Assisting composers – be helpful while learning

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The guidebook

The following elaborates on one of the many topics taken from a new guidebook, Assisting the Composer, which has introduced an unprecedented level of transparency in the professional world of media composers and their assistants.

Working as a composer’s assistant in the fast-paced world of media music can be extremely rewarding, challenging, inspiring, frustrating, exhilarating, and sometimes downright daunting.

In this specific topic, you will gain some perspective on not only how to be a highly contributive member of a composer’s team, but also maximize what you can learn and carry with you to the next level.

Maximize Your Best Skills

If the composer has made the decision to hire you, then it’s assumed you must possess skills that will be useful in the studio. These are your strongest muscles and also the building blocks for your success in that studio, so try to do as much of the heavy workloads as you can doing what you do best. And for any secondary skills that aren’t as strong, be smart about how and when to use them, but also try to not miss any sensible opportunity to develop those other talents.

For example, if you would rate yourself a 9/10 with how well you can do MIDI programming, but only a 6/10 with how well you can mix a mockup, then the best way you can help the composer is to complete as much of the MIDI programming as possible first. If the composer, engineer, or another assistant excels at mixing, use some of your non-working time to observe and learn so you can improve that particular skill.

The UPOD mindset

At some point, it’s likely that the opportunity for mixing will come to you (if that’s something you want) and as long as you keep the UPOD mindset (under-promise and over-deliver), then you’ll be in good shape for keeping the composer happy with your output. A consistent approach to UPOD will generally result in better outcomes because you likely won’t be biting off anything that’s more than you can chew. This is important because you never want to fall short of an expectation and then slow down or stop the whole operation because you over-promised something.

Patience and focus

It’s also important to not cultivate resentment or develop an attitude if you feel a specific skill of yours is getting overutilized (or another skill getting underutilized). Back to the MIDI programming example, let’s say your orchestral programming is 9/10 and your jazz ensemble programming is 8/10 and the composer seems to only want you to do the jazz stuff. It’s very common for composers to fill gaps in their own skill sets with assistants who can do the job well. The “itch” of wanting to do orchestral programming might be constantly in your mind, but you’ve got to be patient and focus on making the jazz stuff as brilliant as it can be before you earn the opportunity to impress with the former. Chances are that opportunity will come before too long and when it does, it’s up to you to make sure you’re ready for it.

Embrace All Communication and Feedback

Learning things directly from the composer is one of the best parts of assisting, but you can’t always expect the composer to take the time to teach you something. Composers want their assistants to be comfortable with as many skills and tasks as is humanly possible, so if you’re excelling at one thing, chances are you can probably handle another. When you get to the point where your primary skill is helping to keep the studio on track or ahead of schedule, be ready to take on something more and use it as a chance to learn, but also keep the studio moving smoothly.

Feedback from the composer

Any task the composer gives you is something that should help cement your ability to do it the same way the composer has done for years. Be receptive (never defensive) about any feedback you get. The composer may not have time to fully explain things or be as nurturing as a school teacher would be and frankly, that’s not his/her job to be that way. However, the feedback should be exactly what you need to get it right. At a later time, it’s a great idea to dissect that feedback and make your own cerebral connections within your brain to absorb that feedback, and recreate it when another similar situation comes along. It should go without saying, but any in-depth lesson or demonstration from the composer on how to do these things is invaluable.

Feedback from others

You should also treat feedback from others the same way. Compliments, constructive criticism, or even snarky comments could come from another assistant, studio person, music department staffer, the composer, or even the composer’s client. No matter what they say, there is always something to be learned from it and even something as elementary as, “make sure you get a good (mic) signal on that,” can be a valuable nugget of wisdom at some point in your career. If the comment is something negative or abusive, you must maintain a high level of professionalism as you’re not only representing yourself as a business professional, but the composer as well.

The Assisting the Composer guidebook has many helpful tips to help you in that situation.

There’s No Situation You Can’t Learn From

The reality of assisting is that you will ALWAYS be learning, whether it’s from the composer directly, or any number of other situations or factors.

Teaching is learning

The day-to-day grind is, in many ways, the core of your professional development because you’re experiencing what might ultimately become the interior operation of your own studio or things that will be responsibility of your assistants in the future. So it’s essential to not only master these things, but to also come up with a method of teaching them to others.

Often teaching is the best way to learn. In a situation where there are multiple assistants, you’re very likely going to learn workflows from the other team members. Be as attentive here as you would be when learning from the composer because it might not be too long before you’ll be teaching the same thing to another assistant. The expectation from the composer is that you’ll value these knowledge transfers just as he/she does.

The composer’s vision

Lastly, no composer nor studio is perfect in every way and sometimes you may be taught or observe things that you don’t agree with. This is completely normal and okay! The thing to keep in mind is you must maintain the integrity of the operation according to the composer’s vision so don’t resist something simply because you don’t agree with it or you think you have a better solution to something. An opportunity may come where you can suggest your idea, but you should never do this out of turn as it can raise conflict in the studio. The worst case scenario is that you will learn what not to do for your own studio in the future.

Whenever in doubt, know that a happy composer tends to equate to a happy assistant team so always aim for excellence and dedication to the composer‘s professional trajectory. Doing that will always serve you well.

Coming up next

Be sure to check the next chapter in this series: Preventing the BIG disaster.

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Kenny Wood

Kenny Wood

Kenny Wood is media composer from Los Angeles, whose experience in the field aided him in writing the Assisting the Composer guidebook with the help of an exceptionally talented and diverse team of contributors. He has composed scores on a number of feature films, video games, and the Oscar nominated short film, Oktapodi. He worked as an assistant to Mychael Danna, Heitor Pereira, and has provided additional music for Brian Tyler and Keith Power among others.

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