Part 4 of the ongoing series Assisting Composers.
So you’re loving your assistant job, you’re learning every day from the composer, the pay is great, the projects are awesome, but you start to worry that you may be stalling or drifting from your ultimate goal to become a successful composer in your own right. This is something that many assistants face, and each situation is unique.
However, if being a composer is your ultimate goal, you must find a way to keep exercising your artistic muscles and business muscles by taking on projects of your own (so long as they don’t interfere with your assistant work). While many assistantships are non-exclusive, meaning you can do whatever you want outside of the job (even work for another composer), it is still your responsibility to look after your primary composer and keep helping him/her be successful. The moment you start to steer away from that, you could be out of a job. So it takes some very careful balancing to keep your boss happy and to keep your artistic growth on track.
The good news is that since you have a job, you can be much more selective about the personal projects you take. You absolutely do not need to say yes to everything, but instead only to the things that have a better chance of boosting your career.
First, don’t do too much. One project should be more than enough to keep your creative juices flowing. And definitely don’t take a second project until you know how well you can handle one. Try to take on projects that allow you to be flexible with due dates. Or do a personal project of your own creation. It’s important to do SOMEthing to express yourself, but the last thing you want is for the stress of that side project (or worse, the deadline) to bleed into your work for the composer.
Also, don’t wait too long or keep turning down things because they don’t fit perfectly within your schedule or artistic tastes. As you get older and gain experience, you’ll probably learn that there is no such thing as the perfect project, unless you create it yourself from scratch. And even if you create something for yourself, there will probably be lots of things that will distract you and make the experience less than perfect. But rather than agonize over the imperfection, you should embrace it.
You got into this business because you like challenges. Taking on a venture with limitations will build your character and artistic style more effectively than a blank slate and all the time in the world. So don’t be afraid to take a risk and reach for something a little past your comfort zone. Chances are you’ll be thanking yourself for it later (or at the very least telling a great story/anecdote to other young hopefuls). Perhaps the best part is that if you need to regain stability, you can put it on hold or let it go and regain focus on your main gig of assisting. Quitting isn’t ideal of course, but despite what you may have heard from your composing mentors, it is not impossible to rebound from letting go of one project. What you really want to avoid is establishing a pattern of delaying or dropping things because you can’t manage the workloads. Your reputation as a creator/contributor will be affected.
The composer comes first
To achieve a successful balance of working for yourself and a composer, remember to always lean in favor of the composer. If he/she has an important client meeting with music playback on Friday morning, then you’ll probably want to avoid working on your own project that Thursday night before the meeting. If you have worked with the composer for a while, you should have a sense of when you’ll need 100% focus and when you’ll need 150% focus, so see if you can find a rhythm to fit in your stuff and still be able to perform for your boss AND get enough rest. Never underestimate the importance of proper rest. If working for a composer and your own project is not leaving you enough time to sleep, then it is time to rethink how to approach it. The older you get, the more difficult it is to recover from an up-all-night event so if those are absolutely necessary, try to space them out as far apart as possible.
Another angle from which to look at this is that a really thoughtful and considerate composer will not try to completely hold you back from doing your own thing. There are some composers who actually let their assistants utilize the studio as a recording/production space for their own projects. And there are others who at 6:00pm say “drop what you’re doing and resume tomorrow” so that the assistants don’t get burned out from overworking, which gives them time to develop on their own. These are the types of situations that are not only ideal for growth and development, but also for the composer’s output. It’s amazing what a rested, happy, and motivated team can do.
After a number of years, the thoughtful composer may encourage you to move on from the studio and pursue your dream. Or maybe he/she will let you write some cues for the project, or if you’re very fortunate, share credit and co-compose with you, but that last one doesn’t happen frequently enough to be a typical scenario. Either way, the composer who values your help should also value you as an artist with your own ambitions. Frankly, it would be kind of silly for composer to assume that you don’t want to compose on your own eventually.
Trust your gut
However, not all assisting situations are like what you read above. If you’re in a situation where for an entire year or more, you’re constantly strapped down and cannot catch a breath of fresh air, let alone work on something unique to you, you might consider moving on from that studio at the end of the project. To quit in the middle of something is the fastest way to a burn a bridge. Trust your gut and always use your best judgement!
A good attitude
To conclude, there are many things to strive for as an assistant, but these two should be paramount. First, be indispensable. Second, respect yourself. You should do as good a job as you can so that your presence is missed when you’re gone. And not only that, you should also be pleasant and respectful to everyone. By having a consistently good attitude and being appreciative of everything you experience at a studio, you will be cementing those bridges and paving your way to many avenues of success no matter where you are as a professional. For example, the composer might show you one little MIDI programming trick. If you show a genuinely positive reaction to it, it will more than likely inspire the composer to show you more stuff down the line, including something that could prove extremely beneficial to you and your career.
There is always a potential of reaping some great rewards at the end of a healthy assistantship and the assistant should always strive to earn them. Whether those rewards actually manifest is never guaranteed, unfortunately, but it should never alter the good intentions of an assistant as he/she should treat the opportunity as a chance to become a better professional. That’s also why the assistant should respect his/herself enough to know when to leave a situation and do it gracefully.
The Assisting the Composer guidebook offers more on how to do this. Thanks for reading!