Self-directing Your Audio Engineering Education

A message to all audio production school students:

Seize the day

Do you remember the 1989 film “Dead Poets Society?”  It’s a movie about the students at a prestigious academy and how they are inspired by the new English teacher at the school.  More broadly, it is a movie about pursuing your dreams.  Robin Williams plays the English teacher, and he challenges his students to pursue greatness with the unforgettable line “Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary!”  I recently got the chance to observe first hand as one of The Omega School’s graduates “seized the day,” so to speak.  The audio engineering student/ graduate in question is a guy named Sam, and he recently went from being a graduate of the Omega audio engineering school program to serving as an intern at the studio.  Internships are the next step up the ladder in this business, and are sought after for good reason.  An internship at Omega Recording Studios offers an amazing opportunity to experience the realities of the recording process.  I should know, I was fortunate enough to be able to intern at Omega after graduating from the school (this was back in the dark ages when the only computer was in the accounting department and a google was still just a very large number, but I digress).  Let’s get back to Sam, and one of the cool things he did during his internship:  Sam organized Omega Studios’ first ever Battle of the Beats.  If you’ve been following recent social media activity on Omega’s pages during the spring of 2014, you may have seen mentions of this event.  It actually took place on Friday, June 6th and it was a huge success!

There are a number of reasons why I wanted to highlight Sam’s success with this event.  In suggesting and developing the Battle of the Beats, Sam brought something new to the table that wasn’t there before.  We never had a beat battle, nor offered an event for beat producers to come in, compete, and show off what they’ve created.  No sooner had Sam suggested it, we realized it’s something we should have been doing for some time.  And not just for beat producers at large.  Students in Omega’s MIDI program are basically studying to be beat producers, and we realized that an event like this is something they too would get excited about (and they DID – a good number of the people who entered were Omega students, past and present).  You might be thinking, “yeah, but beat battles are nothing new,” and you’d be right, but it was a new idea for Omega.  Sam just demonstrated that it could be done here and that it would work for us.

But what Sam did leads to the bigger point: everyone in the music industry is perpetually yearning to see something new, something that didn’t exist before.  Sure, industry people hesitate, they fuss and gripe over the untried and unfamiliar, but at the end of the day it’s what keeps things vital.  Whether it’s the labels, the artists, the club promoters, broadcasters, whatever.  Too many of these groups have projects brought to them that are variations on what they’re already doing.  For the person with a proposal, it’s easier and safe to go that route, no doubt.  Plus, you’re more likely to get shot down if your ideas are too far out on a limb.  But every great success story in show business is about the right person having the right idea at the right time, AND (don’t forget this part) having the drive and determination to make it happen!

Organizational skills, the kind that take an idea from the drawing board to the stage, are as crucial as innovative concepts any day of the week.  Sam proved that he had them.  From nailing down a date, to lining up judges, from getting the promotional materials together to coordinating and directing the event, he dug into all of it.  In my time in the music industry, I’ve been around a lot of people who have had a great idea, and said “you know what we should do?”  And it hasn’t gone any further than that.  I’ve also seen people ditch an idea because they figure “somebody must have thought of this before.”  Hey, it’s possible that every great idea has already been conceived by someone somewhere, but it’s only the ones that are pushed along by determined individuals that put audiences in seats.  I was very impressed that Sam took his idea all the way.

I’m also impressed that Sam made this happen without it being assigned to him as some sort of task that he had to do.  As an intern, he could have contented himself with simply running cables and organizing track sheets, but he went further.  He was the motivator, and he realized that he was in a place where he could make it happen.  I don’t think enough students realize that they have similar opportunities in front of them when they’re in school.  Yes, when you’re in school, you do have projects assigned to you, that you have to complete in order to pass the course.  But what if the thing you want to learn about or experience through doing isn’t in one of the assignments?  Well, don’t forget that you can go beyond your assignments, and that’s why I chose the title “Self-Directing Your Education” for this blog.  Yes, you can actually do more than the teacher assigns . . . *gasp!*  Now, much will depend on the teacher and much will depend on the school, but you might be pleasantly surprised what you’ll find when you make a suggestion that goes beyond the curriculum.  Many teachers (the better ones, anyways) will be overjoyed to find out you want to go beyond the prefabricated assignments!  It’s possible those pre-made project assignments only exist because if they didn’t, too many students would lack the initiative and inspiration to propose a practical exercise on their own.  This is why I got excited about Sam’s idea, and was only too happy to help out.  It’s not the first time either.  In 2013 my Live Sound class acted as the crew for Omega’s “Do You Want This Job?” conference, organized by our jobs placement director Robert Scott Adams.  It wasn’t an assignment, it was something that came about through sudden inspiration.  The students really embraced it, too!  More recently, an Omega student named Jose brought in the band Feed God Cabbage for out Summer Open House.  He’d previously worked with the band for his student project, he was excited about bringing them in for the Open House.  When we got the band on stage to do their set, he did the mix.  He did a great job, too!  It was a great performance (and there are pictures here), and his part in it was a direct result of his initiative.

And that’s the second big point of this post, and it goes out to all the students in my classes and in others, who are doing an assignment, but are thinking to themselves, “what I REALLY want to know about is . . . “  You should say something.  Now, don’t get me wrong here, I’m not trying to foment a classroom revolt here.  School being school, assignments still need to be done, and you will still have to finish the assignment in front of you even if it isn’t the one that inspires you.  There’s several reasons for that, and here’s one:  the payoff to being a good student and doing those (seemingly) lesser assignments is that you get to say, “now what I really want to know about is __________.”  Thanks to your diligence, the teacher (or in this case, the audio engineering instructor) will know that your suggestion is more than just blowing smoke.  Granted, your teacher might not be able to pursue your request, or pursue it right away (for example, you’re at a cosmetology school and you suggest a project where the class launches its own satellite into orbit, that could be tough).  Still, it can’t hurt to ask.  As the old saying goes, “if you never ask, the answer’s always ‘NO.’”  Drudging through the projects which you have been assigned is necessary, though.  No free passes here, and here’s why: those students who slack off and never do any of their assignments are less likely to get traction with the teacher when they want to go off on a tangent.  Like it or not, it’s a credibility thing, and you establish your credibility with your teacher (and the rest of the class) by knuckling down and proving that you can complete that which you are assigned.  No teacher wants to support your proposal for some wildly inventive project if they don’t think you’re going to follow through when it comes time to make it happen.  And do you know why this is true?  Because the teacher is trying to show you what its going to be like OUT THERE.  Because after you get done with school, the role of the teacher is replaced by the employer, by the sponsor, by the client.  And they don’t want to get all revved up over some grand vision for a project (which might involve investment of time, labor, and capital, among other things), and have the person who proposed it drop the ball.  This is another thing that a good teacher should be putting you through, whether you like it or not: posing as the employer that you’re going to have to answer to one day.  Role playing.

NOW, having said ALL THAT, you know what will make your boss/company/investor/sponsor/board of directors/client jump for joy one day in the future?  When you bring something new to the table, something that SHOULD be happening but isn’t yet, something that has the potential for success, and you are able to follow through and make it happen.  That’s something they are looking for from everyone but actually see from very few.  Will you be the person who performs?  Don’t wait until you’re in your dream job to find out whether you’ve got the minerals to pull off a great proposal, either.  Find out while you’re still in school!!  Find out while you’re an intern!!  That’s what school is ACTUALLY for, in case they forgot to tell you – self discovery!  Trying things out, in an environment where failure is not a tragedy, instead it’s a teachable moment, and where success can be much more satisfying than just a grade on a test!  That’s what Sam did, and do you know what he got for his troubles?  A job offer.  You can’t top that!

Now get out there and seize the day!

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