Mistakes composers should avoid. Advice from Patrick Kirst
Photo of Patrick Kirst, provided by Patrick Kirst
Born and raised in Germany, Patrick Kirst is a well-respected composer for visual media in Los Angeles. In 2007, Patrick became an integral part of Aaron Zigman's team where he earned credits on top-grossing films such as The Proposal (Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds), The Ugly Truth (Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler), Sex and the City: The Movie, Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium (Dustin Hoffman and Natalie Portman), and The Shack, to name only a few. Through these contributions and his ongoing work in indie films, documentaries and other feature films, Kirst was discovered and hired to write music for Disney's first nature documentary, Earth, based on the BBC's highly successful Planet Earth TV series. The composer scored The Kissing Booth and The Kissing Booth 2, a commercial success featured on Netflix.

Falling in love with film music as a child, Patrick Kirst decided to study music at the classical conservatory in Germany. In 2000, he left the country to study jazz at Berklee College of Music in Boston, later moving to New York to pursue contemporary classical music at New York University, and relocating to study film music at USC Thornton School of Music after. As well as scoring for motion pictures, Patrick teaches film composition and technology at the USC Thornton School of Music.

1. Speeding up the process

When I shared my decision to take a gap year with Patrick, he said that taking a year off is a great opportunity to study music and do other things. "There are certain things that you can't speed up: life experience, maturing in musical style, just those things that take time, and they take about 10 years to really mature," Patrick tells me. Even when it comes to film scoring, it requires a long period of time in order to master the craft and be taken seriously by directors.

After completing his undergraduate education in Germany, Kirst himself made the decision to study at Berklee when he was 27. Taking three semesters of classes, he then studied at NYU for another year, before settling on USC Thornton's Screen Scoring graduate program.

Photos taken at a recording session at Air Studios, London

2. Studying only film music

"I always give that advice to someone who is that young: absorb music wherever you can, study it, listen to it," the composer continues. "Study music, not just film music. Study jazz, pop, rock, EDM, classical, Stravinsky, Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Palestrina." Patrick rarely studies film scores, although he listens to them occasionally. Instead, he would choose to study anything that he finds interesting and that would give something of a musical value on a much deeper level. "Most Hollywood scores are there to make profit," Kirst mentions. "Of course there is art behind them, but it is this endeavor. Look at Mozart, [he was doing it] just for the art, really — he barely made it financially."

With the industry changing so fast, the composer emphasizes the importance of embracing the zeitgeist. "Whatever be the change in style in film music over time, I embrace those changes because I'm a film composer myself," he says. "Most of my (teaching) colleagues and I are active in the field, so we all go with the flow of things, time, and the development of new ideas." Technology has also been a major influence in the film scoring industry, and Patrick uses it as a tool of expression rather than a technical tool. At the same time, Thornton faculty spend a lot of time analyzing the traditions, looking at scores of John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, Bernard Herrmann, among others.

3. Missing opportunities to connect

"Every person you meet is an opportunity to make a connection," Kirst believes. Whether you are a music school student who connects with the students in the film department, or you are an established composer contacting film production companies, it is crucial to establish those interpersonal relationships. "If you are Mr. or Ms. Genius in your studio at home, but you suck at actually reaching out, you will never succeed," he shares. "Never say never, but this is so rare that you would have to stick out with your music so much out of all this jungle of noise, that someone would say that [your music] is so much superior than every[one else's]."

As a young composer, you need to reach out to different filmmakers, music and film production companies, and hope that this network will naturally expand. "Your network is just a big fishing net to get gigs — the bigger that net is, the more likely you will catch a fish," Patrick continues.
A popular route people often take is working as an assistant to a composer. "When you are 20, it takes a long time to mature your musical style [and] make connections," he notes. "When you're assisting a composer, you are already tap[ping] a little into his/her network, and maybe you get a recommendation, or start orchestrating [and] writing additional music for this composer." Later, this might lead to that composer recommending you to an agent, but it all takes time. At the same time, you need to make sure to reach out to directors, editors, and everyone in the filmmaking industry. "Everyone is a potential connection that could recommend you for another gig. It's not only the filmmakers — it's the editors, actors, sometimes musicians that have recorded your music that might recommend you [to] someone else. You never know which one of these connections will actually land you a gig," Kirst says.

4. Focusing only on your craft

Coming from Europe, the composer talks about American opportunism and how hard it was to adjust to the concept of taking opportunities and being able to market yourself. "If you only focus on your craft, that's just not enough: you have to be really good and develop your creative muscle, [which] you can do 50 percent of the time, and [spend] the other 50 percent of the time promoting your work wherever you can," Patrick advises. "I didn't do that because I was under the idealist impression that whatever music that I write, it will be good enough for someone to recognize it."

He admits that waiting to be discovered is one of the biggest mistakes that set him back several years in the film scoring career. This industry is so flooded with filmmakers and composers that the big question is how do you make yourself visible? If you don't promote your work as much as you spend time on creating your work, then you are at an imbalance. "If you have written a score you need to blog and write about it, post it on Facebook, Instagram, and anywhere you can think of — that's the only way right now of really sticking out before you catch anyone's attention," the composer elucidates. When you have a short film, market it as if it was a blockbuster.

In Patrick's words, if you don't make yourself visible, someone with a lesser talent of yours might succeed more, simply because that person is just better in promoting oneself.

5. Being afraid of making mistakes

After graduation, young composers often think that they have all the knowledge, but they haven't had enough experience in the field: they feel like they are ready, but no one hires them, which creates impatience and frustration.

"Film music is something for people that have that kind of endurance, perseverance, [and] tenacity … to be able to take a hit, fall, fail, and not get depressed or quit because [of] fail[ing] once," Kirst elaborates. "You learn the most from having done something wrong, and very often this generation doesn't want to make mistakes." This generation wants to get out there, thinks they are good at what they do, and try to avoid any wrongdoing, but the wrongdoing is the most important part to actually grow. "If you always do everything right, something's wrong with you," the composer smiles.

"For [my generation] there was success by going through a long dark tunnel," Patrick says. "These failures gave us this tenacity and perseverance. When you are young, you want to succeed fast, be in the real world fast, have your big gig fast, and that's great to have an aspiration like that. But it shouldn't be an expectation. Aspire to be the next John Williams, but don't expect it, because if you are putting weird stress barriers onto yourself, you're meant to fail."
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