Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas film was projected onto a screen and accompanied by the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra at the Dr. Phillips Center in Orlando last week. You bet I was there. This has always been amongst my favorite movies and, in many ways, has been an ongoing inspiration to me for the last 15 plus years.
When reaching the age of double digits, I was constantly fascinated with movies and particularly how animated films were created. No movie was finished unless I had watched the entirety of Behind the Scenes on Disc 2. The making of a movie typically intrigued me more than the movie itself. I made stop-motion Powerpuff Girl episodes with playdough and drew cartoons of cute dinosaur creatures getting into shenanigans. While in middle school orchestra, my parents were awesome enough to get me an old upright piano that I would spend hours - literally hours - just playing “nonsense” and underscoring these stories I would make up. I knew which keys I was pushing but I had no idea what I was doing. In my head, I was the next Danny Elfman! I was “rewriting” scores to favorite movies like The Chronicles of Narnia or writing new musicals like Next to Normal. Music composition has always been my dreamiest of fantasies but with rather limited music instruction, it was always just a dream. I found performing and pursued the road of musical theatre and acting. I never thought I’d be a good enough musician to do the really cool stuff.
Fast forward to my early twenties where I’m a year away from graduating with a B.F.A in Musical Theatre Performance. Digging through old boxes on Winter Break, I found some old songs with lyrics surrounded by letter scribbles and a few staves with simple melodies notated out. At my old piano, I plunked them out again. It was like finding a little piece of treasure. Was it gold? Goodness no, but it was like a little piece of magic from years ago, from a time when finances, responsibilities, and so many voices telling you what you should do weren’t there.
Next thing I knew I was pursuing an Undergraduate Thesis that focused on how a composer’s strongest skill should not necessarily be musicianship but rather creativity. I started writing music again. Having a couple more years of music theory and voice skills under my belt, all of a sudden I was writing with more complexity than I ever could have imagined. (And the funny thing is - looking back - it wasn’t anything all that complicated, but it was growth.)
In researching my thesis, I found acclaimed composers who started out kind of like I had: without formal or conventional training. For some reason we're all conditioned to think that if we didn't start when we were little, it's too late now. But these weren’t people who had been playing piano since they were four years old or growing up in a family of successful musicians. The name that surprised me the most was Danny Elfman, a name I had always worshipped. Throughout multiple books (mainly Danny Elfman's Batman: A Film Score Guide), I found that his music education consisted of getting his hands on an old instrument and playing “nonsense.” He found patterns and ideas that he learned from rather than books or expensive private teachers. His music was different because he found it differently. He inspired me to believe that music composition didn’t have to be just a dream anymore.
Seeing my favorite movie played in full by an orchestra was pure magic. With my eyes, I could see the melody bouncing between the violins and the brass. The cellos and double basses pizz-ed their way through Oogie Boogie’s chamber and the sky on Christmas Eve. I don’t believe words can express the joy I felt in seeing my favorite music come to life before my eyes. My fingers were tingling, wishing they could be playing an instrument on stage with them. My arms were tensing to the beats as if my hand was waving the baton. I felt a pull like I’ve never felt to create. So thank you, Danny Elfman. Thank you for helping me understand that music is only half of it, it takes being weird and out-of-the-box to create something unique and special.
What creative team roles, like directors, composers, or designers, have inspired you? Share in the comments below! #EmpaInspired
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Cover Photo by the Nice Usher at the Walt Disney Theatre