Paul Henning ’98 didn’t set out to be a professional musician. “I swore up and down I wasn’t going to be a music major or study music—but then, look what I did!” he says.
He moved to Los Angeles where he made a lot of phone calls looking for work as a session player, orchestrator, or proofreader of musical scores—and ended up working with John Williams on the music for Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
Over the course of 60 years, John Williams has scored over 100 films and taken home five Oscars. All his scores, Henning says, start with Williams at the piano with a pad of score paper, writing out everything by hand.
“These sketches are very complete,” Henning says, with all the parts for woodwinds, horns, strings, piano, and percussion written out “down to the tiniest detail.”
“Williams writes this incredibly complex and amazing music that he doesn’t hear until it gets to the scoring stage,” Henning says. “It’s just in his head and there’s not many people who can do that anymore.”
As a first step towards a final score, Henning engraves the sketches using software before completing final orchestrations. From there, the score passes through many hands, returning multiple times to Henning for proofing and fine-tuning of the orchestration. Henning continues to work with the Academy Award-winning composer, most recently on BFG, the film adaptation of the beloved Roald Dahl story.
Henning is an aspiring composer himself. He’s written the score for a film, The Town that Was, and is about to release an album of original orchestral music. Called Breaking Through, the compositions feature Henning on his first instrument, piano.
As if that weren’t enough, Henning is also a successful studio musician. He’s played violin on Barbra Streisand and Neil Young albums, a slew of TV shows such as Family Guy, as well as the songs in Frozen and the latest Ice Age and X-Men films.
Henning was well prepared for session work. The fifth-generation Pullmanite started on piano when he was 8, and studied violin with WSU associate professor Meredith Arksey when he was a teen. Despite that, Henning planned to go into civil engineering until a flute player friend he met at Alive! new student orientation encouraged him to take music classes. Henning and Amanda (Bullock) Grider ’98 played in marching band and Crimson Company together.
“It was her friendship at Alive! that helped me make the decision to go into music,” Henning says.
Even with all his experience, Henning says sessions are still extremely demanding.
“You are usually sight-reading everything” at recording sessions, “and the music is sometimes ferociously difficult. Sometimes almost to the point of panic: How am I going to get this in the next 10 seconds?
“But then they say, ‘OK, violins, here we go,’ and you have to pick it up and just nail it.”