You have recently become an online professor for the new Berklee Masters in Film Scoring Program. Can you tell us what you are teaching and how you are balancing this with your composing schedule?
I was approached about being a part of this program a while ago while it was still in development. I enthusiastically came on board because I have always had a desire to help people who are earlier in their composing careers and pass along with any knowledge and experience I have. I wrote, and now teach, a course called Professional Film Scoring Skills II that appears in the later part of the program. It is a course that helps students explore how to build your composing “business” and to see oneself as a business entity and not just a creative artist. In order to survive and have long careers, we all must adopt this mentality. The course explores topics such as marketing, image, online interaction, business plans, reels, diversifying income streams, professional ethics, hiring a team, working on a team, efficient workflows, exploring one’s strengths and weaknesses, and work-life balance. It has been a joy to teach so far and I look forward to continuing this part of my professional life for some time. It can certainly be a challenge to balance teaching with my composing work, but thankfully, I do not teach full-time which allows me flexibility. Teaching is actually a welcome reprieve from creative work when I feel creatively spent and overloaded, teaching and interacting with students is a wonderful break as it uses a completely different side of the brain. As many teachers will attest, I learn from my students as well which often creates positive feedback and energy into my own professional life.
You have worked with some high-profile composers in Los Angeles. What are the most important lessons you learned during your tenure and would you advise aspiring composers to go the assistant route as well?
I am deeply grateful for my time working for and learning from high-profile composers and I am equally grateful that I no longer do this sort of work full-time. I learned an incredible amount of valuable lessons while being a composer’s assistant, scoring manager, and additional music composer, but it is hugely demanding. I see this type of work as a sort of practical, unofficial “PhD” in film composing. I did it for five years and most folks I know who have done similar work usually cap out at around the same amount of time unless they have a unique relationship with their composer boss. I would not know most of what I know now without my time in the trenches. It fast-tracked me to being able to more confidently set off on my own and make my own composing career my primary professional focus. However, I am so thankful to be on my own forging my own path sink-or-swim! I still write additional music for a few composers occasionally on a contracted basis and I do occasionally work as a consultant for other composers looking to maximize their teams and systems, but these are on my own terms and things I can say no to if I’m too busy with my own work. Here are a few practical things to keep in mind for anyone looking to do such work. Each person must make the decision whether this type of work is right for their career based on their own personal goals. • Walk into a job working for a busy composer with your eyes wide open. Know that it will likely be very demanding in terms of time, hours, effort, and stress. You will likely not make a huge amount of money in these types of jobs. • Do not lose sight of your own career goals and revisit them often as they may change over time. When you work for someone else it is easy to get sucked into their own careers as that is literally what you are hired to do: support their career. Try your best to always keep your own projects, at least on the back burner, and network and build your own relationships. You usually won’t leave your boss’s employ with a lot of clients. You must find these on your own. Don’t neglect this as you will be at a loss when you try to get your own career going full-time. • Know your rights. Do not accept abusive treatment or even subtle dehumanizing behavior from your boss or coworkers. Know the legal rights, but also stand up for your own human rights whenever you can in smart ways. Sometimes pushing back against a bad work environment subtly, but firmly yields the most results, but sometimes a work environment is so toxic it is beyond repair. Use your own good judgement and act accordingly. Find out as much as you can about a job from the potential employer and other current and former employees before you take the job. • Remember that a composer’s team can be a fishbowl. It is not reality. Every composer works differently. Don’t feel like you are stuck working a certain way. Eat the grapes and spit out the seeds. Keep the good lessons and plan on doing things differently for the future when you encounter any practices that you dislike. • Read books about managing people, working on a team, working with people, etc. Most of your colleagues and bosses will never do this. You will have an advantage. Two I recommend are Give and Take by Adam Grant and Work Rules! by Laszlo Bock.
As a gender equality advocate, you were part of the first The Future Is Female concert. What did that experience mean to you?
At the time of writing this, that concert was about three-and-a-half years ago so I’ve had some time to reflect on the experience. The concert was important to me personally because I had never participated in anything of the sort before. To conduct my own music with a live orchestra for an audience was euphoric and extremely nerve-wracking. It pushed me forward and I proved to myself I could do something on that level. The concert came at a time when I was transitioning from working for another composer to pursuing my own composing career full-time. It was a great way to propel me into a new season. I am still grateful to Tori Letzler for including me in that first group of amazing women. I also loved that the premise of the concert (and the subsequent one) was to showcase amazing talent and display voices in media scoring not often heard. Personally, I advocate for equality of opportunity not forcing equality of outcome when it comes to pursuing greater diversity in media composing. This concert was a great way to contribute to this goal. I got work from this concert and I know a few of the other women did as well. Lifting up and amplifying the amazing music and names of people who are not often heard from is such a powerful statement and is often very effective in contributing for a more equitable industry.
When writing music for a movie, what is your creative process? Where do you find inspiration and ideas, and how do you best communicate your vision with the filmmakers?
My answer to this could change based on the project I’m working on and what the client is looking for. I have been blessed to work on so many musically diverse projects that when a client is looking for something different, weird, or even something not in my wheelhouse, my response is usually, “hell yeah let’s do it.” I might go into my studio right afterward and have a stress breakdown, but I almost always manage to find my way to the unique sound for a particular project. When trying to find the sound of a project, I do a fair amount of research and listening to references. At a certain point, probably when my subconscious creative mind kicks in, I abandon that altogether and start messing around. Much of my messing around is creating new sounds, writing melodies, getting weird with plugins and synths, and basically playing until there is a “YES” moment when a sound clicks in that feels like that particular film or show. I am also not a purist and I openly admit I do not know how to do everything. If I am writing something orchestral, I hire the best orchestrators (or sometimes mockup artists) to help me get the sound right. If a project is synth and sound design heavy, I might hire an amazing synth designer to collaborate with on some great patches. I was once on a project that suddenly shifted to need a hip-hop sound and I immediately called in a close friend who writes incredible beats and is an amazing producer. I didn’t even try to tackle that one on my own. The collaboration is part of the process for me when I feel stuck. The product almost always ends up much better than if I could have stuck it out solo.
What is some of the best advice you have for aspiring film composers?
Know yourself • Know your goals. Revisit them. Rewrite them. Stick to the path of pursuing them. • Know your ethics. Stand up for them. If you do not have an ethical framework for your life, the industry will make one for you. • Know your musical voice. This may take time, but stand firm in it as you discover it. Openly celebrate it. This is the exciting spark people will hire you for. • Know that your value is far far greater than anything you could achieve as a film composer.
Interview by Anne-Kathrin Dern
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