Part 2 – Seeking a Composer Assistant Job or Internship
Being a composer’s assistant is one possible path you can take early in your career in order to become a successful composer down the line. Many of the top composers today have begun their careers as assistants to a senior composer. It’s the old “guild” system of craftsmen where the craftsmanship is passed on from the older generation to the younger generation via apprenticing and learning on the job. However, keep in mind that this “apprentice” path does not automatically guarantee upward mobility or career. You could get stuck as an assistant or additional composer for a decade. This is a topic for another blog – Patterns of Cultivating a Career.
When you are working as a Composer Assistant or Score Technical Assistant, your job is to make the life of your composer boss easier. It’s not an easy job. Assistants work endless, grueling hours and nights. Your ability to focus, pace yourself, be in optimal health, and not get burned is paramount. To become a Composer’s Assistant, you must possess a package of qualities that busy professionals seek. This package includes exceptional character, personality, can-do attitude (in the first place), and then, fantastic skills in various areas of music and technology.
Character. You must be someone who is reliable and will not flake out under extreme pressure, as there is always extreme pressure in our business. You must have passion, dedication, and commitment to whatever the task is. The composer’s career is on the line, the stakes are always extremely high. There are always tight deadlines, temperamental producers and tons of money on the line. Composers are always spending someone else’s money. There are creative problems to be solved, budgetary problems to be solved, new picture cuts, revisions, shifting deadlines, chaos, stress, and an endless list of technical tasks to be done by the assistant. You should be able to think on your feet, yet able to follow direction. In this business, you will work with trade secrets and proprietary materials, so being trustworthy is a must. Your boss must trust that you will respect the Non-Disclosure Agreement they are legally bound by. Lastly, you must be honest, humble, and hard working.
Example – Alexandre Cote
I have had many fantastic assistants over the years, and one of those was Alexandre Cote. He wrote about his experience working with me on The Woman Astronaut in this blog post. Alexandre has also written an excellent article for Designing Music NOW called Writing for Yourself.
Understanding Your Role
Make sure to respect the ranks and know your place – schmoozing your boss’ supervisors and approaching them behind his back for your own composer’s agenda is the surest way to get fired on the spot! As is: not showing up after making a commitment, losing a hard drive with data, not setting up a recording session properly, not backing up data religiously, arguing with your boss (the boss is always right!), leaking NDA information on Social Media, and other similar acts of breach of trust and lack of supreme professionalism and technical savvy.
Working as a composer’s assistant requires you to possess many different technical and professional skills. Your music production skills must be top notch because you will be asked to do a variety of tasks, such as mock-ups, synth programming, orchestration, notation, take-downs (transcriptions), etc. All composers delegate menial tech tasks to their assistants so they can focus on being creative and on their relationships with the director and studio. The composer’s mind must be free of technical problems, To-Do lists, score production minutiae and “noise” so it’s fully focused instead on creativity, revisions, deliverables, pleasing the director & studio and watching his back like a hawk for studio politics and curveballs. So you, as his/her Score Technical Assistant must be fluent in every aspect of technology and be able to carry the daily load of grunt work – all technical and workflow tasks (sequencing, fleshing out the mock-ups for presentations, setting up files, editing files after endless new picture cuts and picture changes, backing up data, installing new sample libraries, dubbing music cues to picture for playback meetings with the director, and never-ending similar tech tasks).
You must also have a well-developed ear and well-rounded musicality. The more talented, musically sophisticated and skilled you are, the more valuable and indispensible you would be to your boss. They will throw at you ANY and EVERY task in testing the limits of your knowledge and skills. Where you fail, the task will instantly be given to someone else to do.
To be a great assistant, develop excellent problem-solving skills. Be resourceful, flexible, and accommodating. And finally, have an insatiable desire to learn, grow, and acquire new musical skills daily. Listen to one soundtrack CD every day, so that when your boss mentions a score, or style, or specific reference, you will know what they are talking about.
How to Get Hired
90% of the good hires happen via internal connections and referrals. If you have no direct connection with the composer, you will need to be vetted in by a colleague, organization, teacher, or any other referral. When applying to become a composer’s assistant, keep these questions in mind:
- Am I proficient in technology?
- Am I a team player?
- How refined are my collaborative and people skills?
- Am I reliable and professional?
- Am I self-motivated, organized, and super-attentive to detail?
- Am I enterprising, curious, and willing to go outside my comfort zone?
- Do I have an insatiable desire to learn?
- Am I talented and committed to continuous development of my talent and skills?
- Can I handle stress, put out fires, and roll with the punches with a smile on my face and never-ending sense of humor?
- Am I defensive and insecure, or am I able to turn everything into a positive, learning experience, no matter how harsh it may feel at the time?
If you answer “yes” to all of these questions, you will have a long and successful career in entertainment and media scoring.
There are several great resources that cover this topic in great detail. Here are some of them:
Chance Thomas’ New Book
A new, definitive textbook by Chance Thomas titled Composing Music For Games: The Art, Technology and Business of Video Game Scoring has an extensive discussion of Composer Assistants and Interns – about the work, about what makes you a desirable candidate and how to get such jobs. You can pre-order the book now on Amazon or from the publisher’s website Here.
Winifred Philips – A Composers Guide to Game Music
The entire book is a great preparation on how to find work, and Winifred goes into very specific detail in her final chapter, “Acting like a Business and Finding Work” starting on page 237. You can order this book from Amazon here.
Michael Sweet – Writing Interactive Music for Video Games: A Composer’s Guide
Designing Music NOW Core Team Member’s textbook covers this topic in great detail in the last six chapters of his book in the section entitled The Business of Scoring Music for Video Games, and is a must read for composers cultivating a career. You can order the book from Amazon here.
Jeremy Borum – Guerrilla Film Scoring: Practical Advice from Hollywood Composers
Another Designing Music NOW Core team member, his book is almost entirely about how to develop your career as a film composer, but most of the information applies equally well to video game composers. It is available here from Amazon.
COMPOSERS ON THE CUTTING EDGE – MUSIC FOR LISTENING AND STUDY
Below is a list of current composers who are creating groundbreaking work for video games. It is impossible to list them all, and it is impossible to list all of their work here, but follow the links to their websites to learn more about each one. Listen to their scores closely.
- Neal Acree (Star Craft II, World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor, Revelation Online, Overwatch, Diablo III)
- Russell Brower (World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor, World of Warcraft: Mists of Panderia, World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King, World of Warcraft: Cataclysm, Diablo III Soundtrack)
- Jessica Curry (Dear Ester, Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture)
- Steve Jablonsky (Transformers The Game, The Sims 3, Gears of War 2, Gears of War Judgement)
- Laura Karpman (Project Spark, Everquest II, Kinect Disneyland Adventures)
- Koji Kondo (Ledgend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Ledgend of Zelda 25th Anniversary, Super Mario series)
- Jason Graves (Dead Space, Until Dawn, Evolve, Far Cry: Primal,Might & Magic X Legacy)
- Harry Gregson-Williams (Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, Call of Duty Advanced Warfare (with audiomachine), Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes (with Ludwig Forsell) )
- Grant Kirkhope (Civilization: Beyond Earth, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, GoldenEye 007, Banjo-Kazooie)
- Jesper Kyd (First 4 Assassin’s Creed Games, Borderlands Series, Hitman Series, Darksiders 2, Warhammer: End of Times)
- Christopher Lennertz (Starhawk, Mass Effect 2 Shadow Broker, The Warhawk, Medal of Honor: Rising Sun)
- Manami Matsumae (MegaMan, Shovel Knight, Flat Kingdom, Target Acquired)
- Peter McConnell (Grim Fandango, Monkey Island 2: Le Chuck’s Revenge, Plants Vs Zombies 2, Broken Age, Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft)
- Bear McCreary (Assassin’s Creed Syndicate: Jack the Ripper, Defiance, SOCOM 4: U.S. Navy SEALs, Dark Void)
- Yasunori Mitsuda (Chrono Trigger, Xenogears)
- Marty O’Donnell (Halo (with Michael Salvatori), Destiny)
- Winifred Philips (Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation, Little Big Planet (Multiple Titles), Total War Battles: KINGDOM)
- Tom Salta ( Halo Spartan Strike, Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X. 2, Tom Clancy’s: Ghost Recon Future Soldier (with Hybrid) )
- Garry Schyman (Bioshock, Bioshock Infinite, Shadows of Mordor (with Nathan Grigg), Queen of Hell – Dante’s Inferno, Bejing Orchestra Playing Dante’s Inferno, Conducted by Garry Schyman)
- Yoko Shimomura (Kingdom Hearts, Legend of Mana, Final Fantasy XV)
- Jeremy Soule (Skyrim (with mark Lampert), Harry Potter Series, Guild Wars series, Excellent Mix of Jeremy’s Songs from various games)
- Tommy Tallarico (MDK, Bard’s Tale, Bloodrayne, Spy Hunter 2)
- Chance Thomas (LOTR Online: Riders of Rohan, LOTR Online: Mines of Moria, Quest for Glory V: Dragonfire)
- Jack Wall (Call of Duty: Black Ops II and III, Mass Effect 1 and 2, Lost Planet 3, Jade Empire)
- Nobuo Uematsu (Final Fantasy I through X, Unofficial Fan Website with Sheet Music)
- Austin Wintory (Journey, Flow, Horn, The Banner Saga )
- Inon Zur (Dragon Age Origins OST, Fallout 4 OST, Fantasia: Music Evolved Main Theme, Baldur’s Gate II: Throne of Bhaal (with Michael Hoenig), Fallout 4 – iTunes)
There are far too many important composers working in video games to list all of them here. If you’d like continue exploring video game composers, Michael Sweet maintains a large collection of bookmarks which link to interviews with video game composers as part of his book on video game scoring. We’ve embedded a quick link to that collection below:
Here are some interesting behind the scenes videos from Jason Graves: Until Dawn (making of the Main Theme), The Order 1886: Behind the Scenes Making of the Music, Tomb Raider: The Final Hours Behind the Scenes, Dead Space 3: Behind the Scenes
Additional Article in this Series
About The Author
Penka Kouneva is a game & film composer of “exquisite talent.” She began her career in film/TV in 2000. She composed on PRINCE OF PERSIA: FORGOTTEN SANDS, TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN games (themes by Steve Jablonsky). Her solo composing credits include the indie features THE THIRD NAIL, MIDNIGHT MOVIE, PRIMROSE LANE and telefilms ICE SPIDERS, CHUPACABRA, NUCLEAR HURRICANE. Recently, Penka scored the award-winning PS4 game Rollers of the Realm, H-Hour: World’s Elite on STEAM, the iOS games Intense Life, Galaxy, IronKill, Hades , VR rides and others.
Special thanks to Natalia Perez, Alexandre Cote, and Michael Sweet for their Editorial Assistance.