Composers—especially ones who work in film, television, 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.
It usually falls to the composer's assistant to keep the studio running efficiently. This might mean renaming and organizing files, installing and updating audio software, straightening up the studio and cables, being a messenger when needed, 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. Some composers particularly look for assistants who can create interesting or unique sounds, or use knowledge of sample libraries to improve the composer's MIDI sketches.
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 from a composer's MIDI sketch, arranging one of the composer's pieces for a specific purpose, booth reading during a recording session, or even writing a short cue in the composer's style.
Assistant to the Composer at a Glance
For a long time, working as a composer’s assistant has been seen as the first step toward a career as a composer, serving as a sort of practical apprenticeship. However, today it's far from being solely an educational experience. Most assistants are treated as employees first and foremost, with the consequence that they are expected to bring a seriously developed skill set to the table from the get-go.
Additionally, the job of an assistant sometimes has more in common with the work of film orchestrators, copyists, and audio techs than the work of a composer. The composer's team functions almost as a small music production company, and assistants get to learn from every member of the team, not just the composer. When assistants feel they have gained enough, usually after a year or two, they break off and head in new directions. Some might join Hollywood music houses, some might form new careers as orchestrators, and a lucky few might make it as composers.
Aspiring composer's assistants should reach out to established composers whose work they appreciate, along with sending an explanation of any skills and abilities that might be helpful in the process. Assistantships like these are fairly unlikely to be advertised on conventional job listing websites, so it might be a matter of creating a position rather than finding one. As such, it's doubly important to be assertive and to advocate for one's own importance and usefulness.
- Music composition
- Music preparation
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."
Most composers work in a home or external 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. Aspiring assistants should expect early mornings, late nights, and very long hours, especially when a deadline is approaching.