Ten Tips for Building a Career as a Music Composer for Film, TV and Theatre

There is no magic bullet to getting a foothold into this industry… not unless you consider hard work, lots of rejection, or a healthy bent toward self-determination a “magic bullet”.

Is there an easy way in? The answer, as with most things in life, is “no”. Most things that are worth doing don’t come easy. However, there are many tried and true methods as well as some proven principles that I can safely say I’ve built a career on.

While there would never been enough room to list them all, here are ten things that I’ve learned about getting that elusive foothold and gaining some real traction as a composer for theatre, film and television. read more

Ditching Social Media, Anxiety, Mental Health Apps and The Inner Critic

After removing social media from my life during the last two years, I’m slowly but surely reducing anxiety and my distractability. It used to be that I would read a paragraph or two in a book… my mind would wander and I’d realise I’d read several more paragraphs without a clue what it said. That doesn’t happen all that much any more. Result.

Looking for alternative dopamine hits

I still get bored and want to get rid of that boredom, and I’ve found myself recently clicking through YouTube and some other forum sites. I get a little hit of dopamine and a false sense of community and connection (I’m still a lurker – I don’t really engage in commenting as my inner critic will happily continue to assert that what I have to say is neither useful, witty nor pithy – what a bitch!); I can feel that old, familiar, background lure that I used to get with the big three (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) so I’m not out of the woods yet.

I find that my iPad is the worst culprit. My phone’s screen is too small for me to comfortably watch or read anything on it for any great length of time, and though I love it in the studio I really don’t want to be spending my free time on the system in there: that space is for working. The iPad is just the right size for reading and it’s so convenient of an evening if I’m a little bored or impatient with what I’m watching on TV or reading in a book. So I’ve given said iPad to John to hide! When I’ve done this before (and I’ve done it several times now to try and ditch this unconscious YouTube et al compulsion) it’s worked in the short term. I’ve come to the conclusion I might need a long term strategy though.

Mental Health Apps

To deal with the anxiety directly and the pretty annoying (and mostly unhelpful) Inner Critic, I’m trialling two apps on my phone (it’s an Android but there’ll be iOS versions or similar apps for other platforms). Pacifica is an all round mental health assistant, meditation app and habit tracker, and Unthink deals with the Inner Critic through a very simple CBT interface. I haven’t paid for either.

I like them both. If I’m feeling antsy or bored or anxious or stressed or even a little euphoric (it happens occasionally when the anxiety dissipates of its own accord), I can check in with Pacifica to log how I’m feeling and it’ll suggest meditations or actions I can take to help me make progress. Alternatively, for a super-quick fix, Unthink can help me take a more objective perspective on an unhelpful thought-chain and bring it around to a more realistic interpretation.

no technology either good or bad, but design that makes it so

I don’t think the internet, gadgets or even social media is inherently bad. I think platforms and applications deliberately built on addicting us to their dopamine hits in order to harvest our attention and data to sell to the highest bidder, and to convince us that we’re incomplete and faulty so we’ll buy things we don’t need or even want and get us to do things (like voting for certain things) that aren’t in our best interests are bad. I don’t want any part of that.

There’s nothing inherent in technology that precludes it helping us to be our best selves. To make our short existences on this planet more bearable. I choose emphatically not to use technology that isn’t in my best interest but to embrace wholeheartedly that technology which has been designed to treat us all in a compassionate manner.

My Inner Critic and her constant chatter

As an incredibly useful aside of using these helpful technologies, I’ve started to note how my inner critic is constantly commenting on what I’m working on, my writing, my work processes, how I analyse and make work decisions. It’s not just every now and then, during those times when I’m conscious of it and can happily ignore it; it’s all the fricking time. This is bad for business.

I would (understandably) prefer to be as objective and have an interpretation of events that is only ever helpful and, hopefully, accurate. When I interpret the worse, my reaction becomes fight or flight. Once we’re in flight or flight mode, our creative options decrease as the ancient parts of our brains attempt to get us out of danger as quickly and efficiently as possible.

A more meandering and experimental option for dealing with the situation just isn’t on the table – unfortunate, since this is exactly what’s most effective in my line of work. It’s also this meandering, experimental part I enjoy the most.

The option to fail is possibly the most essential tenet of creativity. Without the option of failure, we play small, safe and certain. Or we can be risk-takers, fail and yet still survive to play another day, to learn from these mistakes and as a result go off on unexpected and wild creative tangents (and ironically, these experiences lead to more dramatic and exciting dopamine-hits than receiving any number of likes on Facebook or Instagram).

I need my Inner Critic to stop equating the failure of my first draft to fit the brief with certain death! Silly thing. I can see her do this and ignore her, or I can work to reason with her. Eventually she might start to chill her beans and allow me to live my life without having to compartmentalise and suppress anxious reactions. I just won’t have them all that much. That’s the idea, anyway. We’ll see how it works in practise.

There are times I don’t realise that the Inner Critic is presenting an unhelpful or downright incorrect interpretation of events. However, these apps are helping me to recognise those feelings and associated thoughts and to continuously challenge them. It’s quite hard work, to be honest. Nevertheless, the difference in both how I feel, and how effective I am in the world, makes it worth it.

It’s nice to feel ok more often than not, and to feel empowered to do something about making it so.

Image: Flickr

On Being Organised

Lighthouse, beach and sea at Tweedmouth

At the start of the year someone said to me they thought I was the most organised person they knew. Which was very nice of them, thank you kind person.

After that, it totally went to my head and I had an idea back in May to do a post on being organised, or, rather, how to be organised, and I’ve been scribbling notes and putting it off and self-censoring ever since. It bloomed into a 4-post series, and then started to evolve into a book outline, which just wasn’t appropriate – dammit, Jim, I’m a composer, not an author. I don’t have time for writing books, especially not those that have been written before, by people much more qualified and experienced than me, in much more organised (yes much lol) ways. So what was I adding? Not a massive amount, certainly not any that warranted the level of off-hours brain space. Said brain is like a dog with a bone sometimes.

A calm, blue sea and cloudless sky

After all that non-essential angst, I’ve since decided I won’t bother (because the answer is but a google away) with all the pop quizzes, checklists and strategies.

Instead I’ll say this – in my limited experience on this earth, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s very important to be organised, as organised as you possibly can be, with the resources and information at your disposal. This is why: if you aren’t (and you aren’t subsequently and/or consequently in dire circumstances) the chances are that someone else is doing the organising for you. Furthermore, if you aren’t paying for it, that’s uncompensated emotional labour that someone else (a woman?) is taking on along with their own life-organisation tasks… which just isn’t fair.

It’s for this reason I can’t be disorganised. I can’t expect someone else to take on that job without some sort of fair compensation. I’m just not built that way. It’s not perfectionism or control freakery, I just really can’t stand the thought I’m taking advantage of someone else’s good nature, so, as far as humanly and practically possible, I won’t.

A bench on a grassy bank overlooking a sandy bank and the sea on a sunny day

The other two ground-breaking (insert sarcasm emoji) conclusions I came to were that it was really difficult to be organised if you were either tired or had too much to do (when I put it like that, it seems obvious. Too obvious to even write. But sometimes it needs to be said anyway). I know that if I’m attempting to get my ducks in order when I’m either tired or have too much to do in the time I’ve got to do it, no amount of bullet journalling, creating good habits or systematising is going to get what I both need and want to do done.

I want to be organised so as to be more efficient with my energy (aka not getting as tired so as to enjoy life more, a simple desire)… so as to be able to do all the stuff I want to do alongside all the boring stuff I need to do.

Think of the reverse: If I’ve only one thing I want to do and one thing I have to do, and I’m feeling alive, content and focussed, how easy will it be to get those two things done? Tres. How easy will it be to get lost in the flow of those things I have to do? Super-tres. Being organised will happen without any effort at all.

Now, taking the thought experiment further: adding in more tasks, events, information, and data of any other kind will simultaneously increase the level of organisation* required and decrease the amount of energy I have to give to any one of these tasks, events, etc. because I’ll be dividing my total energy per each task (event, etc.).

I’ll also have decreased total energy available for the rest of the to do list after each task is completed. Eventually, adding more and more tasks (events, etc) will decrease my available energy to zero. And then I can’t do anything.

I think what I’m getting at is: wouldn’t it be better to just be kinder to ourselves and each other?

Firstly, we can acknowledge and compensate the organisational emotional labour others do for us alongside taking responsibility for our own organisational needs as much as we can (remember, though, that caveat: with the resources and information at your disposal – do what you can, don’t be a martyr).

Next, we can accept when we’ve too much on our plates to realistically be as organised as we’d like to be. After accepting, we can – with self-compassion – get shut of some of that stuff: it’s either delayed, indefinitely; moved onto someone else (with compensation – it bears repeating); or deleted.

Lastly, we have to take care of ourselves in order to have the energy to be as organised as we need to do all the stuff we want and need to do, to live full and rewarding lives.

Not much to ask, eh?

*So it’s probably worth at this point defining what I mean by organisation: prioritising, scheduling,  systematising and delegating… (oh good grief I’m writing the post I said I wasn’t going to bother with just quit while you’re ahead Heth)

All images copyright H. Fenoughty 2018, taken in Berwick-upon-Tweed or Tweedmouth earlier this year, aptly representing the a level of serenity I rarely but occasionally achieve by being as organised as possible. For those times it works, it’s definitely worth the effort.

2018 Midsummer Review – Birthday, Panels, RTS Award, Feature Film Music, and Books Devoured


I turn 39 in a few days. Is that a prime number? Looks like one (*looks it up* Ok it’s not). Last one before the big 4-0, which I’m very much looking forward to – it’s amazing to think I’ve lived this long, considering how much of a klutz I am.

Coming Up: PRS Panel –  How To Place Your Music in Film and TV

I’m on a PRS (Performing Rights Society) Panel about getting your music placed in Film and TV @7:50pm on Thursday, 19th July at DINA in Sheffield. Doors open at 5pm; there are two panels about Managing your PRS Account and the Yorkshire Music Forum; and then I’m on with two other specialists.

Feature Film Music Themes

Right now, I’m still working on pulling together themes for an animated feature film, and very much enjoying having time really explore the capabilities of each theme that appears, and the freedom to dump said theme if it isn’t versatile enough. I don’t want to jinx it, but after a few months of this, I think I now have the central theme. It’s definitely an ear-worm (or it is for me since I must have heard this particular motif hundreds, if not thousands, of times over now).

Site Sessions: Lightscapes and Soundscapes

In May I was on a panel for the brilliant Leila Johnstone‘s Site Sessions series, talking about my soundscape work for Slung Low. The podcast episode is here to listen to on iTunes.

Flood – RTS Nomination

Flood: To The Sea has been nominated for a RTS Yorkshire Award in the Production Excellence category! This was the third part of a year-long epic that Slung Low made for Hull City of Culture and BBC Performance Arts. Flood: To The Sea played on BBC2 in August 2017.

Edit July ’18: We won! Wooh – go team! Did not see that coming: we were up against Victoria and Ackley Bridge… o_O

Books Read

I’ve read some amazeballs books since April. The first two are fiction and the rest are non-fiction. I highly recommend them all:

Speak – Louise Hall
Stars are Legion – Kameron Hurley
You Are Not A Gadget – Jaron Lanier
The Organized Mind – Daniel Levitin
Think Like A Freak – Steven D. Levitt, Stephen J. Dubner (the Freakonomics chaps)
The Order of Time – Carlo Rovelli
The Art of the Good Life – Rolf Dobelli
Happy – Derren Brown

All of the above either expanded my consciousness a little bit (in the case of The Order of Time, a lot) or were just a jolly good read with some clever little nuggets of ingenuity hidden along the way.

Image: Flickr


Scientists Know The Music You’re Imagining

piano by Christopher Farmer Flickr

Isn’t science just flipping marvellous? (Just so long as some hegemonic search engine or social media site doesn’t read my mind and steal my IP, that’d be just great, ta)

Mind-Reading Music

There is not a day that goes by that I wish technology could read the musical thoughts flitting through my mind and transcribe it as quickly as I think of it.  But this isn’t such a pie-in-the-sky wish as I thought! Neuroscientists have predicted what sounds a pianist was thinking of in their head. Chuffing heck.

Science like this is obviously most useful for people who’ve lost the ability to speak. But like all proper good scientific discoveries, it’s what else you do with it that counts…

A New Project Started

I’m a couple of weeks into composing music on a feature film. Exciting times! The director and I are concentrating on pulling together the central character and tonal themes. It’s super-useful to be brought into the process so early – it’s so early in the animation schedule there’s not yet any film to see. We’ve done our initial briefing session and now I’m at that slightly icky, uncertain phase of ‘throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks’ (technical term obvs).

The Process of Creating Themes

The trick is with this is to just keep on going. Every idea may have a kernel of goodness in amongst the banal, generic churnout so I have to see it through from a basic (in this case) piano sketch to a rough approximation of an orchestrated theme, then play around with different instrumental voicing, structure and motivic development. It’s hard to know if the awesomeness I hear in my head can translate into anything of value on the page without going through these motions. This process, necessarily, takes time.

There’s also a certain standard of orchestration we need from these mockups to help the director decide whether each sketch I lob his way has any mileage.

Creating ‘Mockups’

Whilst I can imagine and ‘hear’ the eventual live orchestral, mixed and mastered, ideal sound from a very rough sketch and, also, all the potential offshoots and variations of these themes or motifs, I never, ever expect anyone I’m working for to be able to do that. It’s just not fair – it’s a skill that you learn over time with many years of practise. It’s the essence of my job.

Of course, it’s great if colleagues can imagine the possibilities just from hearing a very rough sketch. The directors I’ve worked with more than once know, from the experience of working together, the potential of where we can take an initial idea to final realisation. But the actual instrumentation and structure… that’s not something I would ever need my colleagues to be able to imagine in order to work with me.

It’s akin to me making the film or piece of theatre in my head in advance of the fully-realised project. I can (and absolutely will) do it, but I never expect my version to be what I’ll see on the stage or the screen. Sometimes it’s close, sometimes it’s nowhere near, but it’s never as good as seeing it real and made in physical form by the people who have trained for it. And it’s never as clear whether it’s truly working or not.

The Future of Composition?

But just think… if I could craft these sketches in my head and have this sci-fi interface interpret my imaginings, how much quicker this initial stage of throwing ideas at the wall, picking out the best bits and evolving subsequent iterations would be.

Whilst the live musician, computer sampler, synth and all the other tools we already have will still be of value, imagine what sounds could be invented just by thinking of them – imagine the immediacy of the emotion. Imagine how this would train your brain and mind further to focus on what sounds and music you really want to create, and what could be invented from allowing your mind to just wander, and have it transcribed in real-time? Wouldn’t that be fun?

‘Til then, back to the keyboard I go. Music’s not going to write itself.

For now, at least.

Image: Flickr

Don’t wait for Creative Inspiration to Get Work Done

Glowing brain

Inspiration – it’s a fickle beast. We all know that. Sometimes I’m inspired, sometimes I’m not. Still have a deadline though, still need to get paid. One of my big priorities and motivators though is also to enjoy the experience as much as clients will (hopefully) enjoy the music I’ll compose for their film or play. Though it’s quite a nice bonus, that feeling of creative inspiration, of having ideas spring into mind as if from outside of us, isn’t really a prerequisite to said enjoyment.

Enjoying your work comes from autonomy, mastery and purpose says Daniel Pink in Drive; I know for me this is so so true – they were all factors I found intensely important for my work and life, even before I read his book. However, autonomy, mastery and purpose all take work to make happen, in and of themselves.

=&0=& asks that you structure your own time and/or way of working and requires discipline. Resistance and procrastination are ever present threats.

=&1=& requires years of focussed, deliberate practise, experimentation and learning from your mistakes. It takes grit, determination and a somewhat obsessive drive. Or just… discipline.

=&2=& requires thought, introspection and interrogation. The why of what you’re doing. Sometimes it’s obvious; often it’s not, and needs work in itself to get really clear on. What is your reason for doing the work? Be honest…

  • is it for the money (that’s ok, it’s high on my list, I gotta eat)?
  • is it in service of a joint venture to create something bigger and more awesome than you could do on your own (ooh a big juicy yes)?
  • is it to make your clients happy – and maybe get some much-needed ego validation (maybe the basis of the entire media industry)?
  • is it to work with people that you like hanging out with (guilty as charged)?
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    Why I Quit Twitter (and you might want to, too)

    Blue + Bird by John Verive

    I’M A QUITTER. A serial quitter. I like quitting things. Things I’ve quit: coffee, owning a car, dyeing my hair, wearing high heels, most recently some social media including twitter… I quit because I get a kick out of it – a sense of clarity and relief. Maybe it’s my catholic upbringing (you know, all about the suffering and sacrifice, that religion). It’s tired cliche, but it’s a cliche because of its universal truthiness. It’s as if an enormous weight has been lifted from my shoulders, and that, finally, now I have time to concentrate on the more important things in life.

    Unfortunately it wears off, that feeling. Or, more likely, I get accustomed to it. Hedonic adaptation. So then I go looking for the next thing to quit, to trim, to declutter, to scrap, to refine. And do you know what – I never regretted any of the quitting. It’s brilliant. I just fill the time with more interesting stuff, drink a more varied beverage menu, get around by bike or train, let my greys twinkle and walk further in flats.

    A serial, addicted, quitter. Konmari-ing was a DREAM.

    Back to twitter. Late last year I had around 2500 followers and was following somewhere around the 500 mark. Check out that ratio, would ya! *Smug face*. But I’ve been on the site since 2008 so there would be something wrong if I didn’t have a fairly decent number of followers, and at the start of my twitter journey I would spend hours a day chatting and cementing ‘relationships’ (yeah, bit of a stretch of the definition there). Every notification was a lovely little dopamine hit. I reeeeeally enjoyed it.

    Fast forward just under 10 years and I’d fallen in and out of love with the site a good few times. Then, in late 2017, I read Deep Work by Cal Newport and subsequently many, many blog posts and articles and news op eds that recommended dumping twitter and other social medias. It gets in the way of your life, they said. You’re addicted to it, they said. It makes you anxious (along with Facebook and all the other social medias), they opined.

    So I dumped it. You know though, it’s not like when you deactivate Facebook (which I have, obvs). On FB you can deactivate and activate again and back again ad infinitum without punishment. All your content will still be there. I’ve taken to logging on and deleting a bunch of posts (I still can’t work out a quick way of doing it) sporadically. And then deactivating again. I find messenger super useful for arranging my real world social life (such as it is) so I’m not going to completely ditch Facebook any time soon. Unless they can completely separate the two, which,  of course, isn’t going to happen.

    Back to twitter. I deactivated then reactivated around 3 weeks later, starting to think maybe I’d made a mistake… and I’d lost 500 followers! Yikes. It was then I realised that I was actually pretty gutted. But why? Because I was addicted to that little follower count, that social proof of my worth. Never mind how many people had hidden me from their feed. And how few people I interacted with or responded to any of my posts. I might as well have been following 10 people.

    With this in mind, I re-deactivated and all those thousands of posts of mine were removed from twitter’s servers (I kept a back up of the inanity I’d spouted for those 10 years, I’m not an idiot). And the remaining followers GONE. And I do feel free. And less anxious (though Facebook was more of a culprit for that). I’m still an information addict, like most humans, and I’m seriously considering ditching my Instagram relationship right now (OMG Heather it’s not a chuffing relationship). I’ve just signed up for Vero (that limited-time free offer hooked me in, I’m not proud). The Guardian website gets more hits than I’d like from me per day.

    What I needed was a replacement activity. So I’m getting back into New Scientist (free as an e-magizine from my local library), I’m reading tons more real books (currently making my way through all the award-winning or -nominated women sci-fi authors) and learning German with DuoLingo – I completed Spanish a year ago and though I really could do with a refresher there’s a usefulness to learning a language that is multiple powers ahead of my barely curated, opinion-as-fact, scatter-shot twitter feed. What’s more, between my basic Spanish and John’s GCSE German we managed to get by on a Spanish holiday where somehow we’d managed to stay in a place where English wasn’t spoken at all in either shops or restaurants, but Spanish and German was. Phew again. USEFUL.

    Utility is my go-to metric for whether or not I spend time energy or money on something. I get joy-sparks from usefulness, aesthetics and comfort a joint second. I guess that’s why I like writing music for other people’s projects, rather than just producing tracks and hawking them on Bandcamp. I need to feel useful. Ugh. ANYWAY.

    Twitter may or may not have been useful. It put me in touch with Premiumbeat that has kept me afloat in some lean times. I’ve had nice chats with nice people. But it gets in the way of making music. It’s a distraction at best and makes me less useful at worst. So out it goes.

    On saying that, I’ve reinstated my @hethfen account just to retweet blog posts. It’s automated. I rarely check it. I you want to tweet me, email me instead.

    Edit May 2018: I’ve deleted my account again, along with Facebook (not just deactivation but proper deletion), Instagram, LinkedIn and Google Analytics. Let’s see how long this lasts…

    Image: Flickr

    Music for The Homeless: ‘The Key’ from The Department of Distractions

    Update 6th March 2018:  ‘The Key’ raised a grand total of £61 for Crisis and Emmaus charities for homeless people. The track is still available to download, but if you want to donate directly to these or any other homelessness charities, please do!

    The Department of Distractions was joyous fun to work on; the walks between digs and the theatre were quite saddening.

    There’s a man sleeping rough in an underpass on the way, so for a week I passed him twice a day. He sleeps on concrete slabs, next to a busy dual carriageway, sandwiched between two concrete pillars and surrounded by pigeon droppings.

    This track is called ‘The Key‘. All profits from its sale will go to charities Crisis and Emmaus who help homeless people in Newcastle (the city where I was working) and Sheffield (where I live), respectively.

    The Key from 'The Department of Distractions' by Heather FenoughtyThe Department of Distractions is about a secretive organisation who ply the public with (secret’s in the name) distractions. Why do they do this? To keep us happy (and, possibly, well-behaved), of course.

    Working from home, and being a big old highly sensitive introvert, I’m less out-and-about in the world. Especially in the winter when it is cold (people from Yorkshire and further afield describe this fear of the cold as ‘nesh‘. That’s me to a tee). Like a lot of us, my distractions are online and onscreen and in print.

    However, when I venture out into a real environment I’m often struck (and still surprised, distracted as I am by said media) by the increase in homeless people and people begging on the streets in recent years, and how incredibly impotent I feel when considering what I can do to help.

    So maybe this is something I can do:

  • Pay what you like for the track, minimum £1; it’s a toe-tappingly good tune and features all of the musical themes heard in the play.
  • Give money to worthwhile charities, both with awesomely excellent and effective track records in helping people in dire circumstances.
  • Get a feel-good rush of dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin as well! 
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