Heather Fenoughty: Quality of Life
In a recent Scorecast article I wrote that I’ve never turned composing work down that I honestly believe I have the time and the skills to work on.
That was about 2 months ago, right in the middle of practicing what I preached and jumping in the deep end with my organizational (=juggling) skills.
I was already working on several shows back-to-back with Slung Low, the awesome experimental theatre company that consistently attempts to push the boundaries of theatre whilst still remaining faithful to the notion of a story, a narrative structure. Fun stuff, and pretty well paid, working with lovely people, playing at very prestigious theatre houses. Ticked all the boxes.
I was also booked in solidly every single weekend and most Fridays to play in a string trio for weddings. Summer’s the busiest time for gigs and these were mostly booked in a year in advance. They are quite hard work and tiring, some of them quite far away and involving a lot of time spent travelling, but it’s very well paid and the people are, again, really lovely to work with. So this ticks some of the boxes.
I was teaching violin two nights a week too. Not very much mind, only totalling about 4 or 5 hours. This is something I’ve done for around 7 years now so it was easy work, for ok-ish pay and most of the students worked reasonably hard. One or two boxes ticked, but not high on my list of vocational priorities. The students didn’t seem to mind when I cancelled lessons for 2 to 3 weeks at a time to fit around composing, so I reasoned with myself that it was win-win.
But then… da da daaaah! A feature film comes along. A horror, low-but-doable-budget, produced and shot locally. A drama as well. I hadn’t done one of those before in feature-length form, a massive box to tick! The pay was very good, the story was fun, the director was a sound chap and we were definitely on the same wavelength when it came to the films and music we liked. Box ticking all round!
So I took on all this work, and I was hideously well-organised. I even delegated a few small elements of sound design and recording to specialists and other people wanting to get credits and a foot-on-the-ladder of working in film.
But I forgot to factor in any time off. At all. From July through to the beginning of August I worked solidly every day from 9 in the morning til at least 7 at night. Some mornings I started at 7am to fit in all of the composition alongside the playing, teaching and admin tasks.
Truth be told, I’ve never really had to factor it in time off before this year, it just sort of works itself out. There’ll a few days here and there between small projects where I can catch up on household chores, shop, kick back and read, go for walks, visit friends. So why would I need to schedule it in now?
I’m also a bit of a productivity freak. I like to think that my mind and body is essentially a machine: if I eat and drink right, all activities in moderation, keep my vulcan-logical-focussed head on, I can accomplish pretty much any task I’ve set myself. I don’t have kids so don’t need to worry about their needs, just me and my boyfriend (who’s a writer who keeps the same sort of freelance schedule as me, and is fantastically supportive and helpful when I’m busy busy busy).
But I think I may have pushed it too far. The first sign was where I actually got pretty sick of writing music and started to have fantasies about a 9 til 5, 5 days a week office job. You know. Weekends off, and all that sort of ridiculousness.
Actually that was a pretty glaring sign that something was up.
I still got the work done. I enjoyed it to a degree when I reminded myself how cool my job was. But it was a conscious effort – not a natural feeling that made me want to jump out of bed as soon as I woke up – to keep that in mind.
The work that I created was actually some of the coolest stuff I’ve written, but I only see that now looking back on it. At the time I, at moments, became so disenchanted that I couldn’t hear whether or not it was right for the cue, never mind good music.
My first day off after this session of busy busy busy was utter bliss. I took the opportunity to think about how my summer was spent. I’d written more music in a short amount of time than I ever had before. I’d several impressive credits to add to the resume. My bank balance looked happier and happier.
But I was absolutely shattered. Bushwacked. Dead-on-my-feet. And I’d developed some hideous RSI in my right hand from click click clicking that mouse all day long.
Something not quite right here.
A long hard look at my work commitments compared with my life priorities saw a few glaring clashes. Everything I do must lead to me writing music for a living. It’s the only job I’m ever completely happy and confident in. It’s the only career I can ever imagine doing in the long haul.
Which led in turn to a few tricky decisions. The first one was to quit teaching.
Though this wasn’t, surprisingly, as difficult as I first imagined it would be. Every student was happy for me, and also pleased that I’d found them alternative tuition that would be more consistent than they’d been getting all year from me. The teachers that I passed them onto all love teaching and it’s very much a vocation for them. All very amicable – score!
As has been said on here many times, film music scoring is a collaborative business, and if you’re going to make it, you’ll be doing it with the help of many people behind the scenes. I’m slowly but surely assembling a team of skilled freelance sound recordists, editors and designers – that really enjoy their work, and that the credits are useful to – that I can trust to take on those tasks when I’ve gotta get my head down on the score.
I’m also looking into making relationships with orchestrators, bigger recording facilities and contractors along with specialist instrumentalists, so that when it gets hectic again that team is ready in place and ready to go!
There are a couple of other decisions that I’ll have to deal with eventually, but I’m going to take them very gradually… for the sake of my own nerves if anything.
I’m also attempting an experiment: to schedule 1 day off a week for recovery, fun and ‘sharpening the saw’. Even that’s tricky at the moment, and I’m just about managing 1 day every 2 or 3 weeks at this rate. But it’s still a step in the right direction and it’s really making a difference.
It’s not easy also because this default work habit is so utterly ingrained in every fibre of my being. I’m still scoring two more awesome shows with Slung Low and playing with the trio. I think there are some other people that I work with on a regular basis who are quite surprised by this paradigm shift in my priorities, and I’m sensing that it may pee off a few of my colleagues. I can understand their point of view!
But as the one living in my skin I will apologise and, like I attempted with my violin students, hope to make the transition to a new worklife balance as easy and smooth as possible for everyone involved…
And hopefully, this way, when another one of these fantastic opportunities comes a-knocking, I’ll have a system and a schedule in place that is free and flexible enough to fit it in comfortably and realistically, not bulging out at the seams.
Or am I being naively unrealistic?
Is what I am trying to achieve beyond the grasp of the jobbing composer simply by the nature of the beast?
Crikey. Hope not.