I was assistant to a really great composer, the late Michael Kamen, for 5 years or so. It was the most amazing, frustrating, bewildering, life-enhancing experience I could have hoped for.
I feel like I’m still absorbing some of the things I learned from him, and from my friend and fellow assistant of that time, James Brett, on a daily basis, even after his sad passing in 2003. I’ve always thought that there were quite a few ways of learning about film composing. Scoring a hundred short films for instance. Going and doing a course. (Hmm, more of that later). Learning from someone who could already do it. Buying all the latest gear and sample libraries, and having business cards made. Oh, hang on …
When asked, these days, I would say that working as an assistant to a more established composer can be a great introduction into the world of writing music for a living. But what makes a good assistant?
I went to Surrey University and did the Tonmeister course, even though that was 20 years ago now. The kind of students they still produce do tend to have a great set of skills, both technical and musical, which make them really well suited to working as assistants to composers. If you didn’t go on that course, all’s not lost though. You just have to put yourself in the shoes of a composer and try and work out what you might want out of an assistant.
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 humour 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 organised 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. That would be great. And someone younger who could bring something to the party. Their own enthusiasms and skills.
The film composers I know are a very disparate bunch. Everyone’s very different, so there’s no perfect template for an assistant, it’s more about getting to know a particular composer, finding out what they need, and deciding whether you can help them out with it.
I’m really lucky, I’ve got amazing people working with me. I wouldn’t call them assistants because we’re all in a team together, and the hierarchy isn’t important. I’d love to think that we can all enjoy working on some projects together, and share the pain, the fun and the occasional glass of warm white wine at a screening.