If I could start a “revolution” in the world it would be for us all to be grateful and to spread gratitude. We all have so much. Even those of us who think you are “poor” or “unsuccessful” are so blessed to have what you have now. There is so much fear on the planet now. Gratitude will cast the darkness away. When I am down and discouraged, I make a list of three things that I am grateful for and possibility returns to my life immediately. So, let’s spread the gratitude.
As a part of my series about pop culture’s rising stars, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing two-time Emmy® award-winning composer and music supervisor Michael Whalen. Michael is a veteran of 800 TV and film scores, thousands of commercials and numerous TV themes and corporate identity pieces. Some well-known projects include the films “After,” “Veronika Decides to Die” and “What the Bleep Do We Know!?” and television shows such as “Good Morning America,” “Inside Edition,” “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and hundreds of others. Michael is also a prolific recording artist and producer; he has 32 solo and soundtrack recordings to his credit. He frequently performs in NYC and has been adjunct professor at the Berklee College of Music, The City College of New York and NYU. He is published by Warner/Chappell Music. He records exclusively for Solace, a division of Real Music.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I was born in Long Island, NY but I grew-up in Washington, DC. I gravitated to music at an early age. I started playing drums around the age of 5. I loved the music of The Beatles; it was from hearing their music that a world of sounds and experiences came alive for me. From there, I learned about classical music, jazz and rock music. I think having a large experience base of music has made such a profound difference in my career. My parents have always been supportive of my being in music, and I had some teachers and mentors early on who made a huge difference for me. I am so grateful.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
My father took me to see the movie “The Cowboys” starring John Wayne way back in 1972. John Williams did the music — which is sublimely perfect. I walked out of the theatre thinking, “I have to learn how to do that.” I fell in love with the idea of being a composer. If you haven’t seen the movie, I highly recommend it.
Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
Oh, I have had a lot of “interesting” things happen to me! (laughs) But I think the story that I first thought of was when I competed for the theme for “Good Morning America” back in 1998. There were 14 composers in the running including MAJOR Oscar winning composers and Grammy-winning songwriters. We had to write a :60 theme on piano with NO orchestration — no arrangement. They just wanted to hear the melody. Winning was major in terms of my gaining confidence. The funny thing is that I wrote the theme in 5 minutes. It just fell out of my hands. As a kid, I used to watch the show and I had a sense of what it was supposed to feel like. It was a blast to orchestrate and arrange.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I remember the very first jingle session I did where I guessed what key the song was supposed to be in. I was completely wrong! The singer came in and said: “to sing this either I need major surgery or hormone treatment. Pick one.” (laughs) I learned that I need to prepare more effectively. I need to be in communication with my musicians. DO NOT ASSUME ANYTHING… That was a huge lesson that I bring into every session I have ever done since then.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
My new piano album “Cupid Blindfolded” was an incredible experience in terms of creating the recording. We recorded the album in full takes with no editing at all while six cameras filmed every note. Very intense and very fulfilling. You can watch the first video here:
I’m very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture?
1. The world IS diverse and creating television and film images that reflect the world is both obvious and much needed now.
2. Exposing everyone to different cultures, religions and points of view are essential. Only through educating ourselves and exposing possible differences in the world can we create tolerance and understanding in a world that badly needs it.
3. There are so many possible characters, stories, plots and lessons to be learned if we are willing to leave our “known” world be adventurous enough to explore, learn and be taught by other cultures. The arrogance and dominance of our (mostly) white, Western, (mostly) heterosexual and (mostly) Christian culture in television and film needs to end.
From your personal experience, can you recommend three things the community/society/the industry can do help address some of the diversity issues in the entertainment business?
1. It starts with the writing. Creating scripts and projects that are inhabited by real diversity is essential to solving diversity issues.
2. Casting must be done to stay away from cliches; typecasting perpetuates figures that actors of color cannot break away from…
3. Diversity must exist at the executive levels and with the real decision makers.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
I think I came into the business KNOWING these things… however, after 32 years, here are the 5 most important things to be in any business:
1. Operate with integrity.
2. Never be late — ever — to anything.
3. Never gossip. Ever.
4. Be grateful. Always.
5. Be generous with your friends and your competitors.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
For me, the big one is to have balance in your life. You need exercise and time to chill just as much as you need hours to work and practice. This took me decades to learn and to implement. I am the most creative AWAY from the studio.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Gratitude. If I could start a “revolution” in the world it would be for us all to be grateful and to spread gratitude. We all have so much. Even those of us who think you are “poor” or “unsuccessful” are so blessed to have what you have now. There is so much fear on the planet now. Gratitude will cast the darkness away. When I am down and discouraged, I make a list of three things that I am grateful for and possibility returns to my life immediately. So, let’s spread the gratitude.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My high school music teacher, Larry Walker. He was the right amount of kind and tough on me at a time when I needed real structure. He saw a spoiled and sheltered child with some talent and he exposed me to how high the bar is to be truly great. However, the most important thing he did was let me choose 100% if music was the thing I was going to commit myself to for life or simply a place to escape to in my life. Being empowered like that was the difference in my life and it’s what caused me to get my act together once school was over.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.” — George Bernard Shaw
What Shaw is saying is that whatever you want in your life isn’t out in the world waiting for you to find it — — it’s a creation, commitment and vocation in yourself that you must be willing to follow now and always. Lazy people think things are “waiting” for them. Nothing and no one waits for you. You must be willing to step into the responsibility of creating your life. This is why so few people do it. They want things packaged for them. I am creating and re-creating myself constantly. It’s part of the evolution of being an artist.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Keith Jarrett. He has always been the pinnacle of what it means to be a pianist for me. He lives in a world beyond style or genre, and always brings his authentic voice to everything he does. I have a few hundred questions that he couldn’t possibly answer, so instead, I would enjoy my meal and be grateful for a few moments to commune with true greatness. Maybe we would put on some Miles Davis and that might move the conversation in the right direction! His music has a profound stillness to it. There’s a word in Italian used as a musical marking: “Pesante.” The literal meaning is “heavy and ponderous.” Keith’s music is never heavy — it is lithe while opening the energy of the Universe. How do you do that? Maybe he would tell me. J
How can our readers follow you on social media?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much!
Thank you for this opportunity.