“There’s no perfect template for an assistant.”
— Michael Price
Composers (especially ones who work in film, television, advertising, or video games) require lots of additional labor to accomplish their job, and will often work with a team in their professional studio. The composer’s assistant is one member of this team: a jack-of-all-trades who does whatever is necessary to support the composer, and in doing so gains insight into the composer's process. Composers work in drastically different ways and have different needs, and so the duties of an assistant vary greatly. As composer Michael Price (Sherlock) writes, “There’s no perfect template for an assistant; it’s more about getting to know a particular composer, finding out what they need, and deciding whether you can help them out with it.”
It usually falls to the composer's assistant to keep the studio running efficiently. This might mean burning CDs, renaming and organizing files, installing and updating audio software, cleaning up the studio/cables, creating demo CDs, being a messenger for vital audio tracks, and bouncing stems at the end of the day.
The composer's assistant may also assist with recording sessions, mix and edit recorded audio, build custom environments for the composer, redesign setups, program synths, or solve technical problems as they arise.
Composer's assistants also tend to assist with the composition process. This might mean notating a passage as the composer plays it, reviewing notated passages as a proofreader, orchestrating or arranging one of the composer's pieces for a specific purpose, or even writing a short cue in the composer's style.
Assistant to the Composer at a Glance
Although working as a composer’s assistant can be an excellent first step toward a career as a composer, and can serve as a sort of practical apprenticeship, be wary of thinking of the job solely as such. Increasingly, this role is treated as its own bona fide career path rather than a stepping stone. While some assistants might be saddled with their fair share of errands and menial tasks, others are treated as employees and paid a living wage. In these situations, the composer's team functions almost as a small music production company. All told, there are many different ways to approach this career. One person might work as an assistant for a year or two before breaking off and joining a music production company, while another manages to become a successful composer, and a third continues as a member of the composer's team for over 10 years.
Reach out to established composers whose work you appreciate with an explanation of any skills and abilities that might be helpful in the studio. It's important to be assertive and to advocate for your own usefulness. Assistantships like these are less likely to be advertised on conventional job listing websites, so it might be a matter of creating a position, not finding one.
- Music interfaces
- Music composition
Television composer Michael Price (Sherlock) explains it best: “It’s kind of unlikely that you’re going to want anyone with an attitude. You’re going to be working closely together, through late nights, so a sense of humor is going to be important. The composer is going to be dealing with lots of political and big-picture pressure that you may not even be aware of, so they’re unlikely to want someone less organized than them. Or less committed. But what they would, I’m pretty sure, appreciate, is someone who could be proactive, forward-thinking, and solve problems, both technical and musical, before they came up. That would be great. And someone younger who could bring something to the party. Their own enthusiasm and skills.”
Expect early mornings, late nights, and very long hours, especially when a deadline is approaching. Most composers work at a home studio, where they're joined by a team that may be as small as one other person (their assistant) or as large as 10 people. Depending on the composer, there may be a possibility of significant travel to film festivals, premieres, or other industry conventions.