Teaching is in the air this month on Soundgirls.org! Right on the heels of Karrie’s excellent blog about Paying it Forward, my blog for this month is about my experience as a mentor in sound design.
Mentoring is something that I fell into. I’ve always enjoyed teaching, and I paid my rent and bills through university and sound school teaching music and music technology to kids from five years old through to late teens.
Over the past two years, I’ve wondered how I could give back to my community and give young people working in audio the kind of support that I would have appreciated at the start of my career. I’ve offered advice by email in the past and enjoyed the process, but these interactions usually came to an end after a short exchange, once the person asking for help got the answers they needed. What I wanted was an opportunity where I could feel my input was valued, and I could see how I was making a difference in someone’s career.
The opportunity arose at the ABTT (Association of British Theatre Technicians) theatre show earlier this year when I introduced myself to the Head of Stage Management at ALRA (Academy for Live and Recorded Arts) drama school. Based in London, UK, ALRA has established stage management and technical theatre course with modules covering theatre sound, lighting, stage management and other technical production disciplines. As it happened, they had an opening for a sound design tutor.
This role was exactly the sort of opening I wanted. As a trial, I put together a seminar on an overview of theatre sound design and presented it to the technical theatre students. The seminar was a success, and I was brought on board as the sound design mentor for the school’s largest production to date and first musical in quite a while: The Wizard of Oz.
I’m writing this at the start of my mentoring period for The Wizard of Oz, so this blog will focus on what I’ve learned so far. I thought it would be an interesting exercise to compare my experience at this point with how I feel at the end of the mentoring period, so I’ll be blogging about that in Part 2 in November.
Listen more than you talk
To properly guide someone, you have to know as much about them as you can: their skills, level of experience, strengths and weaknesses. As a mentor, you’ll be coming from a position of greater experience and knowledge, but this shouldn’t give you licence to assume you know exactly what your mentee needs. One of your first actions should be to ask them what they want from you. Listen to what they say to you directly and listen when they engage with colleagues in production meetings and team meetings to identify other areas or topics where they may need support. Sometimes what a mentee needs most is to have their mentor just listen as they talk through a problem or strategy.
Develop a two-way relationship
Mentoring is a relationship, not just imparting knowledge. The relationship will only be worthwhile for your mentee if you are willing to interact with them. It’s not enough to just hand over information. Challenge them, ask questions as well as answering them, go and find the answers they need, offer support, and learn from them as much as they learn from you. Otherwise, you might as well sit them down in front of Google and walk away.
It is not your show
Mentoring comes in a lot of different flavours. You might just be there to offer occasional guidance or support, or you might be mentoring someone for a specific project.
If you’re used to being the lead (sound no. 1, sound designer, sound engineer, sound supervisor) on a project, it can be hard to learn when to sit back and observe.
A few years ago, it would have been very hard for me to sit back in a production meeting and let someone feel their own way, only offering advice when I felt it was totally necessary. I’m a detail-orientated perfectionist, and it’s taken time and effort to learn when to hang back and just observe, and to accept that I am not solely responsible for the sound for this particular project. I’m always aware that my role is to guide and support someone else’s learning process.
It’s a learning process for you, too
In her blog, Karrie lists some pertinent ways in which mentoring can benefit you. I would add to this list by saying do it because of what it teaches you about yourself. You might find you have important skills you didn’t realise were there. You might find there are definite areas of your approach to work that you can stand to improve.
It’s also fine to not know all the answers. Unless you work at the cutting edge of sound technology, it’s probably inevitable that your mentee will be an expert on the latest cool virtual synth app that you’ve never heard of, let alone used. Concentrate on what you can teach them – could their grasp of signal flow use a bit of a brush-up or could their compression theory benefit from a practical demonstration? If they introduce you to something you’ve never seen before, great. As long as they’re learning from you, that’s the main thing. If you feel they’re at a level where you can’t teach them anything, then it’s not a good fit.
Check back next month for Part 2 of my journey into active mentorship.