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I started film composing around six years ago, apparently. Facebook reminded me of that yesterday. The ‘On This Day’ feature popped up a photo of my “studio” February 2010. It must have been right after we bought my mac desktop and loaded up my new film composing software (Digital Performer) and a few synths and orchestral libraries. As you can see I have everything set up on the dining room table, right across the breakfast bar from the kitchen. What is the saying? “Curse not the day of small beginnings.”

Studio Then and Now

I remember being all excited to dive right in and then almost immediately being stalled, struggling so bad because I couldn’t even get the metronome to work. THE METRONOME! My ego was bruised (“But I am So Good with computers!!!) and I was fearful of all the hard work that lay ahead. However, I acquired some expert help. I kept working, kept learning and here I am today.

The last six years have been interesting. Thankfully I made some decisions early on that have paid off down the line. The main driving force behind the decisions was the idea of investment. I was painfully aware at the beginning that even though I believed I was good at the craft (and getting better every day) I had few credits and no years of experience specifically in film scoring. But everyone starts at the bottom, so I decided to look for people who were at the same place at me but were most definitely going places.

How do you tell? I have no crystal ball, I assure you. Here’s what I look out for: do I like the project? Does it have legs? Do the meetings feel productive and exciting? Good vibes and happy feelings go a long way: we’re working in the arts after all. Other things: organization. Good communication skills. Lack of flakiness. Invoices paid on time. Happy cast and crew. And remember: if they are good, they are watching you for all the same things. Are you delivering on time? Are you easy to work with? Are you putting out a good product? This is definitely a two-way street and there’s not point investing in them if they never want to work with you again.

So: what if the project doesn’t have legs? What if the director is a flash in the pan? Should you not take the gig? Or if you do, should you feel bad about it? Nope. There is someone else you must always invest in: you. One way we invest is making good music, and it is even better if we get paid to do it, right? I take gigs that are low paying or potentially will go no where simply because it gets me off my arse and writing music and getting paid to do it. I always make sure to retain full ownership of the music, that is key. Then something you got paid only $100 for you can now reuse and keep making more and more money off it. In addition to cold hard cash there is experience, credits, and relationships with that other person on the crew that clearly will be working on better projects very soon.

The most important thing to do in this business is to have a long term view. The life of a film composer, or an actor, or a writer, is all about being relentless. Hanging in there. Not giving up and continually finding ways to survive while simultaneously creating and innovating. Everything you do should have a place in your overall game plan of making it; making an enjoyable existence in your field. Note: it is OK that the game plan this month is different than last month. That is all part of evolving and learning.

So: happy investing, people. Invest in yourself and find other people in your field that are equally worthy. I’d love to hear your stories of your investments paying off! The thing that is exciting about my career right now is that people I invested in at the beginning of our careers are now coming back with bigger budgets and cooler projects and they still want to work with me. It is amazing and incredibly gratifying. I wish the very same for you.

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Part 1: My Response to Losing Heroes

We were finishing up watching the Golden Globes and looking around twitter when my husband showed me the post that had just showed up on both Bowie’s FB and Twitter. My stomach dropped into my toes but we assured each other it was just another celebrity death hoax. But an hour later it was clear: Bowie was gone. It was unbelievable. A few days later I awoke to the news of Alan Rickman’s passing, also cancer. He was one of my all time favorite actors, I was so sad. Both of these on the heels of losing Lemmy. And then the news of Glenn Frey. Today I read the sad news that a local musician and music teacher had been suddenly killed in a horrific car accident, the result of street racing. These are crazy times, and when you review everything happening in such close succession it is overwhelming.

At this point I have to find a way to take this heart breaking information and turn it into something positive in my life. It is too easy to just dissolve in grief and fear of my own impending finale. What to do? Well I have nothing earth shattering to announce. You know the answer: Just Do It. Do the thing you want to do.

Bowie left us after releasing his 25th album. Moreover, everything he put out was something fresh. An incredible innovator, he continuously reinvented himself, pushing past the last boundary he had created. Amazing.

One my mentor’s recently lost her partner of 2 decades to cancer. She exclaimed  to me the other day “Every day you are cancer free you should be celebrating!” and it is so true. So often we need a wake up call. A brush with death, loss of someone close to us, hitting rock bottom. Hopefully as we face the new year these great losses will be enough to get us up and creating.

However, deciding to make a change is just the first step. How to you maintain the momentum beyond that first push is extremely challenging. This has been the subject of much thought on my part and will be the subject matter for my next blog post.

Coming soon, stay tuned!

2016: Work The Problem

Welcome to 2016. I have to say, I am feeling optimistic about this year. Last year was challenging for a lot of reasons. To be candid, I feel I walked through the fire and I am glad to be on the other side. Along the way I learned so many lessons and through doing so gained some great problem-solving skills to tuck into my tool belt.

Over this holiday season I watched two great shows which really inspired me for 2016. One was The Martian – finally, I know, late to the party. And the other was The Long Way Round which we have already watched a number of times, but it is always a wonderful viewing experience.

The Martian is all about problem-solving. Matt Damon is stranded on Mars and finds a way to continue surviving and communicate with the outside world all while being completely isolated and alone. It’s awesome. My favorite moment was when he was so close to being rescued but there was a problem with how his little spacecraft was going to intersect with the spaceship of his colleagues. The Captain listens to everyone stating all the issues and then she says “work the problem, people.” Love it. I hope to hear her voice in my head all year. Reminds me of Project Runway’s designer mentor Tim Gunn and his mantra: “Make it work”. I repeat it to myself when battling away on a challenging cue.

The Martian is a great sci-fi story with wonderful lessons and great adventure, but it is fiction. If you want to experience a real life lesson in working the problem, watch Long Way Round. Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman took on the challenge to ride motorbikes the long way round the world, through Europe, Russia, Siberia, Alaska and Canada.

This documentary series is full of challenges from the very beginning. Even though they had substantial financial resources, many of their problems were a result of mother nature, or red tape or time and could not have been resolved with money. It was great seeing them work through every issue. Sometimes it required asking for help, even though that was uncomfortable or embarrassing due to foreign cultures and languages. Sometimes it required patience. The only option was to stop and wait it out. Sometimes it required getting really creative. But every issue had to be faced and tackled. There was just no other option, literally no where else to go.

Watching Long Way Round I felt like the longer they were on the journey the more they trusted the problem-solving process. Their confidence grew even as the level of difficulty increased. The panic was replaced by patience. It was beautiful.

My goal this year is to openly face the challenges that come my way, and I am sure there will be a few. There always is, right? I want to approach them with the quiet confidence that I can work the problem. I pledge to first breathe, then be creative, patient and to ask for help when I need it, even if it makes me uncomfortable. I don’t want to go into this year scared of impending challenges, I want to embark on this new adventure believing that I have what it takes to work through every one.

 

 

Say Yes

Sorry I have been so absent from writing. It has been a crazy year and 2016 is just around the corner. This year has been incredibly busy for me, almost to the point of being overwhelmed. But not quite, for reasons I will go into as we progress.

If you are a composer, or just someone with intellectual curiosity, listen to a panel with Mark Isham. He is very honest and transparent about his process. This is when I heard the first convincing argument for Yes. Isham would say no because he was busy with a project and then the project he was on would experience a timeline shift. Suddenly: you have no work. You say yes, and then when you get too busy you hire people. Genius.

A great way to get started in any business is being one of those people who step in when they get busy. Even though I am a ‘fully-fledged composer’ I work for more established composers when they get busy. You cannot buy that kind of education. In fact, you’re getting paid to learn! You get to see them work on the kind of projects that you hope to score, see their process and workflow. It is brilliant. I am so thankful for the time I spend assisting others, no matter how humble the work, because the information and mentorship is precious.

I am getting to the stage that on some of my projects I can bring on people to assist me. There is nothing better than hiring people you love to work with you on projects. It is my goal to be able to do this more and more. It feels great, and it makes me feel like I am putting good thankful energy back into the universe, hopefully help others like I have been helped.

Why are you saying no? Sometimes we say no for the right reasons: it is  not a good project, or you don’t vibe with the creative team. But sometimes it is because we haven’t done that particular thing before and we’re a bit nervous. Not sure that failure is off the table. Failure is always on the table, people. But say yes.  Your yes will not only teach you new things, even if you screw it up (actually, especially if you screw it up) but maybe it will get you to the stage where your yes will help those who haven’t been on the journey as long.

One of my favorite writers is Neil Gaiman and he has many great things to say on the subject of a creative existence. With 2016 just around the corner, I’ll leave you with this gem from him:

“I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes. Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re doing something. So that’s my wish for you, and all of us, and my wish for myself. Make new mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before. Don’t freeze, don’t stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good enough, or it isn’t perfect, whatever it is: art, or love, or work or family or life. Whatever it is you’re scared of doing, do it. Make your mistakes, next year and forever.”

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.

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.