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).