Oliver talks us through the ups and downs of being an assistant composer.
After graduation from Berklee College of Music, Oliver assisted Christian Henson for a year on several TV dramas and series before moving to Spitfire Audio as their in-house composer. He has also assisted for composers Sam Sim and Ben Onono.
It is essential to learn how things work from someone who has been in the business for a while. The job ‘composer’ is a very demanding, diverse and unique profession; one can’t learn comprehensively at a school or university. On top of that, the people a composer works with change on each project, so there is no set in stone workflow or rule book, hence experience is definitely a key skill to have and being an assistant for one or many composers can enhance this.
You also learn a lot of tips and tricks when you assist a composer - for example, my workflow is now very similar to Christian’s. This is because I’ve had to learn his workflow in order to assist, but his methods are also very efficient and useful due to his experience. Then, of course, you get to see the creative process which is always educational and inspiring.
Being an assistant composer is a great way to get your career started. Do good work and be easy to work with, and he or she will definitely recommend you or use you on another project. The one dangerous thing is to then get stuck as an assistant for a long time. Be perceptive and see opportunities - the composer might let you score a little project on the side for which he/she hasn’t got time for. What I wouldn’t recommend is to force yourself upon projects; know your role - you are just the assistant - don’t expect to write any music as you are here to learn, but foremost to make the composer’s life easier.
These tasks may also occur, but, of course, it varies from composer to composer:
There is no right answer, as everyone probably knows, but the most important thing is to soak up other influential people’s stories and create your own ‘how to do it’ guide. By being open and perceptive of new opportunities you will find yourself in good situations.
You need a bunch of skills. It is essential that you are musical and have a comprehensive understanding of music technology and basic studio knowledge. I personally feel that social skills are highly important, so I will divide the skills in two sections.
In the beginning, I was worried I’d slow down the composer instead of helping. But it’s normal; just keep cool and learn the composer’s methods, observing and learning fast.
Not finishing in time is another worry, as you will be working to tight deadlines. Another fear is a faulty technology - this will most likely happen to you, but important is that you know a solution and fix the problem yourself.
Keep emailing and asking people; many times it’s about the timing. Also, do the best job you can once you get a job; the industry is small and people will work with you again if you’re good and easy to work with. (Not just composers, but editors, engineers etc. can also recommend you).
Be aware of the situation the composer is in; you are not always there from the start of the project. It’s likely he/she is in the most stressful situation, so just do as you’re told and give it your best; the composer doesn’t care that you have just finished working on a short film - save your self-promotion for the right moment. Also just keep making music, be creative and help others too as you can; it will always come back.