Composing : Get Out Of Your Comfort Zone by Joel Irwin

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Joel Irwin

Get Out Of Your Comfort Zone

There has not been a new post in a while and I have noticed discussion about things to do as a composer while in between jobs/gigs (such as writing to a library or rescoring an existing film for practice, etc.).

Well here is another way but it does require you probably to be a bit more 'salesy' to market yourself and probably to get out of your comfort zone.

As some of you know may know, I often get involved in competitive films for various reasons.  Sometimes those films have a life after the competition.  For example, the first film I scored this year back in Feb. was "Turning The Hands Of Time", a sci-fi film which won a "Platinum Remi" at the Worldfest Festival in May.  The film was a long short (about 25 minutes) and I was able to score about 20 minutes of music with various cue types.  This was my second film for that filmmaker and it in my opinion help solidify his interest in continuing to useg me as his composer and I actually scored another film for him in June, "The Last Command" which will be showing in two weeks at the 168 Film Festival in LA and has been nominated for "Best Score".  And each time I work on a competitive film, I get IMDB credit.  And a few weeks ago, "Turning The Hands Of Time" became available on Amazon Prime.  The point here is that even though there is no money for the scoring work, there are so many other benefits that help build my/our reputations.

So far this year I have scored 6 competitive film shorts.  They are all IMDB credited.  And in June I was on a competitive 48 Hour Film Project team here in Houston scoring "Hotline".  I got on the team late and while all the rest of the team had just graduated high school, the quality of their work was pretty amazing and I was so impressed with the filmmaker/director (who is on his way to University Of Texas film major), that can see him as a major player in the industry in years to come.  I was out of my comfort zone in a couple of ways for this project.  First, like many teams I am on, they don't have a lot of experience working with a professional composer and so I need to spend some time in teaching mode.  Secondly, while I have scored many romance themed films and consider romance to be my easiest scoring genre, this was my first LGBT themed film and so I was excited to apply my romance skills to that theme.  Thirdly, scoring a 48 hour competition involves quick creation with little to no time to 'redo' - the first thing I decide to write is what I normally have to go with. And I have to be prepared to do the composing in the middle of Sat night often an 'all nighter'.  In the case of "Hotline" the whole film was scored between 330am and 1030am Sat night/Sunday.   I did not think that the score for Hotline was one of my best, nonetheless, it has become my first score to win "Best Score" in a competition (which shows up as a 'win' in my IMDB entry).  One of the reasons could be the 'big fish in little pond' effect.  The incidence of composers outside of the major film cities is much smaller and so while there were 53 competitive films, I think I was up against less than 5 composers (many films used stock music or no music).

Which brings me to this weekend/today.  I haven't scored in about 2 months and school was out so I was not able to write live jazz music for performance (classes start in about 3 weeks).  It would be easy just to relax, listen to some of my old scores, and work on fixing some existing scores (the director of "The Last Command" has asked me to replace the church organ music in the opening outdoor funeral scene with bagpipes).

Instead I am doing two things to get out of my comfort zone: (1) "The Last Command" uses a tin whistle also called a penny whistle in the score.  I bought the electronic/samples to do the score (Ventus Ethnic Winds).  So I decided to purchase a real penny whistle (in D) with a book and learn how to play it.   I thought it would be simple like a recorder.  G, A, B were easy.  But D, E, F# were not.  I am having to learn exact finger placement and blowing techniques.  (2) Houston 48 hour film project competition is once a year, but there are competitions in many major cities and as you know, composers do not necessarily have to co-reside in the same city of the filmmaker.  Two of the new films I scored for the 168 film festival in two weeks were produced outside of Houston - a documentary, "The Door" was produced in Pueblo, CO and a drama, "Wood And Stone" produced in LA.   So this weekend, there is a 48 hour competition in a nearby city - San Antonio.  I posted into their Facebook group I would be interested in being on a team.  Three teams contacted me but none of them panned out.  Team 1 said they wanted a different 'sound'.  Team 2 referred me to team 3 and team 3 was honest and said their editor was new and they didn't think they could have a film ready in time for me to score.  So I went back and email'd the competition organizer yesterday I was still free and a team contacted me and I agreed to score for them.  The producer is actually from near Dallas though the rest of the team is in San Antonio (she drove there yesterday),  This is her first time working with a composer.  Their genre will be "time travel".  I will be reading the script as soon as I am done here.  We have set up a dropbox folder and they will supply me with the 1 minute of end titles for me to work on this afternoon/evening while I wait for a completed 'locked' film sometime after midnight tonight.  The film has been named, "Penance".

So I am back to writing music today but it took an effort for me to do what I am not really good at - marketing and promoting myself.   We composers most often don't have anyone else to help us get gigs.  We want to establish a collaboration with filmmakers/directors/producer to generate multiple film opportunities.  But the rest of the time we are our own 'agents'.

Linwood Bell

Kudos to you for buying a penny whistle. I've got one here too, along with a native American flute. I bought them both for different projects i was doing and since I played alto sax all through elem - high school and played it in some bands giging, I thought I'd be able to adapt something there. Wrong. lol I was able to squeak out some stuff that worked and just having that real element against the midi always helps. If you can, post a link to the finished film your working on when the festival is over. I always enjoy your work. Looks like it's gonna be a late night for you!

Joel Irwin

Just finished scoring the film for the San Antonio 48 Hour Film Competition. Haven't slept since I woke up yesterday at 9 am (cdt). The film "The Last Command" which premieres at the 168 Film Festival in LA in less than two weeks (on Aug 26) is the film that uses the Penny Whistle which I have discussed multiple times here since May . I used the Ventus Tin Whistle Kontakt sample (which had all the wonderful articulations) for the score (which was nominated for "Best Score"). The score has already been released:

I learnt both to score for a Tin/Whistle and an Irish fiddle (I learnt a little about "Jigs" and scored the fiddle with a tambourine and the Penny Whistle). The other Irish/Scottish instruments (I am now having to learn Bag Pipes), came from Big Fish Audio.

Trust me! :) Its easier for me to score a short with instrument samples than to play this Penny Whistle. If I don't hold my fingers in a particular way and blow at the appropriate velocity (otherwise it's an octave higher) in a specific way, the bottom three notes all sound the same.

Linwood Bell

I'm listening to The Last Command as I type. Wonderful music, Joel! Bravo, Sir!

Joyce Kettering

Great post Joel! I'm a big believer in stretching the comfort zone :)

What I've done recently is started a "vlogging" practise where I record myself and my computer screen writing a new track in 30 minutes or less. I post one every day on Youtube.

I did this because I wanted to take part in the whole social media promotion thing.

Recording and sharing music was way more comfortable for me than coming up with motivational quotes and funny images.

The more I do it, the more comfortable I am doing it.

Now I need to integrate more constraints to the music I make during those studio sessions to stretch the comfort zone a bit wider! :)

Joel Irwin

Some great ideas. Here is yet another one that is going to push me out of my comfort zone. I can do drama and romance with my eyes closed, but I struggle with horror. I just joined a team that will compete in "The Zone" the second week of Sept. It's one thing to be free of action and to write whatever I want for horror. That is already a stretch, but writing a cue and sync'ing it to action takes it to a another whole level. My other stretch is marketing myself and asking for what I want. I am not so good at that yet, though the "Void" competition ( will be my 8th scored film this year. The first one, I was asked for. In each of the next 7, I did the asking for the gig.

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