sound work balance Asbjoern Andersen


Having to be creative on demand is, over time, a challenge for anyone working in sound - and a little while ago, successful composer Chance Thomas shared a Facebook update on the dangers of burning out that resonated with a lot of us in the sound community.

In this exclusive A Sound Effect interview, he shares his insights on how to look after yourself, foster creativity - and ultimately, how to establish good working habits that prevent you from burning out from a life in sound:


Interview by Anne-Sophie Mongeau
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Hi Chance, thanks for doing this interview. First, could you tell us a bit about yourself and your work?

I am a composer, author, entrepreneur and family man.

Most of my music scoring is for video games and animated films, although I also work in television, virtual reality and live theater. My longest running gig is creating music based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, including the recent MORDOR expansion for The Lord of the Rings Online. If anyone is curious about specific credits, they can browse here.

Outside of music scoring, I’ve authored a popular university textbook, served on various industry boards, built and sold a company, and am raising a family. I currently serve as VP of Music and Creative Development at HUGEsound Post Production, a new state-of-the-art studio facility located in the Rocky Mountains.
 

You recently gave a shout out on social media to your fellow audio professionals, telling them to beware of burning the candle on both ends and how it can be deadly to creativity. Can you elaborate a bit on that?

Overwork can grind the gears of your imagination and bring your creative output to a screeching halt

Creative people are susceptible to burnout. Creatives can easily disappear into a euphoric flow and lose all track of time, responsibility and bodily function. We can also get pulled into a recurring undertow of impossible deadlines, working ourselves beyond exhaustion in a futile attempt to comply.

In these kinds of situations, we may win some local contests while losing the ultimate prize.

And what is the ultimate prize? To me the ultimate prize is being successful in the broadest and most holistic sense of the word. Personally, I want to have a vibrant creative mind percolating with interesting and relevant ideas for decades, not just a few years. I want to work on great projects with great people. I want my key relationships to thrive. I want to delve deeply into the spiritual dimension of human existence. I want my body to be healthy and strong. I want to appreciate the beautiful planet we live on. I want to drive a fast car, climb majestic peaks, dive to the bottom of the ocean, sing my babies to sleep, play racquetball, feast on delicious cuisine, help the homeless and the lonely, cheer for my favorite sports teams, learn some card tricks, and entertain millions with the music I’ve produced. These are the kinds of things I’m talking about when discussing success in a broad and holistic sense.

But I digress. Back to your question. How can burning the candle at both ends negatively impact a composer’s creativity? Overwork can grind the gears of your imagination and bring your creative output to a screeching halt. Let me summarize just one aspect of this with you, as published in my book, ‘Composing Music For Games’:

Sleep Deprivation

Not getting enough sleep can seriously mess with your career! In 2010 the National Center for Biomedical Technology reported that sleep deprivation impairs the higher brain functions of creativity, innovation and divergent thinking. Reread those three brain functions for a moment: Creativity. Innovation. Divergent thinking. Those are the very brain processes that we milk for a living.

The Harvard Medical School warned that sleep deprivation literally “wreaks havoc on the brain.” Our brain is our creative workshop, the source of our imagination. It is our single most valuable business asset. Why would we purposely do anything to “wreak havoc” on our brains? It’s unfathomable.

And yet, we do it all the time. A recent Gallup poll found that 40% of Americans get less sleep than they need. Composers are probably at the more extreme end of that statistic.

According to the CDCP, the human brain requires an average of 7-8 hours of sleep daily. Sleeping less than 5 hours a night causes the brain to underperform at regulating even the most basic cognitive tasks and motor skills. Not to mention the higher brain functions that spark our imagination.

I know so many composers who are driven, passionate, and determined to do “whatever it takes” to be successful. Hey, I am cut from that same cloth myself. And I confess, I have done my share of all-nighters and sometimes (it feels like) all-weekers. Sometimes you just have to pull out all the stops. But realize that it is an expensive spend, with negative and potentially long-lasting repercussions. Let’s warn composers to guard this part of their life as if their creativity, innovation and divergent thinking depend on it. Please get enough sleep. Stop working at some point, unwind, and just go to bed. Your brain, and eventually your clients, will thank you.

 

How would you say someone can get to know better their own limits and when to recognise it is time to take a day off? Any red flags you have come to pay special attention to?

Composers are expert listeners. But we can be terrible at listening to our own bodies. Some signs can come early. Other signs only come when it may be too late. Let me share with you a story from ‘Composing Music For Games’ about a time I had exceeded my limits, with a red flag waving so frantically, it finally became impossible to ignore:

“Second only to the brain in its importance to a composer are the delicate and complex organs that comprise the middle and inner ear. One way composers inadvertently damage these organs is through prolonged exposure to high decibel sound levels.

One of the strangest and most disturbing experiences I ever had in a studio happened while I was mixing my music score for DOTA 2. I had booked a top mixing studio for a week. But due to the complex nature of the score and the sheer quantity of music that needed mixing, I found myself going at it pretty much around the clock. When exhaustion completely overcame me, I would pull three chairs together and lie across them to sleep. I would set my phone alarm for two or three hours, then get up and go at it again.

Toward the end of the week, probably Thursday afternoon, I became frustrated. I was trying to create a blend of the live strings and sampled strings, but everything I did sounded distorted. No matter what I dialed back—EQ, FX, levels, etc.—nothing removed the distortion. I rebooted the system, checked amplifier and speaker thresholds, soloed tracks, everything I could think of to troubleshoot. No good. I knew those tracks were clean because I had listened to them critically during the sessions and afterwards while editing. Still the distortion persisted.

Then something truly alarming happened. I accidentally knocked something on the floor, and it sounded distorted. I stopped in my tracks and paused to try to make sense of what my ears had just told me. Then I snapped my fingers. Distorted. I clapped my hands. Distorted.

Then something truly alarming happened. I accidentally knocked something on the floor, and it sounded distorted. I stopped in my tracks and paused to try to make sense of what my ears had just told me

I made several other noises in the room on various surfaces. All fuzzy and distorted. I called my wife. Her voice sounded fuzzy and distorted. By now I started focusing on a feeling within my ear canals. They felt swollen on the inside. Somehow I had bludgeoned my hearing so relentlessly for those four days and nights of mixing that every sound coming through the mechanism was distorting. At that point I decided it would be a good idea to go home and get a full night of sleep. Silent sleep. The next day, there was enough improvement to return and finish the mix. I have never experienced that before nor since. I hope to never experience it again!” – Composing Music for Games, pgs. 280-281

Other red flags that tell you it’s time to walk away for a minute would include an inability to focus, a feeling of lethargy, irritability, muscle pain, cravings, foggy brain and even memory loss. Waking up repeatedly with your forehead on the console, with drool spilling onto the floor is a pretty strong indicator too.
 


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What are the main symptoms of an unbalanced, overworked life? How can you tell it is a matter of stress and/or burnout rather than simply having a bad day?

I recently read about an epidemic in Asia, where people are literally working themselves to death. In Japan they call it karōshi, which means “death by overwork”. Warning signs include extreme stress levels, chronic fatigue, depression, mentally checking out, sickliness, and disappearing from key relationships and meaningful extracurricular activities. This can lead to heart attacks or strokes at a young age, even suicide.

Athletes talk about hitting the wall. Composers can hit the wall too. You can push yourself so hard, with such intensity that your body and brain just give out on you. Cowboys will warn you not to ride your horse into the ground. The same is true of your creativity.
 

In order to avoid getting there what are your tips and advice?

Composers need to draw some hard lines in the sand, create some sacred spaces and guard them fearlessly. We’ve already talked about reserving enough time for sleep. But add to that some kind of regular exercise, healthy eating, time for family, time for personal space, continuing education, service, nature… How do you do all this and still have time left for a career? Let me suggest a handful of ideas.

You might consider scheduling your composing time for when you are most productive. Turn off your phone, shut the laptop and close the door to your studio. This is music time. Dig in and write, write, write! Focused composers can generate surprisingly large amounts of music. Jack Wall once told an audience at GDC that he can crank out 12 minutes of music in a day when he focuses like this. For me, I tend to be most prolific from 7:30 am until about 2:00 pm each day. So whenever possible, I schedule meetings, calls and paperwork for the afternoons.

Scheduling your composing time opens the door to schedule other things in life too

Scheduling your composing time opens the door to schedule other things in life too. When I ran an audio department at EA Games a few years ago, we would slip out in the mid-afternoon 3 times a week and run over to Gold’s Gym and work out for 45 minutes. It gave everyone on the team a great energy boost for the late afternoon. If you’re not in a convenient position to schedule a rigorous workout, there are still little things to do that can add steps to your day. I park in the farthest possible spot at the studio where I work, or when I’m going to a restaurant or store. I often take stairs instead of escalators or elevators. I drink lots of water throughout the day, which gets me up and out of my chair periodically (and also keeps my system hydrated and flushed). If you look for it, it is easy to find simple ways to keep the muscles and joints moving.

One of the most powerful experiences in life is love. Although career success is important, it pales in comparison to the value of deeply loving someone and being loved deeply in return. You will all know what that means in your own life. For me, it involved courting and marrying a smart and dynamic woman over 30 years ago. To keep that relationship alive, I have carved out Friday night as our dedicated night to be together. We go out, we reconnect, we spend quality time alone together, we laugh, we talk about whatever is in our hearts – all without interruptions or giving in to other priorities. Occasionally, we will mutually agree to move our “date” to a Saturday, if something is happening on Friday that we both agree is a priority. But keeping our weekly time together has been HUGE in helping our marriage survive the ups and downs of life. And having that relationship survive and thrive has returned massive dividends into my music scoring career.

It’s important for everyone to discover what makes them whole as an individual, and reserve regular time for that

I think it’s also important for everyone to discover what makes them whole as an individual, and reserve regular time for that. For example, I am an openly religious man. I love the spiritual side of our human experience. Each morning I reserve time to study, pray and meditate before I leave for my workday. I also reserve Sundays each week for the unencumbered exploration and practice of my faith. Apart from the benefits which flow from regular spiritual exercise, I’ve found that having one day completely away from my music is helpful in resetting my mind and refreshing my creativity.

Each of these commitments can make a big difference in a composer’s emotional, physical, mental and spiritual fitness. And a healthy and happy composer is a more productive composer over the long haul.
 

See Chance Thomas in action:

Chance Thomas recently produced an album with flutist Jeannine Richards Goeckeritz – watch this great behind-the-scenes video for it:

If you are working independently and are managing your own schedule (such as a freelancer), it may be different than if you are working in an office, with deadlines you have no say about. What do you think is the best way to approach those 2 different working arrangements in relation to a balanced lifestyle?

I touched a little on that in the previous section about exercise. Scheduling yourself is a terrific way to increase efficiencies and open up additional time to keep you and your relationships healthy. This applies whether you work in your home for your own business or on site for an employer.

Don’t ever be afraid to tell an employer or client what you need as a human being, in order to give them your very best work as a professional

Don’t ever be afraid to tell an employer or client what you need as a human being, in order to give them your very best work as a professional. That may include going home from work to eat a meal with your family and get a full night of sleep, or going out with your significant other on the weekend to keep that relationship thriving.

Take a warning from the Asian karōshi crisis. If your employer is pressuring you into crazy amounts of crunch time, take a stand without fear or worry. Remind your boss that a productive employee in the studio is worth much more than a heart attack victim in the hospital. Or a dead body in the grave. There are just certain things you have to do in order to remain productive.

It’s been so interesting to me, as I look back on my career. Every time I have politely but firmly stood up for my reasonable needs to an overly demanding employer or client, they have always been accommodating. Every time. That’s encouraging.
 

Do you have any recommendations on how to train your creativity and keep your brain working at a stimulating and healthy level – regardless of how busy or not busy your life may be at any given moment?

Yes. Caring for the brain should be a subject of lifelong research and practice for all composers. Our brain is the fountain and workshop of our creativity. It is by far, BY FAR, our most prized and precious asset. Sufficient sleep, generous water intake, good nutrition, regular exercise, avoiding drugs, strong support system – these are all essential sources of good brain care.

Here are a couple of other suggestions to enhance our creativity:

Like a method actor, practice conjuring up emotions from your life experiences and imagination that relate to whatever scene you are scoring. Experiencing those rich emotions will almost always suggest resonant musical ideas to your mind.

It can be useful to plaster the walls of your studio with images from whatever you are working on. Studying those images as you walk around the room can rekindle creativity.

Take a walk, move your body around, and get some fresh air periodically when you’re composing. Especially if you have hit an impasse.
 

Finally, any resources on the topic you would recommend in order to help sorting out healthier lifestyle management and work habits?

Over the years I have read dozens of books about our craft and business. None of them ever addressed this topic. None. So when I authored my own career guidebook for composers, I decided that a chapter on good working habits and healthy balance was a top priority.

Thus, Chapter 11 of ‘Composing Music For Games’ is entitled, Lifestyle Management. It contains a wealth of knowledge pulled from sources like the Mayo Clinic, Harvard Medical School, the National Academy of Sciences, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Stanford and other university research projects, medical journals, etc.

But that’s not all, I’ve also gathered input from a number of composers who have been successful for decades, such as Nobuo Uematsu, Inon Zur, Jack Wall, Neal Acree and Tim Larkin. Each of them add wisdom and weight to the proposals and conclusions drawn in the book.

Personally, I have proven and continue to practice the recommendations outlined in this chapter for a healthier, more balanced approach to my career as a composer. I’m in my late 50’s, still married, healthy, and doing some of my finest work as a composer. Verdict? So far, so good.

 

A big thanks to Chance Thomas for this interview & advice on healthy work habits! Check out Chance’s book, ‘Composing Music For Games’, here.

 
 

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    And there’s more! A bonus collection of sounds in stereo from my extensive archive, with a ride on a San Francisco cable car, more vintage trams and a series of recordings of a Trolley Bus, an electrically powered bus running form overhead cables, but so quiet in operation, it was known as ‘the silent killer’ as pedestrians tended not to be aware when it was approaching.

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