From the Palouse to the City of Angels

WSU alumnus returns to Pullman to perform, discuss his life as a musician and composer in Hollywood


KIERA CLUBB | The Daily Evergreen

WSU School of Music alumnus Paul Henning has worked on the sound and score of various films such as “Moana,” “Frozen” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”

BLAINE ROSS, Evergreen reporter

A talented composer, pianist, violinist and flute player, Paul Henning has worked on many different projects, some that are so secretive that he is not able to talk about them because of nondisclosure agreements that he has signed with some major names in the music business.

Henning grew up in Pullman, the son of separated parents, splitting his time between the town and the family farm.  The wheat farm founded in 1888, of which he is the sixth generation to live and work on, was a key influencer in his music, giving it a timeless sense of Americana and was reaffirmed by many road trips and train rides and his time on the farm.

“[My family has] a 3,000 acre wheat farm halfway between here and Spokane,” he said. “I would spend weekends and part of the summer out there. I’d also work the harvest and everything like that. So I have my roots in the farming industry as well, and I do own farmland now still.”

The time Henning spent on the farm was integral to his future of becoming a musician. On the family farm, there was a Conn organ that his grandmother encouraged the kids to play. She saw him excelling at the instrument, naturally picking up chords and playing melodies on his own, and she encouraged him to start taking lessons, Henning said.

“She noticed that I was putting melodies together and chords and such, so she suggested to my mom that I take piano lessons and that’s really where it started.”

From there, he took lessons from a Pullman teacher for three years. Then he took lessons from Gerald Berthiaume, the former head of the WSU music department and his piano professor as an undergrad at WSU. These would be the building blocks of his career as a studio musician, as these skills were integral to him becoming a composer.

“I had a great time [at WSU],” Henning said. “Some of the highlights I can think of was that there was a show choir called Crimson Company, that is no longer in existence, but we used to tour the entire state and I was the pianist for that as well as played other instruments. We went all over the state touring and had all kinds of crazy shenanigans.”

He said that as a member of the show choir, he served as an ambassador of sorts for WSU, keeping the many alumni who came to Crimson Company shows updated on current affairs of what was going on in Pullman. A major event he recalled was the Greek Row riots of 1998.

Now, a typical day in the life for Henning consists of “being thrown upside down, backward and every which way.”

Working on projects such as Disney’s “Moana,” “Frozen” and “Star Wars,” his job is demanding. He works mostly as a violinist, because the violinist is the “bread and butter” of studio musicians, he said.

“It’s very high-pressure,” he said. “You’re sight-reading all the music all the time at full tempo, at full speed … You often have these very difficult sequences of music that are five or six minutes long, of a battle sequence or a chase, with a lot of different tempo or meter changes … [There] might be a 13-page violin part to unravel and you don’t even have time to look at it. They count off the clicks and you just have to go and you’re hanging on for dear life.”

When it comes to his schedule, “it changes every day depending on what project I have going on, so there is no typical day. Some days I work from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.”

Paul has worked with many different major studios such as Fox, Warner Brothers and Disney and this can make his schedule difficult to manage. He has to drive through Los Angeles traffic to make it from studio to studio in order to help compose music or to play in their studios himself. Time management and scheduling has become a major component to his personal success, he said.

Something unique he’s found with his work in LA is all these different major films he has worked on have code names. Star Wars VII was called “Avco” after the Avco Center Theater where “Star Wars” premiered back in ’77.  “Fantastic Beasts,” the latest Harry Potter installment, was called “Boswell.”

Henning has seen a lot of change since his time in Pullman, he said, as he went from a WSU student staring at Kamiak Butte from the top of the Holland & Terrell Libraries wondering what he would do with his life, to moving to LA.

He recently released his debut album “Breaking Through” and his most recent projects were composing music for two documentaries. Paul Henning will perform at 8 p.m. today in Bryan Hall Theatre.