Writing music professionally is a hard occupation, and writing for media definitely not for the fainthearted. One has to be able to enjoy the pain, in order to be able to carry on successfully. I think one of the hardest things to deal with, working as a composer involved in media, is the anxiety that comes from being in quite a vulnerable position.
Dealing with anxiety
Worries come to us from many different sides. Going for interviews about possible assignments can be nerve-wracking; getting a job comes with the sudden realisation one has to sit down and produce something that will convince the director, and on bigger projects not just the director, but producers have to be convinced too, and test audiences, and not infrequently even financiers. Submitting every single cue can start feeling like an exam one has to pass.
At all stages there is an invisible sword hanging on the composer’s head, that if anything goes wrong, the only thing that can be replaced at late stages in the post-production is the music. A test screening going badly can seriously jeopardise the job, even if the score might not be the immediate culprit. Stressed directors make for stressed composers, and it is very common to end up having to shoulder not just one’s own insecurities, but those of the director as well.
Having big shoulders would definitely help, but it’s hard to have them at the beginning of your career. And, to be brutal, it’s hard to have them consistently in all situations, full stop (unless you are an extremely insensitive and arrogant person: but it’s unlikely you would be a composer, if that was the case). Even after having worked on many movies and projects, there’s no guarantee that your next project won’t find you in a situation you had not encountered before, where anxiety comes from some unexpected place.
If there were tips for dealing with stress and anxiety, I really wish someone could have given them to me when I was starting. It would have made for a healthier trajectory through my career, and perhaps one that could have been more enjoyable.
Is there anything that I can offer, from where I am now, twenty-five years after my first movie? Here is a list of what at different times has helped me overcoming some tough obstacles, or at least coping with defeat.
Do your best (but don’t forget your family)
What more could you do, than your damn best? On a really tough project, once you have tried all you are capable of you have to sit and take what comes without blaming yourself if it does not work.
The really tricky balance is when your family is exposed to your stress. You need to let them know that you are getting through some hard work, and that’s not going to be forever. Ask them to be patient and make sure you are there for them when it’s over.
Remember you can only do what you can do
You cannot be other composers. It’s hard enough to be yourself. Stay true to the music. This is easily said, but hard to do. Focus on the detail of the music instead of the overall style, until anxiety recedes in the background, and you are not able to pay attention to it because you are too engrossed in the detail of what you are doing. I hope you know what I mean.
Remember that what you are able to do right now is not the same as you might have been able to do in the past, or that someone else than you might be able to do. Don’t beat yourself up if you can’t write again the piece you find in the temp (even if it’s one of your own pieces!) It’s not possible, it has already been written. Some directors will find hard to understand this, but it is fundamentally their problem. Do not blame yourself for this. Keep writing.
Keep engaged in dialogue throughout
At times, the stress becomes crippling, and it’s difficult to see through to the next step. Talk to your director; try keeping the communication open both ways; ask for help for possible ways around a particular obstacle; try different approaches to a scene; do not lose sight of the fact that you are building something together with other people, not in a vacuum. When you find yourself isolated, you start feeling like you are working on your own to produce some offerings for an unpredictable god; you become more isolated and stressed. Your director is your mate, your travel companion, hopefully able to guide you, but in need of guidance as well, occasionally.
This is a strange one, but really important. TALK TO THE EDITOR OF THE PROJECT
They are your best friend. They will spend every working hour thinking about the project, knowing the director’s mind better than anyone else. Having the editor on your side is invaluable, and they might be able to forewarn you of possible pitfalls before you put your foot wrong. An editor deals with pacing and structure, trying to enhance emotion and create a sense of forward flow. That, when you think about it, is exactly what a composer does as well. Editing is the closest relative of composing. Don’t get on the editor’s wrong side.
When all else fails:
What is the worse thing that can happen to you? Let’s face it, it can and does happen. You can get fired. It is hard, when it happens, but living with the fear that it might happen while you are working, is actually worse. Once you make peace with the fact that it can absolutely happen, and that if it does it won’t change who you are as a person, you can start finding ways to deal with the worry. It’s simply a fact of life, as many others, not completely under your control. Accept it for what it is: a job hazard. Getting hurt now and then will hopefully make more resilient, if not immune, and will help with the next one.