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.

 

 

2015: A Great Year of Film & Music

Hi Friends,

Happy Holidays! I am sorry I have not been in touch for a while – a long while – and I will be communicating moving forward at least once a quarter.

There is so much to tell you about!

2015 was a crazy year. It started with a bang when I found out that I was the composer for the documentary Gold Balls. I had been hoping to land that project for a few months as I think it is a fantastic story and I am a big fan of the director, Kate Dandel, and her vision. Gold Balls is a documentary about five contenders for the National Championship in tennis. And they’re all over age 80. It is a story about individuals who are filled with passion and refuse to be sidelined by aging. Now that 2015 is almost over the film is almost complete. I am thrilled with the score. I had the opportunity to work with great live players and create some really fun life-filled music.

Around the same time I started scoring the very important documentary Speaking of Dying, a film about community-based end-of-life planning as pioneered by chaplain and facilitator Trudy James. This project has gone on to be seen by so many people around the states, helping them begin the conversation about end of life and prepare for a good death. I know it sounds morbid, it is a hard thing to discuss, but such an important thing all the same.

At the beginning of February I jumped on a plan to Tasmania to spend three weeks of quality time with my family. The hour before my plane arrived in Hobart my dad had a terrible accident and as soon as I landed I went to the hospital. My time at home was very different than expected but I was so thankful to be there during such a hard time. Despite fractured vertebrae and a collapsed lung, My dad was recovering well when I left but then my mother had to have spinal surgery two weeks after I arrived back in the US. Then my dad needed more minor surgery to aid in his recovery. It was such a brutal time but we received so much support from friends near and far. I feel closer to my family than ever, despite still being far away. Family and friendship is an incredibly precious thing.

When I arrived home it was full steam ahead on so many wonderful projects. This year I scored the documentaries Gold Balls and Speaking of Dying, the horror feature The Basement and reworked my score on the ongoing feature drama Scapegoat. I scored some amazing shorts, notably the LA production Toxic Temptation, written and directed by Tatum Miranda, which had wall-to-wall score and was recorded with amazing LA musicians from the Helix Collective. I had the same opportunity with the short Zombie which I scored through the Helix Collective’s Live Score Festival. I was paired with a great filmmaker and created a score for his film which was performed live in downtown LA and then recorded at SpeakEasy Studios. Such an awesome experience. The fantastic bi-lingual short Pearl, written and directed by Amy Sedgewick, has been traveling around the world winning many awards including Best short at both Mexico International Film festival and Madrid International film festival. Other great shorts I had the honour of scoring were Dirty Laundry, written and directed by Jessica Martin, Baby Steps directed by Ty Huffer and Painted Mara directed by Jo Vernon. I also wrote a song for the multi-award winning short Come Away with Me directed by Ellen Gerstein. The song was performed by American Idol alum Hollie Cavanagh.

I have also had some other interesting projects to work on. I recently finished doing the string arrangements for Tatum Miranda‘s hip hop album that will be released in 2016. I had the honor of working with some phenomenal string players and it was so interesting and rewarding to work strings into great songs with awesome melodies, vocals and beats. It was one of the highlights of my career thus far. I continued to work on the web series Capitol Hill in collaboration with another great composer and friend, Morgan Pearse. I scored the Traffic Genie project for the City of Seattle. The traffic genie will help you figure out the traffic in downtown Seattle, while accompanied by my music! I also scored the Girls Make Games video game The Hole Story, now out on STEAM and Itch.io and started scoring the Gaming Colts video game Alicorn Princess Blast. I also have been working on co-writing and co-producing an EP for singer-songerwriter Christia Crocker.

In addition to doing all of my own projects I continue to work for composers Jason Staczek, Miriam Cutler, Alex Shapiro and Laura Karpman. I am so thankful that I get to assist these wonderful established composers. I continue to learn so much. In exciting news: at the end of 2014/beginning of 2015 I did the music prep for Miriam’s score for the acclaimed documentary The Hunting Ground. The film is now short-listed for oscar nomination and Miriam’s score is also a contender for nomination. It has been incredible to be a small part of such an important doc. You should check out Lady Gaga’s song that she contributed to the film, it is beautiful.

Feel free to have a listen to some of the music I created this year on my Taste of 2015 playlist. You can see some photos from it here.

Thank you for your continued support. I am overwhelmed by the love and appreciation I receive from you. Here’s to a great 2016 for us all!

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.

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