Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Stress and Time Management

Due to the nature of what we do for a living, all of us have a certain level of stress to manage as we get through our day. It's not life and death stress like firemen, police officers, or surgeons deal with, but it's still stress and it is real. How we manage it has everything to do with how effective we are in our work.

I just finished a recording session last week with the following parameters: very tight deadline, enormous  complexity in the music, limited budget, and tremendous responsibilities that I was contractually bound to. I survived (otherwise I wouldn't be able to write this!), my client was totally happy with the product. I pushed the musicians way beyond what I thought I could do with them. Everything was delivered on time and on budget.

Oh! And I was totally stressed out non-stop for two weeks leading up to the session - to the point that I was feeling the "stress-buzz" in my chest everytime I had a spare moment to stop and think about it. Granted, I managed to get everything completed professionally, do great work, and not need a coronary by-pass. But I have been thinking about it a lot lately and ask my self the following question...

What are we stressing over?

Shit happens. There's a reason this saying carries some weight. If you place events on a cosmic scale you realize the universe does not care how busy your day is. You're just a piece of matter on one planet near one star in one system in one galaxy in a universe full of galaxies. If you've read Marcus Aurelius (Roman Caesar/Philosopher), he says quite a bit on this subject and the role of the individual within this universe. For me I find there's power in his thinking. It is a freeing notion that if the universe does not care about me it equally does not care about anyone else and that puts all of us on an equal level. No one is more significant than the other guy/gal, although for purposes of ego we all like to think we are!

Enough philosophy. Back to the point. Events happen that disrupt the order of our personal universe. How does the same event devastate one person, while another overcomes and conquers it no matter how seemingly impossible it might be? What makes the difference?

Here's some food for thought from a book called Flow, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi:

Certain events cause more psychological strain than others. The same stressful event might make one person utterly miserable, while another will bite the bullet and make the best of it. This difference in how a person responds is called "coping ability" or "coping style".

There are two ways people generally respond to stress - one positive and the other negative. Withdrawing into yourself, sleeping late, denying what is happening, turning on your loved ones, drinking more than usual are several examples of negative responses. Positive responses can include temporary suppression of anger and fear, analyzing the problem logically, and reassessing your priorities.

Few of us rely on one strategy exclusively. How many of us get drunk the first night, have a fight with our wives, then the next day or week later, we simmer down and start figuring out what to do next?

My hand is raised. How about you?

Three resources are available to us when coping with stressful events: external support(family, friends, colleagues), a person's psychological resources (intelligence, education, relevant personality factors), and finally the coping strategies that a person uses to confront the stress. This last one is most relevant in most cases.

Here are my methods for coping with highly stressful situations:

1. Don't forget to breath! No seriously, it's true. A little oxygen to the brain, a walk around the block, or a couple of sit-ups can do wonders.

2. Staying calm. See #1. You're the expert your clients hired. You know what you're doing. You've probably been here before in some fashion. Suppress your anger and fear response and start to think logically about what needs to get done.

3. Assess the situation. Make a list of what needs to get done and calculate how long you estimate it will take to complete these tasks. Do you need help? Who are your go-to guys that you call when you need backup?

4. Prioritize. Define what's most important to complete based on your delivery schedule and what your client needs. Factor in what you need too. Sometimes I'll do several easy cues in a row to feel like I'm psychologically getting more done and being ultra-efficient.

5. Take action. Start in on the highest priority first. Take regular breaks and assess your well being along the way. If you have to work for long stretches like two or more weeks straight under duress, you have to maintain your stamina, get enough sleep every night, and spend some time with your loved ones.

More from Flow:

Everyone has to confront events that contradict our goals.  Each event is negative feedback that produces disorder in the mind, threatening the self and impairing its functioning.

Courage, resilience, perserverance and mature coping  are essential.

If you're interested in reading more about what I've discussed above and the Flow experience, checkout the book, Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced Chick-sent-me-hi).

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Large Project Thermodynamics

In the midst of any large project where you have many minutes of music to compose, there is always that one cue that kicks your ass. You know the one.

I can't say how many times this has happened to me in over twenty years of composing, mostly because I forget (probably due to the beauty of selective memory- where you block out traumatic events such as abuse, emotional upset, and where you left the car keys). What I do recall is I've always found a solution to whatever
cues have given me grief over the years. Here are a few examples:

Starting with the most recent, I'm just finished a big cue for a funeral scene and I wanted to do a requiem. That means counterpoint! This cue took me four days to get right when I needed to do it in two. This may not seem like a big deal at all but when you have to maintain a certain number of minutes per day to meet your schedule, you can't be taking extra time to do what one of my old teachers from Berklee called, "musical masturbation."

Here's the rub. I know, even if I spend more time doing one important cue, I'll make up the needed time and get everything done. How? Because of the "secret law of the logarithmic curve of schedules" which states that ALL gigs have a certain pace to
them which starts out slow and ramps up to a frenzy at the very end. It is, as Mr. Smith from the Matrix would say, "inevitable."

Being a creative professional is knowing that some things take longer to gestate than others. I did this film once which had a scene that was edited twice as long as it should have been. How do I know this? Because in the work print I was using to score to, I could see the actor staring into space, followed by someone feeding him a line off-camera, then I'd see his performance, followed by a cut to the other actor staring into space waiting for his line, hearing that off-camera, followed by his performance and so on for three frikkin'minutes! The director's exact words were, "Can you help us out here?" And so I did.

I had 4 weeks to score 80 minutes of orchestral music on this project and after 3 weeks I hadn't found a solution to this scene. I watched and re-watched this scene at least 10 times every day and when I couldn't think of anything, I'd move on to scoring another cue or two from other scenes. In the last week I found my solution. Forget the bad editing; this scene was about the death of the Mayor's daughter! Once I knew that I wrote an adagio of the Mayor's daughter theme and slapped it up against picture and viola! I'm a genius! Or at least that's what the director said.

All projects, large and small, have a unique dynamic to them in the pacing of the schedule. They each have their own challenges which, as a professional composer, one needs to meet with a calm mind and plenty of pencils, erasers, and sketch pads. Remind yourself that you KNOW what you're doing. You ARE the music authority on this project. Then step up and hit it out of the park.

In the end, you have to trust in yourself, your craft, and your experience to know that that bastard cue will get done and it will be great!

Monday, July 28, 2008


Just got back from my first Comicon in San Diego. My fiance Johanna and I had a great time meeting some of our favorite artists/writers like Paul Pope (Batman 100, 100%, THB), Terry Moore (Strangers in Paradise), David Mack (Kabuki, Daredevil), and got a nice print from Bill Sienkiewicz (Stray Toasters, Elektra: Assassin).

I even ran into actor/author Wil Wheaton who's a big fan of Comicon and all things geeky like me! It's a great thing to go somewhere where you find so many people like yourself. Passionate. Nerdy. Fun-loving.

The Watchmen panels went very well and from what I hear, the Motion Comic was well received and I'm looking forward to completing composition on the next chapters.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Watchmen Motion Comic: Episode I on iTunes!

Hi Everyone.

I've completed composing a videogame score for Wizards of the Coast (the Dungeons and Dragons dudes!) and the first of a 12 episode web series of The Watchmen for Juice Films. I'm very excited about both projects. The Watchmen will be about two hours of music for live orchestra. Thanks to Rich Jacobellis at First Artists for repping me on the Watchmen deal.

Watchmen Motion Comic: Episode I is available for download at iTunes!

Monday, March 3, 2008

The latest

The live orchestra recording sessions for Prince Caspian went very well in December. The orchestra in Bratislava performed Mark's (Griskey) and my pieces with little trouble and I'm happy with the results.

I've just finished a CD of videogame style music for a music library company, and plan to do 3-4 CDs a year of material for these kinds of projects.

I'm teaching a new course at USC this semester - Advanced Composition for Videogames. It's a brand new course designed to build upon my original Composing for Games course. We're exploring creating complex adaptive music using middleware engines like FMOD and Wwise. I'm enjoying the challenge and the students are doing well.

There's a new interview with me for Music 4 Games. Check it out.

More coming soon...