Here, Miriam Cutler discusses her role as an unconventional music teacher, and the joy she finds in sharing her decades of experience as a film composer to support and uplift her community of composers and filmmakers.
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I am not what most people think of when they envision a music teacher. I don’t train anyone on any instrument or talk about music theory. I focus on musical storytelling; that is, how to underscore story arc and narrative, and how to navigate all of the other things you might not think about that are a part of that process.
I have worked as a musician, singer, songwriter, performer, and composer. I even wrote music for a singing telegram company. But I discovered a passion for non-fiction films whose stories I can serve by contributing an emotional narrative through music. This is where it has all come together for me, and where I’ve been focused for the last 20 years. Turns out, I’ve learned a lot during this time.
Composing for film is complex, demanding, challenging, and maddening. As my career progressed, I was asked to participate in panels and interviews, write articles, consult, and mentor. In order to do this, I had to examine and be able to articulate how I have learned to do what I do.
I discovered supreme satisfaction in sharing what I’ve picked up during my long journey in this profession. My mentors were mostly filmmakers, so I learned what they needed and applied my own ideas about music to serve their vision. They didn’t always know how to ask, but we learned a common language together. Back then, there weren’t many courses offered on this, and those that existed were quickly becoming obsolete due to the digital revolution! So over the years, I developed numerous strategies for dealing with myriad challenges; not just musical, but also technical, psychological, business, legal, ethical, and more.
Believe me, I have spent a lot of time thinking about and exploring all of these issues. So when an opportunity arises for me to offer a filmmaker or film composer some pertinent advice, I am delighted to help. In fact, I have discovered I really enjoy discussing these matters. Seeing those light bulbs go on as they connect the dots about the process and close the gap between our avocations in a creative way – it’s actually thrilling!
In these cases, not only do I have the opportunity to contribute my perspectives regarding musical storytelling, but also provide some other insights that may save a filmmaker or composer time, effort, and pain during their careers. And hopefully, encourage them to create work that is fulfilling and will sustain them artistically, as well as financially, for many years.
The tools for making music and the outlets for sharing it are constantly changing, but the human heart will always be what draws us to create and listen to it. This is what inspires me to teach about music.
Miriam Cutler is an Emmy-nominated composer with a passion for documentaries.