Part 3 of the ongoing series Assisting Composers.
The recording sessions are arguably the most fun and enjoyable part of working for a composer, but they are also the most critical, the most detailed, and the most expensive and therefore the most stressful parts of the process. Assistants should always be extremely delicate and mindful in the weeks leading up to and during the record sessions.
A critical stage
To give an example, for a large orchestra session on a big movie in Los Angeles, every second that passes by could cost as much as $15, or even more… that’s the price of two combos and a Happy Meal… every second! So imagine if there’s an error as small as a wrong note in the 3rd french horn part. Even if it is found quickly and corrected, the amount of time taken to make the orchestra, engineer, conductor, and all the recording staff wait to fix the error might be as expensive as feeding a hungry football team.
The recording session is also the time where the composer must “perform” by making decisions, listening critically, entertaining clients, directing the staff, and being the rock star in front of dozens of talented and highly skilled people. He/she should not be compromised by little problems and errors that could have been fixed well before the recording dates.
The importance of taking notes
Thus a tiny problem that hadn’t been addressed can run the risk of catastrophe when all the big players are present in the room. For example, the orchestra is rolling along and between takes, the director quietly says to the composer, “Ohh, I remember this cue from our meeting. Didn’t we say it would be great to have the brass play all those hits on screen?” Then the composer says, “Yes of course! Let’s add those brass hits!” Meanwhile, the orchestrators, conductors, and brass players are scratching their heads, looking at empty measures because while the assistant was taking notes at the meeting 5 months prior, he/she didn’t put that request into the change notes.
This is a completely hypothetical case, but things like this happen all the time and they are things that the experienced assistant would likely be able to prevent. So how does one get into that problem prevention frame of mind? Take notes, record every meeting (in a way that is acceptable by the composer and all outside parties), and review/debrief those notes and minutes very carefully, without missing a beat. It’s not enough to only refer back to hand-written notes.
Understanding the composer
For all assistants, regardless of the specialty, big problems can still exist completely unrelated to the music or tech stuff. These issues could be through miscommunication, the composer not knowing some key information, failure to meet a deadline, sending wrong information, breaching a non-disclosure agreement, or anything that puts the composer in a bad light (especially in the eyes of the clients). These are things that you must do everything you can to avoid because jobs or careers, including yours, could be on the line.
The sooner you understand the personal dynamics of the composer, like what makes him/her tick professionally, emotionally, artistically, the better shape you’ll be in to prevent problems. It takes months, sometimes years, but it is most definitely possible to get to a point where you can smell things coming and help the composer stop anything bad well before it happens. Don’t be discouraged if you can’t achieve this right away. If the composer recognizes that you’re making strides to get there and you’re at least preventing some of the issues while maintaining a positive attitude, your job should be safe.
No matter how prepared you are, mistakes will happen and because no human can possibly prevent every bad thing, there will come a time where a big problem surfaces. How you handle it when it happens will demonstrate a lot of your professionalism and character. Here’s something to remember: while your job is often critical to the success of the studio, the composer’s job is always the most critical and he/she should be leading all efforts to prevent disasters including educating you on past problems and how they were addressed as well as guiding you through the present and letting you know how you’re performing. You should never feel like you’ve been backed into a corner and have to solve your way out of it alone.
The next topic
The aforementioned guidebook, Assisting the Composer, has more on this and how to handle many other the tough situations one might encounter. Make sure you check the next chapter of this series: Keep Your Career Moving Forward Without Burning a Bridge.