When I was young, I heard a story on a record that haunted me. It was about a boy named Sparky who plays the piano – as his sister does – but then decides he wants to play the violin. Then the clarinet. Then maybe six other things. This goes on for years. Finally, he’s an adult and he goes to see his sister perform in concert. She is a now a virtuoso. By contrast, he realizes, “I can’t play anything.”
The good news is it was all a dream. He wakes up and vows to stick with the piano, doing Just One Thing until he is truly great at it.
But, as a kid, I couldn’t do “Just One Thing”. I was probably ADHD (they just called it “can’t sit still” in those days), filled with digressions and side-paths because I was truly interested in everything. Ironically, not long after hearing that record I decided to switch my focus from piano to violin. Later I learned some guitar and became a half-decent blues harmonica player. I went to three colleges and had three majors. I played in orchestras, rock bands, country western bands, Irish bands. I transitioned from club dates to composing and producing music for a living and wrote chamber and orchestra music, choir pieces, a rock opera, musicals, pop songs, big band charts, EDM, and a lot of jingles.
I even made a business card with a picture of a guy in a tuxedo pulling a rabbit out of his pocket. Where it should have said “composer” it said “Pathological Eclecticist.”
But this confused people. And, frustrated me, at least from a business perspective. When I started scoring films I was asked – reasonably – “What kind of music do you write?” To which I would reply, “What kind of music do you need?” Every self-help book I read said I needed to Find My Voice. But even more importantly I needed Branding. With a capital B and that rhymes with E and that stands for Employed. (I told you I liked musicals, didn’t I?)
But how would I brand myself? Every time I thought of the One Thing I wanted to be known for, there was always Something Else I really, really, liked, too. Oh, how I envied Philip Glass. You ask for a score by Philip Glass and you know exactly what you are going to get. That’s a brand that hasn’t changed much in fifty years and it still sells like hotcakes. (Have you ever actually bought a hotcake? But I digress. Again.)
There is a scene in City Slickers in which the grizzled cowboy played by Jack Palance asks the whippersnapper Billy Crystal if he knows what the secret of life is and, answering his own question, puts up a single finger (forefinger, not middle) and says, “One Thing.” Billy asks, “But what is the One Thing?” And Jack answers, “That’s what you have to find out.” Sparky’s cousin.
As a song producer, I stumbled across a fascinating generational test. I have worked with Lorde and Roberta Flack. If I talk to most people over 50 they have only a vague idea who Lorde is if at all. Almost no one under 30 has ever heard of Roberta Flack. But I didn’t think it was strange that I was comfortable doing music for both.
A few years ago I started writing scripts. At the urging of my friend Arthur Hamilton – a great songwriter successfully branded as “The Guy Who Wrote Cry Me A River” – I submitted one to the Motion Picture Academy Nicholl Fellowship contest that thousands of people enter every year. It was a semi-finalist. So, the next year, I submitted another – also was a semi-finalist. So I started looking for a literary agent. The few who would agree to talk to me asked – reasonably – “What kind of stuff do you write?”. You can guess the rest.
Hans Zimmer once told me that he thinks people worry too much about what their “voice” is. You do what you do and your voice will be there. Philip Glass went even further. He said, “The real issue is not how do you find your voice – it’s how to get rid of the damn thing!”
Morning Has Broke-In
This morning, I was listening to a computer randomized playlist based on the kinds of things I have liked in the past. First there was some Chopin. Then Beatles. Then Bach. Then Coltrane. Then the Gorecki Symphony #3, perhaps one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written. I reflected on why the computer would choose these selections (I had not programmed any of them). Didn’t it know it was supposed to pick Just One Thing and play it to death? Like a Top 40 radio station does? But I loved everything that was played. Because that’s actually who I am.
Maybe it’s time to accept that My Voice is more than Just One Thing. I mean, no one thought it was weird that Mel Blanc did the voice of Bugs Bunny AND Yosemite Sam. I could stop reading self-help books and read more poetry instead. Then I could be inspired by Walt Whitman who wrote, “I contain multitudes.”
Yeah, “I Contain Multitudes”. Not a bad brand.
Cover Image: The Music Man (© Warner Bros.)