Keys to Becoming a Great Technical Artist: Pt. 6

This is our final article in this series. I finished last time by saying that I may be going back on my earlier position of not having any real order to theses traits. However, as I’ve spent a few weeks writing these 4,000 or so words, it’s become clear that perhaps there is, and today’s attribute is likely the least important. 

Characteristic Six: Technical Skill

Don’t get me wrong; technical skill is important if you want to be a technical artist. However, the key to being a great one lies less in the raw skills you have technically and more in the previously outlined traits.

With that said, I think it is critical to have a considerable amount of technical skill to be a great technical artist. The technical leader today is being called upon to do more than ever before. As churches cut their technical staff, we’re seeing people go from being specialists in one area to having to oversee sound, lighting, video, presentation, and sometimes even IT.

I think we are in an incredible era in human history. Never before has so much information been so readily accessible. There is really no excuse any longer for not knowing your craft. Just forty years ago, if you wanted to get into the live production game, you would have to start pushing road cases, and hope to find someone who knew just a little more than you did to show you the ropes. Most of the information out there was conjecture and opinion, with little hard science.

Today, there is a wealth of great information available at your fingertips (as well as a bunch of conjecture and opinion…). While it takes some effort to separate the wheat from the chaff, it’s not that hard. We have a great network of technical leaders in CTL, and it’s easier than ever to continually expand your skill set. 

That’s one of the things we set out to do with our podcast, Church Tech Weekly; bring you perspectives from the best tech leaders in the church today. Take some time and listen to them. End shameless plug.

The best technical artists I know are always learning, adding new skills to their toolboxes. It’s one of the reasons I pay to go to trade shows out of my own pocket—because it’s a great way to network, learn about new technology and talk straight to the people who make it. Yes it costs me personally, but when my skill set grows, I’m better able to equip those around me. 

I think most people who are involved in live production technology have a natural bent towards tech (and if they don’t, well, perhaps they need to find a new area in which to serve). However, technical skill is developed over time. It’s a continual process, not an event. I went to school for four years to learn this craft, and indeed did learn a lot. However, that was not the end of my education. Just the other day, I learned how to install an app on my iPad without using iTunes or the App Store (did you know you could do that? Look it up!). 

While it’s unlikely we’ll become experts in every single discipline of live production, we should at least have a pretty good understanding of them. I’m not really a lighting guy, per se. However, I know how to design a light plot, I can fix broken fixtures and I can program a service even using a lighting console I don’t like. And while I don’t like it, I keep learning it.

So while I think this is probably the least important characteristics of a great technical artist, I do think it is critical. You can be a great leader of technical people if you possess the first five traits; however without technical skill (and plenty of it), it’s really hard to be a technical artist. 

I said at the beginning that this was not likely to be a definitive list. You’ve heard my criteria; now it’s your turn. What would you add to the list?

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Keys to Becoming a Great Technical Artist: Pt. 5

Photo courtesy of richard-g.

Photo courtesy of richard-g.

This has been one of the longest series I’ve written, but the feedback has been good, so we’ll keep going. So far, we’ve been covering characteristics or attributes of what makes a great technical artist; Situational Awareness, People Skills, Troubleshooting Skills and Musical Ability or Passion. Today we add one more.

Characteristic Five: A Passion for Excellence

People define excellence in different ways, and many confuse it with perfection. Shooting for perfection is tough, since we’ll most often be disappointed. However, excellence can be achieved, regardless of the quality of your equipment. I consider excellence doing the absolute best you can with what you have available. Thus excellence will mean different things to different people in different situations. 

We get ourselves into trouble when we visit the giga church down the street, look at their production and come home defeated because we can’t possibly replicate that experience with our outdated and broken down gear. And that’s true, we can’t. However, we can still strive to continually improve our skills, our production and out teams. We can work within the limits of our equipment, utilizing it to the fullest extent. We can endeavor to create a seamless atmosphere of worship that is the proper embodiment of our congregation. 

A great technical artist will have a passion for doing things well. He or she will always be learning, growing, increasing their skill level so that each weekend is just a little better than the last. He or she will encourage their team to grow as well, stretching their skills and providing them the greatest opportunity to succeed. 

Some might think that excellence is expensive, but it’s not. Excellence is an attitude not a budget. I’ve worked to develop an environment of excellence in churches where my total annual production was less than my current supplies budget. In that smaller church, we took a somewhat defeated, half-hearted technical ministry and made it excellent, not by spending money but by changing the goals and raising the bar. Sure we had to fix some things, we bought some new equipment and updated some settings. But most of the transformation was attitudinal, not hardware. 

A great technical artist is not satisfied with the status quo, and can see things the way they should be. It may take relentless campaigning on your part to get there, but no one ever said being great was easy. The best technical artists I know are not content with the way things are. They are constantly looking for a better way to do something, a new skill or another way to challenge their team to get to the next level. They are motivated not from a fear of loosing their job, but internally, by a deep desire to continually get better at their craft.

And make no mistake; what we do is a craft. It’s something that needs to be honed, nurtured and grown. Not just anyone can do this; those that choose to have to put in the hard time to become great. 

Next time we’ll wrap up the series with the characteristic that you probably thought was going to be first. I know I said there was no order, but perhaps I was wrong…

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Keys to Becoming a Great Technical Artist: Pt. 4

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So far in this series, we’ve covered three characteristics of great technical artists; Situational Awareness, People Skills and Troubleshooting Skills. Today we’re going to tackle one that would seem on the surface to apply only to sound engineers. However, I think once we dig into it, you’ll see it is just as applicable to all of the technical disciplines. 

Characteristic Four: Musical Ability (Or at least Passion)

I don’t know many really great technical artists who are not musical, and/or passionate about music. So much of what we do revolves around music, and not having any idea or love of music makes it really difficult to be truly great at this game. As I said, this obviously applies to sound technicians; we’re mixing music after all. 

Years ago, I had a discussion with a volunteer at a church I was working at. The previous week, I was engaged as the stage cameraman for a Christian music festival. He was asking what I did, and what bands were there. It was a pretty all-star lineup, with some really big-name acts that anyone who listened to any Christian music would know. As I rattled them off, his answer to each one was, “No. Nope. Uh uh. Never heard of them.” Finally, I asked him what kind of music he did listen to. “Oh, I don’t really listen to music. I listen to talk radio.” And that explained everything. 

He was a reliable volunteer—there whenever he was asked to be—and he had a good attitude. He even got the right faders up at the right time, most of the time. But his mixes were much less than desirable. Even though he knew how to use the equipment, he didn’t know how music was supposed to go together, and thus he couldn’t make it sound great.

Obvious for the sound guy, right? But how about the lighting guy? Lighting has to compliment the music, and cues need to happen in time with the music. Without an idea of how music works, it’s really hard to know when to build, when to dial it back and when to go for broke. 

While a lighting guy could fake it, it’s really obvious when the video team doesn’t know or appreciate music. How many times have you been watching an IMAG feed of a keyboard player during a guitar solo? Or the director cuts to the drummer right after that really sweet one-bar fill. Video team member who are consistently a few measures behind everything either haven’t learned the music, or just don’t understand it. Camera people in particular need to know what sounds the different instruments make. Chances are, it’s not the bass player ripping that great lead solo during the bridge. Yes it’s a guitar, but it’s the other guitar. 

Of course, we can’t forget the song words tech. A non-musical person can press spacebar when we finish singing the last word on the slide (which is probably too late, by the way). But a musician will know exactly when to advance to keep from breaking the the flow.

My daughter is a great example for this. An accomplished musician in her own right, I’ve seen her run ProPresenter for worship leaders who sang the song differently every time. If they doubled the chorus but the next slide was a bridge, she’d hear the first note of the chorus repeating and be back at that slide before I could even start saying, “Repeat… uh never mind.” 

I don’t think you have to be an actual musician to be a great tech (though it does really help). I have taken various instruments at different times in my life, but never really enjoyed playing them. However, I’ve spent literally thousands of hours listening to music, both for pleasure and to analyze it to see how it works. As I’m writing this, I’m listening to an album that I listened to a lot in high school, but haven’t heard much recently. Between sentences, I’m tapping out the drum line, the keyboard line, or the bass line. I may not be able to actually play any of those, but I know them all by heart. And I’m noticing a distinct lack of high end in this recording. But I digress.

The other day I said I would much prefer a tech who has above average people skills to above average technical skills. I think the same is true for musical chops. Give me a musician or someone who loves music and I can help them become a great tech. But a straight up tech geek whose only exposure to music is the soundtrack in the video games he plays 5 hours a day? Maybe not so much. 

Combined with the previously mentioned attributes of situational awareness, people skills and troubleshooting, we’re well on our way to becoming a truly great technical artist. But wait! There’s more! (as they say on TV).

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Keys to Becoming a Great Technical Artist; Pt. 3

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In the last two posts, we’ve considered two of the characteristics of great technical artists; Situational Awareness and People Skills. Today, we’ll cover another trait that I’m finding sadly lacking in many of the younger techs I encounter (if I’m being honest, and it’s my column, so I can be). 

Characteristic Three: Troubleshooting Skills

It seems fairly obvious but apparently it’s not; technical artists work with some pretty complex equipment and systems. Sometimes (and sometimes too often), things go wrong. Cables are unplugged, or plugged in the wrong spot. The wrong file gets loaded, a patch is changed in a console, or a piece of hardware fails outright. If you do this for any length of time, you will run into situations that require troubleshooting. 

I’ve written an entire post dedicated to developing troubleshooting skills, and I’m not going into that much detail here. However, it is imperative that you learn how to figure out what to do when something goes wrong. Because something will go wrong. Not if, but when.

It should be noted that becoming a great troubleshooter takes time. A lot of time. One of the reasons I’m so good at it is because I’ve been doing it for a long time (almost 30 years). That big chunk of time gives me a huge database of troubleshooting situations I’ve been in that I can cross-reference against any new trouble I have. 

My troubleshooting career spans many disciplines as well; I can usually come up with a solution to just about anything because I’m not at all afraid to taking things apart when they break. But I said I wasn’t going to go into how to troubleshoot. Really I want to talk about why.  

If you are a technical artist, you are in that role to make technical equipment work. Your senior pastor probably has no idea how to get sound of your digital console. It’s unlikely that your worship leader can program your lighting board. And let’s be honest, they shouldn’t need to know that—that’s why you have a job (whether you get paid for it or not is inconsequential). 

Your job is to make that stuff work. Your leadership needs someone in that role who can “figure it out.” Yes, we all know things break, but the true test of a technical artist is how they pull the service off even when something is broken. Thankfully, for most of us, full-blown hardware failures are rare. Most of the time, the problem is fixable, and great techs can get things fixed quickly and get everyone back in operation with minimal downtime. 

This trait is especially important if you are a leader of a technical team. Standing in the booth with your hands in the air while your team looks on does not inspire confidence. Figure it out! Start at one end of the chain and figure out where it’s broken. Get something working. Don’t give up. Developing troubleshooting skills takes time. But like investing for retirement, the earlier you get started, the more you have to work with as life goes on. 

A great technical artist knows how to troubleshoot their system and get things back up and running quickly when things go awry. Combined with Situational Awareness and People Skills, and we have the makings of a top tech. Next time, we’ll look at a trait that often get overlooked, musical ability (or at least a passion for music).

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