Don’t Just Talk About It: Do It!

We are coming up to the New Year. Time to make all those new years resolutions which are so often abandoned come February. It is December, 2014. In 12 months time, looking back, what do you hope to have achieved?

Since I am asking you to examine yourselves it is only fair I do the same. I am proud of what I have achieved since coming to LA two years ago. I have worked on three feature narratives and 2 documentaries. I have done commercials, video games and short films. My budgets have become larger, the minutes of music to dollars ratio has improved. I am seeing progress in my career and that is encouraging. Have you? Please, you need to ask yourself that question. If it has not, you owe it to yourself to ask why.

This year I plan to do more. I am not going to go into specifics but project-wise things for me are already looking encouraging for 2015. I have a number of gigs on the cards so it will hopefully be an exciting year. I still have a lot of hustling to do, though. No resting on one’s laurels, no matter how positive things look. In the film industry things can fall through without warning.

What do I want to improve? I want to be more prolific in my composing. I hope to write every single day if possible, in order just to have more material there when I need it. Also, I believe it is good to write out all the bad stuff so the good stuff has room to come through! I want to create more music this year than any year before. And this year I plan to carefully track my productivity as a way to both encourage myself and create accountability.

I also want to keep better track of my networking and hustling for gigs. Who did I talk to and when? Who do I need to follow-up with? How many filmmakers have I reached out to this week? I want to make sure I am as on top of this as possible. It is just too much to keep in one’s head. To be successful in this business you need to be on top of the administrative aspect. I believe I will do better if I am more organized.

What are you planning on doing? The key word is “doing”. I feel like a lot of people are talking. Posting on FB. Writing on forums. But what have you done and what do you plan to do? What have you actually achieved? It isn’t enough to look like you’re working. It isn’t enough to want to do this – whether ‘this’ is being a film composer or anything else. It isn’t enough to have a slick website.  Are you Doing It?

Film Composers: How many films have you actually scored? I can almost guarantee that if you score more films you will get better – especially if you are willing to work, receive feedback and then accept said feedback and improve. Composers have asked me “How do you find films to score?” My answer: HUSTLE. Meet filmmakers. Go to places filmmakers are and build relationships with them. Find out what films are being created and build relationships with the people making them. Make sure that you are providing music that they like, that speaks to them (after all they are the client) and if you aren’t, do that! Do the work. Do. Make sure you are doing and not just talking about doing or complaining about how difficult it is to do. What is in your way? Identify and find a way to clamber over that obstacle so you can Keep Doing!

Another question: Who is mentoring you? Who is giving you advice? My two cents: make sure you align yourselves with people who are Doing and not just Talking. People active right now in the scene where you want to be active. People who make a living doing the things you want to do – whether it be composing for film or writing or making films – whatever your profession of choice.

When I decided to become a film and media composer I reached out to every active composer I knew. People who had very recent and impressive credits. People who were in this career for the long haul, scoring the movies and shows I wanted to be scoring. The fantastic thing I have found is that there are so many amazing successful people who are open to help the up and comers. Reach out to successful people you admire and you may well be surprised with their willingness to answer your questions. Just make sure you are prepared and ready to ask intelligent ones – don’t waste any opportunity you are given!

Our time here is short. We all have daily reminders of this sobering fact. So I say to you, and to me, please don’t waste any more time. Put aside your negativity, your regret, your frustration, your fear of the obstacles in front of you, and focus all your energies on achieving something that moves you forward, as soon as possible. Take the time to share your ambitions, and your step-by-step plan to achieve your goals, to someone you trust and become accountable to them. Don’t let 2015 go to waste. Make it a doozy! And please feel free to write and tell me all about it, I would love to hear from you.

About Catherine

Catherine Grealish is a composer for film, games and media. Her most recent credits include the feature-length documentary The Art of Walking Barefoot, the video game The Hole Story and the short film Pearl.

What do I need to know to be a film composer?

This is a question I have been thinking a lot about over the last few days, especially thanks to a webinar I participated in hosted by Deniz Hughes. There were a lot of answers presented to this question but after much thought I came to a surprising conclusion.

Some background: I had excellent musical training as a child. I formally studied classical voice and violin, and attended a highschool, St Michael’s Collegiate, which not only provided me with an excellent music education but also had many ways to practically apply it. I participated in choir, madrigal group, orchestra, string ensemble and professionally-produced musicals. I also sang in church, in rock bands, and learned about jazz and how to improvise. My childhood was a musical playground. Then I went on to study Jazz performance and composition for my undergraduate degree at Cornish College of the Arts and received more academic music training in my masters of music degree at Boston University. I am so thankful for all of this.

But then I ventured into the world of film composition. While all of the above helped, at a times helped a lot, I don’t think they are the keys to this career choice.

What is film music? It is music in a film that supports the picture. Enhances the story. Communicates the vision of the director and producer. It has to be music that the audience – Ms. or Mr. regular non-musically educated person – can hear and immediately connect with. If they don’t connect then they are taken out of the film and the composer has failed to do their job. (Or the director has failed to direct the composer in a way that helped them be successful at their job – blame could arguably be directed at either individual).

Therefore, what a film composer must be able to do is write music that supports picture and connects with people – the filmmaker and the audience.

What do you need to be able to do that? Knowledge of key signatures? Chordal analysis? Being able to read every clef? I don’t think so. You must be able to write the right music. That is all.

What is almost equally important – maybe half a percentage point less – is the ability to be able to communicate with your director and (often the case) producer. If you cannot communicate with them enough to 1. land the gig and 2. do the gig well then you are not a good film composer. You may be a good composer but that doesn’t matter. As a film composer you have a client and a picture that you need to serve. Your musical aesthetic will weigh in (it will certainly influence what you initially pitch) but at the end of the day it may not matter. Can you write something that you don’t necessarily think works, but your director wants anyway? If you can do that, and make your director happy, then you can be a film composer.

If you can write emotive beautiful and accessible music but cannot communicate enough to land a gig or keep a gig working for a client then maybe you are destined to simply putting your music out there, like a band or a singer-songwriter. You write music and if people hear it they buy it and use it. You can also potentially do well with licensing. But to be a film composer the communication element is critical.

So what are you saying, Catherine? Are you really saying that you don’t need to know your music theory, to be able to read music, to have a knowledge of the history of music, to have a degree – all of that – in order to be a successful film composer? Exactly. Just write music that makes people Feel, with a capital F and have the ability to be able to communicate with your filmmaker so you get what they want the audience to feel so you can compose it.

However:

I highly recommend knowing everything you can about music. Primarily because it is so wonderful! Being able to read music is REALLY FANTASTIC! Understanding the differences of the instruments, their colours, how it effects the emotion of the piece; this information will highly elevate your musicianship and give you great material to incorporate into your upcoming projects. Your filmmaker may hate it, and then you can’t use it, but it’s worth a shot! I believe every piece of knowledge you add to your proverbial musical toolbox has the potential to make you a better musician and therefore a better composer. Not only can it give you more to work with but it can also potentially help you work faster and more efficiently. Help you problem-solve your way out of musical pickles instead of relying solely on your ear. I personally do not understand why you wouldn’t want to learn theory, musician and orchestration, but there are many composers who don’t and yet write powerful film music.

I believe having the ability to do a chordal analysis of music is very valuable. I loved the Crowded House song called Amsterdam (listening to it now) and it made me feel something in the chorus. Heartbreak. Yearning. So I thought “must be a lot of minor chords” right? Nope. SO MANY MAJOR CHORDS! Happy chords, right? It was the combination of major and minor that made it so emotional, so heartbreaking, so……I don’t even know what to call it, people. It kills me. Makes my heart feel all the weird things and then starts chopping onions. Gets me every freakin’ time! And once I figured out what it was then I liked it even more. Didn’t steal the magic, just gave me the keys to create that magical sound when I wanted to.

I want to know as much as I can about music because I love it. Because I do it for a living and want as many tools in my toolbox as I can fit. But at the end of the day the thing that keeps me in business is writing something that makes my filmmaker cry. (If they’re supposed to cry – if they are supposed to laugh then….well, time to revise aggressively!)

This final cue for the film All Things Hidden came to me in a moment. I got it, I ran to the studio and out it came. It is, I think, pretty simple, and when I composed it the thought of keys, chordal analysis and clefs could not have been further from my mind. I could hear in my head what the sound was and I managed to get it out on the page. All I thought about was Dannie, driving around and coming to terms with what she had just relived. She was ready to find healing, acknowledge her horrific past, and move forward. She was finally ready for the metamorphosis. My filmmaker, Persephone Vandegrift, listened to it the very next hour in a noisy pub on her phone and started crying. If you can do that, then you have a chance to be a successful film composer. You can read more about Persephone’s experience working with me as a composer here.

P.S. This post barely covers the musical aspect of being a film composer but there is even more to consider. You are a small business owner, an entrepreneur.  You have to hustle and network to find gigs. You have to be able to learn and master the technological aspects of the gig – so much more to cover in forthcoming posts. Stay tuned!

Who is Catherine Grealish?

Catherine Grealish has been a film and game composer since 2010. She has scored many films, a number of them award-winning and she won the Independent Music Popular Voice Award for Best Soundtrack for the score to the short All Things Hidden. Find out more about her work at her website or IMDB page.

A Note from the Music Department

filmcomposercatherine:

Here’s my blog post for the game I am scoring with fellow composer Eric Nielsen. Enjoy!

Originally posted on ZeroPoint Studios:

Catherine Grealish here, composer and co-producer of Ancient Aliens: Severed Skies.

I am very excited to be co-scoring ZeroPoint Studios’ premiere game with fellow composer and dear friend Eric Nielsen.

It is always great to have the opportunity to work on a fun game with a great team of Indie developers but there are two major reasons why we’re particularly excited to be working with ZeroPoint Studios.

Firstly, we were brought on very early in the timeline. This way we had time to workshop and develop ideas and receive feedback while everything else was also being developed. It has made the scoring process a lot more organic and we really feel like part of the team. Often you are brought in so late to a game that it is a mad dash to the finish line. The concept of bringing composers in at the beginning was reaffirmed the other day when…

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Eyes Forward

“Fix your eyes forward on what you can do, not back on what you cannot change.”
Tom Clancy

One thing I am so grateful for is to be part of a fantastic composer community. When I launched into composing as a full-time career in Seattle, one of the first things I did was join the Seattle Composers Alliance. There I met many great composers who became dear friends. Their generous sharing of knowledge and their friendship played a great part in helping me become the composer I am today.

When I moved to LA I joined the Society of Composers and Lyricists, became an active part of the Academy of Scoring Arts, an administrator at SCOREcast and attended the LA Scoring Salon as often as possible. I also met composers through my PRO ASCAP. It is such a blessing to have these talented peers and mentors in my life. However……

(Get ready for the big “but” people, because here it is!)

Comparison.

The timeless art of lining up your actions and achievements against that of your peers and inevitably falling short. It is such a killer! You are doing your thing, working away, and then you see that tweet or that facebook update of a peer. They are excited to share with you the movie they just landed, their game that is now on Steam, the award they just received, or the red carpet they just sashayed down.

Suddenly what you are doing seems pointless. “Why isn’t that me? I should be doing something like that!” you say to yourself. An hour or three later you realize you have just spent a big chunk of time worrying about your direction and consequently you have not only wasted time, but you now feel depressed and are so paralyzed with fear and regret that you don’t want to work anymore. All hope of productivity has left the premises and you are now feeling useless.

You know what I am talking about, right? Tell me you’ve been here…

Comparison has always been a killer, but in the event of social media I think it is even more challenging to avoid. I spend more time than I should on Facebook and Twitter and in that time I cannot avoid seeing all the accomplishments of my fellow creatives. I try my best to be happy for them. They are, after all, awesome at what they do and absolutely deserve success when it finally finds them. So: what to do?

Click Like. Favorite that tweet and move on. Keep your eyes forward, my friends. Remember that your story is unique. The way you find success will likely be very different to the path of your friends. The question you should be asking is not “why aren’t I doing that?” It should be: “What is my plan?” “What are my goals?” “Am I on track to achieve the taks I have outlined for myself?”

A healthy question to ask in response to seeing the success of your friends is “If I want to get to that point, am I taking the appropriate steps?” Spend time reevaluating your path. Maybe walk through your progress with a mentor and receive and utlize their feedback. But then move on.

Eyes forward, my friends. Keep walking your path. Acknowledge the fear rising from your belly. Breath out the anxiety, breath in some fresh air, and get to work.

Catherine Grealish is a composer for film, games and anything else she can get her hands on. She is currently scoring the feature-length doc The Art of Walking Barefoot, the horror short Red Red and the video games Ancient Aliens by ZeroPoint Studios and The Hole Story by Learn District. Find out more about Catherine here.

Who do you want to be?

It seems like an obvious question, right?  However, I think answering this question can lead to some positive life changes, if you consider the answer. If you do take the time to think it through, I believe the follow up question that will quickly become apparent is: am I that person right now? I know I’m not. There are plenty of things I want to change. But as a result of asking myself this question many times over, the good news is I know I am on the path to becoming that person. It won’t happen overnight, and I will probably let myself down a number of times during the transformation, but I will pick myself up and continue because I am most definitely on my way. That’s exciting.

There are many things that can make us feel we are trapped. But we never are. There are so many times a day we make choices. What we need to do is to start paying attention to what we are doing, what we are saying and how we are spending our time.

One of the worst feelings in the world is feeling powerless. Some days I feel overwhelmed by my circumstances. I know I am not alone.  When that happens I grab the nearest piece of paper and I start making lists. I document what I need to do to get through. What I can do to turn it around. I outline a plan of attack. Just thinking it through and considering my options immediately makes me feel a bit better and a lot more empowered.

There is always something you can do. I feel like now more than ever there are many more ways to achieve where you want to go. This is the era of the entrepreneur. Just because you don’t have that degree or you didn’t study with that teacher, you don’t live in the ultimate location or have received that particular job experience does not mean you can’t do it.

Let me get a bit more real here: I am a film, game and media composer. But when I launched into this as a full-time career I felt like I came to the game too late as I was already in my 30s. That’s when I started my new favorite hobby: collecting stories. It is amazing to see the many different ways composers have found their way to success. Some were classically trained. Some can’t read music. Some were mentored by Hans Zimmer at Remote Control. Some were never mentored by any big name and instead had relationships with new directors and they rose to success together. So many ways to achieve the same goal! Maybe the way I “make it” will be completely unique. I hope so because then my story may perhaps inspire someone else on their way up.

Continuing my story: after recieving advice from many people in the business I decided that moving to LA would provide me many more opportunities to be successful in my field. But I couldn’t move straight away. It took another 2 years for it to become feasable. Becoming who you want to be and achieving your goals will most probably be a long term deal. But in that time I found ways right where I was to continue becoming a better composer and honing my skill set. There has to be something you can do right now to get better and closer to your goasl. What is it? Are you doing it yet?

Why am I writing all this? Because while you may not need to hear all this “rah rah rah”, I do! I am in LA. I made it through that milestone.  Things are going well and I see the progress. Yet I still have a long journey ahead of me and a lot more milestone to check off the list. But I know where I am going. I have a clear idea of how to get to there. The more I ask myself these questions, the more determined I become. Every day provides a fresh opportunity for me to be more like the person I want to be.

Catherine Grealish is a film, game and media composer based in Los Angeles. She is currently scoring the feature-length documentary The Art of Walking Barefoot and scoring the video game Ancient Aliens. Check out more about her work here.

Are you a Professional or an Amateur?

If you have read my previous blog posts you would have read me rave (at least once) about Steven Pressfield’s book The War of Art. This book helped me embrace the fact that I needed to be a composer. To that point I had been going after a “shadow career” (one of his very apt terms) as a music teacher but my soul knew that it wasn’t going to cut it. I needed to make a change. And I did! That was 2010.

I am still a work in progress; very imperfect and still very young in my career as a composer. I have been scoring full time since 2010 and in LA since late 2012. There is still A LOT for me to learn! I read a great article recently on how you reach certain plateaus in your creative life and I have been feeling it the last few weeks. I think the best way to put it is that, creatively, I have been feeling flat. Not enjoying the plateau, at all.

As you may know, I run a meetup for creatives on the 2nd Tuesday of every month in Los Angeles called the Film, Music and Media Happy Hour. Not only do I love creating an environment for people to connect and creative community, I also love providing the extra incentive of cool door prizes. Who doesn’t like a raffle? So I have been keeping my eye out for great gifts for creatives. On a whim I reached out to Steven Pressield for a signed copy of “The War of Art”, a book I fervently believe every creative should read. Not only did he respond to my email immediately, he also delivered with a box of books! The box included 3 copies of The War of Art, Turning Pro and The Authentic Swing.

Turning Pro literally yelled at me from the box: “READ ME”. Just the words in the title confimed what had been sneaking around my conciousness: we need to turn a corner. We need to make a change.

I am not going to do a full on book report because, like War of Art, this is a quick and easy book to read. You just need to get it and spend a few hours with it. Believe me, it is worth it. My husband read it today. He wants to re-read it tomorrow but ultimately that will depend on whether I am re-reading it……

What I do want to do is tell you about the changes I want to make to fully embrace the Professional existance. They aren’t earth shattering but I think, for me, they will make a huge difference.

For some reason, I hate making good habits. There is a rebel in me that just wants to fight that for some illogical reason. I often will stay up late just because I love it and I remember when I wasn’t allowed to. Now I can! So take that Tomorrow Catherine who needs to wake up early tomorrow: FAIL. Why would I not be nice to my tomorrow self and get some rest?!

Well, that Rebel Catherine has had her time. Now it is the era of Professional Catherine having her shot. I am going to create good habits. One of these habits will be that when I am composing, I won’t be checking FB, email, twitter etc. I will take the necessary steps to create a focused working environment. free of distractions, so I can Engage, have a chance to enter a Flow state and do some great work. Or not great work. Doesn’t matter: I will be setting myself up for success.

I feel a little more comfortable blogging this to you because today I worked as a professional and engaged in distraction-free composing. I composed for 6 hours with a short lunch break and time zoomed by. Now I am thoroughly enjoying a glass of wine and episodes of Season 10 of Project Runway because I feel Good. I created great music in a focused productive environment today and as a result I am relaxing free of shame and guilt. It is Amazing People. You should try it!

I am working on a few other professional habits: consistent practice on the two instruments I love (piano and violin). Consistent studying. Consistent  exercising. (Remember the Pricess Bride? “If you haven’t got your health, then you haven’t got anything.”) I am sick of feeling guilty about not doing these things and I am tired of worrying that I won’t fulfil my true potential. If this is all there is, then one must give it everything.

I hope these words are helpful. It is humbling to tell you just how lame my previous creative habits have been. I always justified them to myself (“But I get a lot of work from clients from FB!” True, but even so: Focus & Engage. DO IT NOW!) However, if I want to get off this plateau and make the next climb, something needs to change, and I am confident this is it.

Happy creating, my friends. I really hope you read Pressfield’s books. I am confident you will be inspired and find a way to become a Professional, the way your soul so longs to be.

Find Your People

You want to be an Artist. A Creative. You have a calling……and it isn’t just whispering, it is yelling at you! It’s time. DO IT!

Now what? My suggestion: don’t go it alone.

The one thing I seem to come across way too much in the creative world is isolated artists. People who are battling away by themselves trying to realize their creative vision. That’s what I tried to do when I first emigrated to the US. I wanted to be a Jazz singer but didn’t know how to find like-minded people.  I took some singing lessons (not even in the Jazz genre!) briefly visited a few Jazz clubs and gradually became more and more frustrated until I stopped altogether and gave up for a while. I didn’t know where to look and I was overcome with discouragement. As you know that wasn’t the end of my creative journey (just the beginning really!) but for some it can be. Isolation can be devestating.

While creating art generally does require being by yourself for long periods of time, allotting some time to be with like-minded people can really help you stay the course. Finding a group of people you trust and who are not only doing similar work, but can give feedback on your work, can help reduce the crazy we all experience as we are trying to honour the muse. Remember 1920s Paris, all those authors, artists and musicians hanging out together? Don’t you think the community they created helped them achieve those works of literature, art and music that we now treasure?

When I decided to become a film composer I was living in Seattle, WA. The first thing I did was discover and join the Seattle Composers’ Aliance. I didn’t just go as a voyeur. I jumped in, joined the board and actively participated in what they had going on. Secondly, I found the networking event where all the local indie filmmakers got together every month and I attended religiously. But I didn’t just attend: I talked to everyone. When I heard about someone who was really doing well I emailed them and asked them out for coffee. I also joined Women In Film, joined the board and volunteered at events. I wanted to connect because I knew it was a major step in moving forward with this new and beloved vocation.

Is talking to strangers at a networking event awkward and nerve wracking? YES! Even for an extrovert like me. Some days I just didn’t want to deal with it. But because I stuck with it I got my first gigs in the business and made industry relationships that are still alive and well today. In the process I also found some dear friends. Quick Networking tip: don’t go and talk about yourself. Go and listen! Ask questions!! Be interested in what projects the other person has going on. This is the best way to network.

Once upon a time it was a lot harder to find like-minded people to hang with. But now it is easier, especially thanks to Meetup.com. This is a great place to start finding like-minded people. Also reaching out to organizations such as the the Academy of Scoring Arts, the Alliance for Women Film ComposersSCOREcastWomen in Film,  or the Society of Composers and Lyricists or something similar in your area and your field of interest. Become a member and show up at events. Here’s the thing: if at all possible, don’t just reach out virtually. Go there in person. Build relationships in person. Spend time every month in the same room as fellow creatives. I am positive it will buoy you, especially when you are going through a dry spell.

One more story before I wrap this up: I have a dear friend, Ron Jones, who has dedicated a lot of time over the last few years to build a community for composers. When I first decided to move to LA, I would travel down from LA to network and I tried to make sure it was when Ron’s Ravel Group was happening. He brings a bunch of composers together, they study music, a guest gives a presentation and then everyone has pizza and “spaghettios” (as Ron refers to it) and talks to one other. I have experienced first hand how wonderful this gathering is. As a result, when I finally moved to LA two years later, I knew I had a whole family of composers to hang with. I knew I wasn’t alone and, believe me, when you move to LA you don’t want to move here alone. This city will chew you up and spit you out if you’re alone. But If you have your people, it is a whole lot more bearable. I host my own meetup for folks in film, music and media – I hope you will check it out if you are in town.

If you don’t live in LA and can’t come to the cool stuff I mentioned, and if Meetup.com doesn’t have any gatherings in your area, I have a really crazy suggestion: why don’t you start your own group? Why don’t you be the Ron Jones for the artists or actors or musicians or poets in your area. Having a community can be a saving grace for lonely creatives. Make it happen!

Catherine Grealish is a composer for film, media and games. She is currently scoring the feature-length documentary The Art of Walking Barefoot, the short film Dating Stories and the video game Ancient Aliens. Catherine would love to hear from you so please be in touch!