Working professionally as a sound designer and composer has a lot of perks. It’s not the kind of job that has you answering phones all day or dealing with a lot of crabby people. This is the work of artists and creators. It’s the kind of job people have when they say, “Love what you do, and you’ll never work a day in your life.” It sometimes feels almost surreal to me that I can spend the greater part of a work day trying to develop the perfect sounding tornado, complete with distressed cows, splitting lumber, gale force winds, and menacing thunderstorm. When you’re finally ready to put that “Finished” stamp on your labor of love, though, it is so satisfying, that is if the director is as excited about your tornado as you are.
They might not be. They might not want a tornado at all, and this is the part that hurts. You spent all that time letting your creative juices flow into this tornado, and it was perfect! You let so many people listen to it, and everyone loved it. Everyone except the one person who gets the final say. “Let’s cut the tornado cue,” will be the saddest thing you’ve heard all day. I know. I’ve been there too. One of the things I’ve learned over the years, though, is how to take the note and move on. It was tough at first, but it gets easier and easier with every show.
When a piece of music or a sound effect that I have created gets cut, I can’t help but feel personally rejected. This is the hardest hurdle to get over. It reminds me of the preschool work my 4-year-old brings home from school every day. Of course, I love it so much. I’m so proud of the work she’s done, but it is just not possible for me to keep every single scrap of paper she has ever touched. The first time she saw me throwing away some of the worksheets she had brought home that day, she questioned my decision. She told me that she had made that at school, and she wanted to know why I would throw away something she made. I told her that I was so happy she shared it with me, I enjoyed looking at them, and I did keep one of the five worksheets she brought home because it was really special. I told her I would keep other future projects and worksheets, but not everything. She got it, and it sparked an epiphany for me. My work is not my baby.
If a director cuts something I’ve created, it’s only because it wasn’t right for this moment. I’ve had directors many times tell me, “Wow, this piece of music you’ve written is so beautiful, but I think it just changes the intention of this scene. We need to go in a different direction.” This is completely fine for me to hear now. Once I learned to separate my personal attachment from my work, it became much easier to receive constructive criticism.
Ok, so we’ve learned the difference between constructive criticism and rejection, but what about all the time we lost making that piece of music that is now not going to be used at all? What if I spend tons of time on the next piece just to have it cut also? Dwelling on all the “what ifs” is a trap. Do not allow yourself to fall in. Instead, use the piece that got cut to your advantage. There’s a reason you wrote it the way you did, so there must be something about it that matches the scene. Ask the director what specifically they do and do not like about this piece. Tempo? Length? Orchestration? Lots of times I’ll get answers like,”I really like the piece, but I just wish it was guitar instead of cello, and I wish it was faster and shorter.” This is an excellent note because it means you can just tweak a few things on the same piece of music.
I find that many directors have a hard time envisioning (aurally and visually) a concept without the actualized completed project in front of them, so when presented with something they did not have in mind, their instinct is to cut. It is our job as designers and composers to guide directors through our concept and to help them get specific about their feedback. Taking a little extra time to talk through why a note is being given can be the difference between a cut and a tweak of your work.
While turning a cut into a tweak is always a possibility, it is not always going to happen. Sometimes the final result is a cut. That’s ok too. It’s important not to get discouraged about that. Never throw away work that you like. It might not be right for this project, but if it’s something you’re proud of, you will use it again in the future. In 2002 I wrote a piece of music for one of my weekly production class lessons that never really got any use, but I always kept a recording so that I wouldn’t forget about it. In 2016 my writing partner and I were working on a new musical. I kept skipping the big, show-stopping ballad because I just couldn’t think of something that was everything that particular moment needed to be. I sprung up out of a dead sleep one night and remembered that song I wrote in college. It was perfect. All I needed to do was change the lyrics, add a few more instruments, and there it was. It ended up being everyone’s favorite song of that show, and it fit the actor who was performing it perfectly. I know 14 years is a long time to wait, but it was an easy wait. When the time was right to bring it out again, I just knew.
Sometimes presentation is all about timing. When I’m sound designing a show that will utilize ambiances, for example, I almost never load those cues into a rehearsal room unless it’s imperative to the rehearsal process. When I was first starting out, I would give the rehearsal everything I had as soon as it was ready. Unless you’re lucky enough to work with a company that is rehearsing in the space where they will also be performing, I think it’s safe to say that the rehearsal space almost never accurately represents the performance space. The rehearsal spaces I generally work with consist of a free version of QLab and two speakers. That’s it. If I’m creating a beach ambiance, it might consist of twenty separate files that are all sourced from different places at different levels and times. It can be difficult for the director to have the foresight of that final product when the thing that they have as a placeholder is twenty sounds coming at them from two speakers that are focused directly at their face. I find that I have a higher chance of avoiding an ambiance cut by waiting until tech for the reveal. So much of that kind of cue relies on programming and placement, and I want to make sure a director is correctly informed before they make a final decision. If the director does end up cutting the ambiance during the tech process, I feel better about that decision because I know they heard the cue precisely the way I intended. If the cue had been cut while still in the rehearsal space, it would be harder to move on knowing that the decision might have been different if the director had heard the final version of the cue with all of the technical elements in place.
I also find that accepting a cut is easier if I have a few options when presenting a cue or piece of music to a director. I think of each cue as an audition where I’ve been asked to perform a few contrasting pieces. Of course, I will present my favorite option first, but if it’s not matching the director’s vision, I have two more chances before having to go back to the drawing board. This makes the blow of the initial cut a little easier, and the bonus is that all three options could be useable! Either way, you’ve created three things that might be useable in a future project, if not this one. No creative work is a waste of time; it’s just a matter of finding the right application.
Overall, the thing to remember is that not everything you create will be used right away. That’s the deal we accept when we choose to collaborate with others. It would be very dull to work with a team of people that had the same thoughts and ideas as you. Approach your projects with grace and positivity. Know that everyone is there to serve the project, and any cuts or changes made are in support of that idea. Prepare your work to be presented in the best light possible, but be ok with letting it go…for now. If you are a working composer and/or sound designer, it is because people know you do good work. You will be able to keep moving forward and making adjustments to the work until the right thing pops out. If you start to feel discouraged when part of your work doesn’t make the cut, trust the process, take the note, and move on.
Elisabeth Weidner: Elisabeth is a sound designer, composer, and engineer based on California’s Central Coast. She holds a degree in Commercial Music from Florida State University, and has been working professionally in the live sound industry for over 15 years. She is currently the Sound Director and Resident Sound Designer/Composer for PCPA, Pacific Conservatory Theatre, where she started as the resident FOH Engineer. She has composed two full length young audience musicals, and is always working on the next one. Elisabeth also freelances as an audio/video technician at a local concert venue and as a West Coast sound designer for theatre.