You are a sound design professor at Cornish College for the Arts in Seattle. How does sound design fit into the overall design program there?
We're a BFA program, and we try to make sure all our students receive solid grounding in all design/tech areas. All production students are required to study stagecraft, costumes, scenic design, lighting design, hand drafting, model building, rendering, and basic CAD. I do an overview module on sound design as part of the first year sequence, and then students who focus in sound will take basic sound engineering in the second year. As chair, I can craft their program individually. Because of the range of individual foci within sound, this is often a one-on-one directed study situation.
On the practical side, they are on crew for productions as early as possible. Usually they'll do a board-op or two in the second year, and at the end of the second year or the start of the third, I'll have them assist me or another professional designer on a show as a precursor to taking on a main stage sound design themselves. Often, by then they are also doing sound designs for theatre students' senior projects or small companies in town solo.
On a broader level, we're all about collaboration. We try to model that in productions here and in classes which often involve seminar sessions including all design/tech areas. Rather than have students working on individual projects in studios, we build “production teams” with multiple designers working together to take a paper-project up to the show point.
How have these programs changed over the past few years?
One obvious change is the influence of digital technology in sound. We moved to digital audio for building and running shows in 1992, but other areas have taken longer to embrace the digital workflow. The explosion of digital products, amazing developments in loudspeaker technology, expanding number of options for digital audio editing and for sophisticated affordable playback systems, together with the range of acoustical modeling, prediction, and measurement software available today have revolutionized the way a designer comes to the table. Obviously, that means that we need to reflect that shift in our teaching, but we can't let that shift displace the aesthetic foundation of design.
What changes do you see coming down the pike in the next few years?
This conundrum of how to provide a good solid introduction to expanding technology without reducing the aesthetic core of a designer's education is not going away. If anything, it will intensify, and it is exacerbated by sheer excitement for the new tools. Students have been exposed to technology as consumers, attending concerts, seeing shows, watching films, and television. They want to work with the cool toys, but sometimes they misunderstand those toys as the center of the artistic process. So, the challenge for design education, not just sound design, is to find ways to make that aesthetic core visible, attractive, and accessible to students.
Where do you stand on the education versus professional experience debate?
I've been teaching for 26 years and am chair of a production/design department, so I'm not entirely unbiased. But I think both paths are valid, depending on the individual and the way life unfolds. I believe that the college experience is universally valuable, though everyone's experience is different. It doesn't necessarily have to be a theatre program. I started out in mechanical engineering and wound up getting an undergrad degree in management, housing, and family development, while doing rock ‘n’ roll sound and lights on the side. I followed that with an MFA in technical direction and lighting design. No sound design programs were available, nor did I know I wanted one then.
A good theatre undergrad program offers a student the experience of mentors that might take a lifetime to encounter in the working world. It offers them the chance to make mistakes and take risks that the commercial world won't tolerate. A graduate program allows concentration in their métier with higher stakes but still within a support system. It expands their networking and connects them with artists they will work with for years to come.
On the other hand, there are folks who aren't ready to do the college thing. There's nothing wrong with that, and there are a lot of exceptionally talented individuals working in the industry who didn't take the college track.
What skills and knowledge should students have when setting out into the real world?
I'd put a high priority on understanding how they fit into a production team, which is to say: no prima-donna attitude, accept that you have not finished paying dues just yet, and understand you've got to prove yourself in a new situation. Next, and of equal value, they need to be self-starting — no waiting around for someone to tell them what to do. Finish a task, and ask for another. Good communication skills are essential. In terms of sound, they need a basic understanding of the nature of sound and acoustics, a working knowledge of gain-structure, familiarity with basic digital editing, and experience with at least one of the major playback systems.