Danny Elfman is a musician I have long admired (since his involvement in the group, Oingo Boingo). From Oingo Boingo, he went on to teach himself how to score movies and is well known for his identifiable work in Tim Burton’s movies. His ability to learn on-the-fly is what initially prompted me to follow his career (with all its twists and turns).
I recently learned that Danny had received an Honorary Doctorate from the North Carolina School of the Arts (June, 2007), and he also gave the commencement address to the school’s 2007 graduating class. I always enjoy when honorary degrees are awarded to those who rarely complete high school (Elfman being one).
After tracking down his commencement address (thanks to www.ncarts.edu/pressrelease) I felt compelled to share some of his observations and words of advice to the NCSA graduates. I especially appreciated his understanding of the differences between talent, skill and luck. Not all celebrities are as modest as Mr. Elfman when it comes to their talents and abilities. Here is a portion of Danny’s speech.
Note: I will insert an occasional explanation in italics as I have not included his full speech.
After discussing his involvement with the progression of Oingo Boingo (at the request of his older brother) he states: ... A year became five or six. Again, we busted our asses and rehearsed night and day. We got better. We built a strong following. Even got a record deal. Things are going OK. I guess I’m finally realizing my dream?
Can’t put my finger on it. Something’s still not right. Still not quite seeing “the future.”
Then a young animator doing his first feature film comes to see my band. He liked it and thought maybe I could score his film. How the hell am I going to do that? I have no training. I felt woefully inadequate. My newly acquired band skills now seemed useless for this endeavour. I came so very, very close to saying no. So, time for a big deep pause.
Remember back – all those movies I paid so much attention to (including the music)? (Danny was an avid theatre buff who loved the film compositions of Bernard Herrmann and Franz Waxman.) Combine that with what I’d picked up with the theatre troupe (Elfman was invited to join a theatre troupe when he was spotted teaching himself to play the violin while travelling France) – I developed a pretty good ear during those years.
I did learn to write down music on paper once. And I did remember all the film scores I grew up with. And so I reluctantly agreed.
The young animator kid, by the way, was Tim Burton, and the movie was PEE WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE. I did it, and guess what happened? It jump-started a new dream and a whole new career. But that’s not the point of this story. That was a lucky break.
So here’s the point.
Over the next 10 years, I busted my ass to learn this new craft and to my surprise, I found that every detour and dead end I had encountered in the past ended up giving me great advantages. I began incorporating all of my ethnic percussion and love of rhythm. As my teachers, I turned to a half dozen film composers that, although I didn’t know it at the time, had embedded themselves into my soul and brain.
I drew from some of the crazy, irreverent stuff I did while banging it out in the street troupes, both French and American, and the ear training I got from transcribing those Ellington records.
And strangely, in a weird way, the “go screw yourself” attitude I got from being in a rock band paid off too, because it allowed me to be more fearless.
Even the starving years taught me to sharpen up my intuition and people skills and how to figure things out with nothing to work with. Things that proved to be really useful.
But most importantly, all those detours taught me not to lose hope from failure. One door closes, another opens up. And amazingly, in the end, nothing was wasted. All the time I thought I had lost wasn’t lost at all...
I love how Elfman can reflect and express the general idea that ‘all things happen for a reason’; (a favourite belief that I carry strictly to preserve my sanity.) I also admire that he does not once attribute his good fortune as something that he was owed/ guaranteed/ deserving of because of his innate talents (which could be easily surmised). Indeed, Elfman has reminded me that many difficult interactions, challenging and even discouraging events in one’s life merely provide one with experience and ammunition for some obscure, yet relevant, future need. Best of all, I loved the irony of an upscale Fine Arts Institute’s choice of a speaker who never learned his craft from an institution.
Image from musicmedia.ign.com