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!

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.

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!

Cheers,
Catherine

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.

Epilogue
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.