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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!

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.”

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.

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.

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