right amount of knowledge in the right areas? Didn’t everyone work harder than me? Was I even good enough to call myself a composer? I have suffered away alone, rarely discussing this with my peers.

Turns out this is a widely documented situation, known as Imposter Syndrome. Here it is, explained by the ever-wonderful wikipedia:

“The impostor syndrome, sometimes called impostor phenomenon or fraud syndrome, is a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments. Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.”

I find this intruiging. When this was first  studied in the psychological community, they thought it was a situation unique to women, but then upon more research found the condition in men also. You can read more about the research here and another bloggers experience with this very issue here.

I think the best way to counter feelings like this is to understand why we have them and acknowledge that we’re not alone. For me, knowing that John Powell feels exactly the same way I do, even with his level of accomplishment and musicianship, gives me hope. I share this with you in order to continue the conversation. Is this something you have ever dealt with? I would love to hear all about it and maybe we can overcome these frustrating mental roadblocks together.

Onwards and Upwards,

Catherine Grealish

2014: Time to get Uncomfortable

Happy New Year!

2013 was a really exciting year for me. I was finally here in Los Angeles. I was pursuing full-time my dream of being a film composer. It was wonderful getting to know the film and music community in LA. Amazing things happened and I worked on a lot of projects. Here’s a quick summary of what I was up to:

3 features
1 feature-length doc
11 shorts
2 concert works (one work for orchestra and didgeridoo, one song cycle for voice and cello)
1 game
1 original song for a film & 3 original songs for a musical

You can listen to some highlights on my soundcloud page.

However, 2013 is done and 2014 has begun. What now? How do I take it to the next level?

I believe the key lies in getting uncomfy. We’ve all seen that pic floating around fb: there’s a small circle labeled “Your Comfort Zone” and then a larger circle far away from it labeled “Where the Magic Happens”. I think they may be onto something.

I am reading another excellent Todd Henry called Die Empty. (Accidental Creative is also great) He has a whole chapter on this and his principal idea is (and I quote) “To make a valuable contribution, you have to get uncomfortable and embrace lifelong growth and skill development.” He believes that if an idea of something makes you uncomfortable, that is a clear sign that you need to explore further! He also believes that staying in your comfort zone leads to mediocrity and apathy. I have no intention of going down that path so it is no time to rest on laurels.

I’ve had the pleasure of listening to composer Thomas Newman speak a number of times. One major aspect of his composing process is to bring ideas he has written to a trusted ensemble on musicians he has worked with for a long time. They workshop these ideas together, improvising and developing the concepts. Every time Newman talked about this, I would get very uncomfortable. The idea of giving up the control of the music and letting others work on it, maybe criticize it or (heaven forbid!) change it, it really stressed me out.

Often after composers chat for a while they finish the conversation with “we should collaborate sometime.” I have said this a lot, but recently a fantastic new composer friend actually followed up and wanted to schedule a time. I was so nervous! But thankfully I had Todd’s words fresh in my mind and I went for it and made a date. I am happy to say that the collaboration was a success. I learned a lot, little things that I think that are really going to help me moving forward.

I have learned my lesson for now, although this may well be one of those things I have to learn over and over. For now, let me wish you an uncomfortable 2014 where you stretch, grow and accomplish great things!


A Convoluted Journey

How I Found My Vocation

Many people have expressed admiration for my pursuit of my dream, my single-minded focus and how I have acted on my passion for composing music. What they may not realize is how long it took me to get to this great place, on this fulfilling path. I experienced so many frustrating shifts in direction, and quit music not once but twice! I have two college degrees, neither of them in film composing. I share this long story of my many course shifts because it may give someone hope on their own tangled journey.

Path 1: Performer
Since I could walk, or even before, I was on the stage performing. I started learning violin at four years’ old, and was singing and playing a bit of piano. I was happy to go in front of people to speak and sing. Solo violin wasn’t so easy, I got very nervous the older I became. In high school I received a music scholarship to attend an excellent Girls’ school. This resulted in constant performance activities: choir, madrigals, chamber ensemble, orchestra, solo performance and musicals. I thoroughly enjoyed it and truly expected that my life would continue on this path. But what would I perform? Classical music didn’t seem like the right choice. I saw the other potential candidates around me and I didn’t fit in. I didn’t want to reproduce was was on the page. I didn’t believe I could do it as well as others. I wanted to do something New. So I tried rock and jazz. it kind of fit and I was good. That was my new path.

Path 2: Jazz Composer/Performer
I left Australia for the United States after high school to pursue a career in Jazz music. It was a hard journey, resulting in me getting so frustrated and feeling so lost, I quit music altogether for about 6 months. I was going no where. But a life void of music for me was too depressing. I ended up writing a song about how I was trying to quite music. Crazy! Once I received my green card I was able to go to college so I enrolled in a jazz performance program with voice as my main instrument. However, I became bored very quickly singing Jazz standards. Something wasn’t right and it was the same issue that drew me away from Classical music. I knew I couldn’t sing How High the Moon better than Ella. I needed to do something new. So I started composing and performing my own music and the new music of others. I became a composer/performer. I had my own Jazz quintet. That was my new path.

Path 3: Office Job
The more I performed, the more I disliked it. My senior recital for my bachelor’s degree involved performing mostly my own work. My voice didn’t work the way I wanted it to. I was exhausted. My feet hurt. I left the stage that night angry. I asked my mentor if I could stop performing and just compose. For whatever reason, his response was “No. You must perform.” So I finished my degree and quit music. I got a day job as an office admin. I was very good at it. That was my new path.

Path 4: Music Teacher and Singer/Songwriter
I couldn’t quit music. It called me back once again. I started writing singing/songwriter material on the guitar. Tried performing again. Started teaching music. Became an elementary school music teacher and a private instrumental instructor. Began a masters in music education. I was a great music teacher. That was my new path.

Path 5: Composer
Are you tired yet? I was. And it still wasn’t right! Teaching short people exhausted me. I was almost finished with my masters and hating every second. I had nothing left at the end of each day and the prospect of doing this for a lifetime depressed me. One day I found myself in a state of Flow while arranging a piece of music for the grade 5 band while all the students were away on a field trip. Just me alone with the music I was creating. I still remember that “Ah-Ha!” moment. I was supposed to write music! I didn’t need to perform it – other musicians could instead! I didn’t want to teach it. I wanted to compose it! Finally it was clear. This was my new path.

There was still a lot to do from that point. “Composing music” is a broad term that covers many specific career choices. How exactly does one make a living from such a thing? I had a lot to figure out and it took me around two years to fully get in the swing of things. But in that moment I know it was right. It was almost like I could see the light bulb above my head or the heavens opening and angels singing. There was hope! This moment in time changed my life forever.

Five years later I am a full time composer for film, media, games and live performance. This is a very challenging path to follow. It has no guarantees and does not come with health insurance and paid vacations. Looking back over my life thus far I have tried many different things but there has always been a common thread: I didn’t feel comfortable on the stage. I love to compose my own music. I wish I had seen it sooner but it doesn’t matter now. I learned a lot of life lessons on the way.

What I hope you take away from this is to keep going. Listen to yourself. Try and figure out what it is that  brings you joy. What do you really want? What is your common thread? How can you make a living doing that which fulfills you? Staying in teaching would have been a sensible choice. A regular paycheck from something involving music with paid summer vacation – doesn’t sound so bad, right? But I was unhappy and becoming more and more miserable. I needed something more and I am so glad I  found it.

I encourage you to change direction if you feel unfulfilled. Sometimes we’re so overcome with the “don’t be a quitter” sensibility that we stay in an situation that is simply a bad fit. Knowing when to quit and change course is a great thing.

I wish you happy travels and a fulfilling existence. After all, we only get one shot.

Want to hear my music? Check out my soundcloud page and purchase my soundtrack for the short film All Things Hidden for just $3.99 on Amazon, iTunes and most places digital music is sold.

Book Report: The Accidental Creative

Firstly, a few quick items of Catherine News! 

If you haven’t done so already, please download my soundtrack to the short film All Things Hidden. It is available on iTunesAmazon and most places digital music is sold – only $3.99.  All Things Hidden explores the journey a young woman makes to confront her tragic past of domestic violence and free herself from its emotional vice. It is a story of hope, healing and metamorphosis. You can watch the music video of the finale track here.

For Your Consideration in the 56th GRAMMY Awards:
Thank you, Recording Academy Voters for considering For Those Who Have Walked Ahead for best Classical Composition. Have a listen to it here:

Also an article I wrote has been published by the fantastic Film Courage website. Feel free to share and tweet. Directors: 12 Tips for a Successful Score.

A Must Read!

The Accidental Creative by Todd Henry has taken up much of my reading time for the last few weeks. If you are a creative person then I highly recommend this book. It is not about how to be creative. Rather, it addresses how to be consistently creative instead of relying to mood to strike you and then tearing your hair out as you approach the last-minute deadline. As Henry says “You need to create space for your creative process to thrive rather than expect it to operate in the cracks of your frenetic schedule.” I could relate to the “frenetic schedule” bit all too well. It was a little disturbing.

Henry talks about how creatives are often two of the following: Prolific, Brilliant or Healthy. To be all three, all the time, takes work, and he provides you with the practical tools to help make that happen. “Structure…is the undergirding platform that gives you enough stability to feel free taking risks. It gives you a sense of mastery over your process.”

He also addresses killers to the creative process like comparison, lack of focus and staying in your comfort zone. The thing is, this book doesn’t just address these hang ups that we are all too familiar with. It goes the extra step by providing tools to overcome obstacles, create process and improve your ability to be consistently creative. “Remember that creativity craves structure.” This book will help you understand what that structure could be and show you how to put it in place.

I feel like this isn’t something you read just once. In addition to the wealth of information in the book, he points you to a lot of online resources which I have yet to take advantage of. There is so much there! This isn’t something I am going to master overnight, but already it has created an awareness for me of multiple issues I do struggle with, and ways to start overcoming them. As a composer I do have to be creative on demand, every working day. The last thing I want to do is burn out and lose the ability and the passion to keep going. I know that if I pay attention to the many aspects of structuring the creative process discussed in this book, I am going to prevent that from happening.

Read the book, creative people, and let me know your favorite part or one tool that really worked well for you. I would love to hear your thoughts! Another great Todd Henry book that just came out is Die Empty. I have read the first couple of chapters (that you can download for free) and I am looking forward to finishing it!

I’ll finish this book report with a quote from Kristian Anderson:

“It’s important to realize that you will be known for what you do, so you’d better get busy doing what you want to be known for.”

All Things Hidden

I am very proud to announce the release of the All Things Hidden soundtrack! It is available on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play and most places where digital music is sold.

All Things Hidden is a short narrative film told from a young girl’s POV about the emotional ramifications of growing up around domestic violence. It explores the journey a young woman makes to confront her tragic past and free herself from its emotional vice. Once she steps inside her childhood home, we witness the painful transformation she must go through in order to, once and for all, let it go.

Where there is tragedy, there is also hope. Where there is violence, there is the power of love. Where there is forgiveness, the healing can begin.

This film was perhaps the greatest challenge I have faced thus far as a film composer. The music is simple and sensitive. The main melodic ideas are carried by solo cello, played by the amazing Heather McIntosh. I chose the cello for my main instrument as it seems to capture so well the sound of the human condition. Also, the screenwriter Persephone Vandegrift LOVES the cello, I think for the same reason.

My goal was to make sure the music didn’t take the film, which is  very heavy, into the realm of melodrama. I wanted the story to breathe, while still capturing the horror and grief  experienced by our main character, Dannie, as she revisits her difficult violent childhood. So I tried to write as simply as possible, without composing too little. Starting the film with a solo cello line was a risk, but it seemed to be the right choice.

My favorite track is the final cue, Metamorphosis, where Dannie has faced her childhood and finally starts to heal. You can hear the full piece on my soundcloud page. The instrumentation is piano, cello and…….my own voice! It was wonderful to literally as well as figuratively contribute my  voice to All Things Hidden, as domestic violence awareness is something I am extremely passionate about.

All Things Hidden will be coming to a film festival near you soon! I will keep you posted on screenings. We hope this film will bring a voice to the survivors of domestic violence; to start the conversation and allow the healing to begin.

More soon,
Catherine Grealish

Courting The Muse, Part 2

What is resistance? It may partly be the reason it has taken me SO LONG to write Part 2 of Courting The Muse. Let me assure you that the main reason is that I have been busy composing music: yes! But here I am, ready to finish this story.

Resistance. You may not have called it by such a name, but if you have ever tried anything creative, I am sure you have experienced it. It is the force field I feel around the door to my studio. The thing that makes the blank page seem even more empty. It is the thing that stops authors from writing that final chapter, composers those final bars.

How do you defeat Resistance?

When I had a day job I had to partake in one of those team building days. At one point we were asked to choose what flower we wanted to be: dandelion, rose, lilly or sunflower. People had their reasons for their choices but I went with the dandelion. It is a weed. It is unstoppable. This is how you combat resistance. By being a weed. You are relentless. You show up. You do the work.

The way that three of my heroes - Elizabeth Gilbert , Steven Pressfield and John Williams – handle resistance is simply by going to work every day. Gilbert says that she sits down at her writing station and waits for the muse to come – her job is done, now she just to listen. Pressfield follows a strict writing routine where he goes to his writing room, says the same prayer, then writes for an assigned time, and then he is done. John Williams composes at least 3 minutes of music every day. He composes, has lunch, composes more then dinner and he always goes for a walk (according to his brother Don Williams).

Do I have a routine like this? Honestly, I haven’t found one that works for me yet and I am not sure I will. I tend to write more and better at night. I do a lot of my emails and follow up work after I wake up because I am pretty slow in the morning.  But I spend time in that studio making music, on every work day. I try and compose and fully produce at least 1 minute of music. I write my goals out at the beginning of the week so I know exactly what needs to be done and what projects are the first priority. I try and keep my studio organized so it is a calming and enjoyable area to be in. I go to work and make sure that it is as fun as possible…..sometimes that just isn’t doable, but I try!

Mark Wahlberg recently did an AMA on Reddit. When asked how to make it in LA he said “Stay in it for the long haul. And take Fountain. :)” Resistance for me is so hard to overcome but the surefire way to combat it is to simply show up and do the work – even if the work is absolutely awful that day. Doesn’t matter. Put notes, or words, or paint on that page. When you show up, your muse will too…..eventually. I wrote an orchestral work exploring the issues of the muse, resistance and relentless survival. You can hear an excerpt of “Artist and The Muse” here.

Happy creating, people.

Catherine News

I am currently working on a number of projects, all of which I am very excited about!

Light in the Himalayas (working title) is a feature-length documentary about a first-time filmmaker, Yaque Silva-Doyle, taking on the extraordinary task of installing solar panels in a remote Himalayas school and filming the process.

A Venetian Dream is a dramatic feature written and directed by Cathy Beasley about a couple becoming surprisingly reacquainted in Venice after a previous traumatic experience.

Exit Plan, written and directed by Anne Lower, is a short about a woman trying to find a way out of an abusive marriage.

The Miracle is a musical written by Holocaust survivor Lucy Deutsch, telling her story of surviving Auschwitz and life in the aftermath.

All Things Hidden has finally made its way through post-production and out into the world. We are having a supporter/cast/crew screening on August 27th. Festival dates will be announced shortly! The soundtrack will be out on sale soon, but you can hear the finale track here.