I run an event crew for a mid-size university. A majority of my labor comes from students who range from no experience to those majoring in a relevant field such as Music Technology or Theatre.
Over the years I’ve learned a few things about how to train, deploy, and develop a functioning crew. This does not just apply to those working in higher education, but anyone running any sort of low-experience crew such as festival volunteers, church A/V teams, etc. Training employees is a very critical and often overlooked part of our industry. In this article I’ll share my take on the seven key elements to a successful training program.
1. Make Time For Training
First, it’s important to make time to train. The A/V team represents your organization when they’re working. If they mess up an event or have a bad day it won’t matter if they’re “just a student.” or a volunteer, or whatever – someone will look at them and associate their quality of work with who they work for.
While it may be tempting to train via “trial by fire,” the only benefit to that is that it allows laziness on the trainer’s part. By making time for training you also send a message to your team that you care about their skills, development, and growth. It opens up the dialog, letting them know that you are there for them should they need something.
2. Teach The Basics
It may sound obvious and boring, but it’s easy for even trainers to get mired in the flashy buttons and lights of cool gear. That digital console may be shiny, but you don’t get to drive a BMW on your first lesson. So why don’t we step over here into the “Little Tykes Cozy Coupe” and start slowly.
In my world, the hiring of new crew is cyclical and predictable. Students attend school for four (or five, I’m not judging) years and then they’re gone. This means I’m constantly replenishing with new trainees. As boring as it sounds, I always try to have a short PowerPoint presentation for incoming crews.
As noted, I often get people with literally no experience. They just thought the job would be fun – and that’s OK! There’s passion there and you can’t teach that. But I find a presentation is a good way to introduce the lingo. That way when I’m explaining something while they’re holding a piece of gear that is new to them, the words aren’t new as well. It’s also a way to give them the vocabulary to ask good questions
So instead of handing them a Shure SM58 and telling them it’s a dynamic microphone and then having to explain what a dynamic mic is, I first introduce them to the idea of different types of mics and then show them examples. Perhaps now when they find a random mic, they will wonder what type it is, which is a useful skill for troubleshooting in the field.
As far a hands-on training I start everyone out on the same setup. A two- to four-channel analog mixer and a powered loudspeaker. Simple enough, right? But there are actually a lot of steps, and this teaches them signal flow:
— Plug the female XLR into the mic
— Plug the male XLR into the mixer input
— Plug another XLR, female side, into the output of the mixer
— Plug the male XLR into the loudspeaker
— Power on the mixer
— Power on the loudspeaker
That’s a half-dozen steps and we haven’t even gotten to gain staging yet. It’s crucial, though. Whenever there’s a problem at an event, I tell a student to “follow the signal path.” We all know this to be true. The most basic troubleshooting happens when we follow cables to something that is either unplugged or turned off. Teaching this to them first really cements it into their minds and makes the transition to a digital console smoother. It doesn’t matter the medium, signal flows from input to output and being able to follow that path is an important skill.
3. Questions Are Welcome
Remember, these students are new to all of this. They may not know to ask questions. Seriously. I make a point to pause after every major step and ask if there are any questions.
I also want them to get in the habit of asking for help. I make it clear to them that if they don’t know how to do something, I would rather show them how to do it right rather than to fix it later. And “later” usually means five minutes after doors have opened, so avoiding that situation is always nice.
At the same time, it’s on the trainer to help them formulate good questions. I’m not saying there are stupid questions, but there are certainly bad questions. They should be trained in a way that encourages questions that are open ended.
Go to any online forum and you’ll see questions on how to EQ a certain mic, tune a system, or where to put a loudspeaker. You may see a few responses trying to answer the question, but any good response will begin by asking the poster what they’re trying to accomplish. Instead of “What EQ should I use?” or “How much compression do I need” encourage questions like “Why would I use EQ here?” and “When should I compress something?”
This section has little to do with audio. We do it all at my job. While I primarily focus on audio there are two other people just as focused on lighting and video. Make sure trainees get equal time in the other departments. This is great because it gives them a sense of what other departments are doing during a load-in, show, and load-out.
While it may be the trope that young people have no idea what they want, that does not exclude them from having tunnel vision. Sure, they may want to be behind an audio console this week, but perhaps when they learn what a video technician does, their interest may change. Plus, having a well-rounded event technician is a plus to you.
In addition, cross-training makes them a marketable technician once they leave the shelter of school or whatever volunteer position they’re in and venture out into the “real world.” Especially in our gig-economy, sometimes you can’t pass up work. If there are no audio calls at the moment but they can get on a lighting or video call, then more power to them.
5. Set Them Up For Success
Make sure responsibility grows at an appropriate rate. Just as we started them out with the basics of equipment, the same is true for the shows they work. Some folks may be itching to get in on a big show and be behind the console right away, but that may be a disservice to them.
I believe that one of the biggest things to train is how to be in the right headspace when working an event. And by that I mean knowing what to expect but at the same time being prepared for the unexpected. This is something that comes with experience. You can’t be prepared for an impromptu 40-piece children’s choir until it’s happened. It has actually happened to me and is a story for a different day, but the point is, as technicians work more events, they experience more situations and that helps them be prepared for whatever may come.
I find the best event to start students working is karaoke. The gear is simple (a small console, a few mics, monitor, and playback), it’s low-stress, and it will never sound good. The bar is very low. They can play with EQ, experiment with effects, and so on, all while knowing that they can’t really make the show any better or worse.
6. Let Them Make Mistakes
Mistakes are a necessary part of learning, and as trainers and mentors, we need to allow for them in the learning process. This isn’t to say we should shove them off the deep end (see the previous section), but rather, that we should allow those who we’re supervising to make mistakes and get frustrated. Eventually they’ll figure it out on their own or seek advice.
I like to define a true willingness to learn as “acknowledging what you don’t know,” and we often don’t really know what we don’t know until we’ve made a mistake. It allows students to take a step back and consider, “What could I have done differently?”
Just as working more events builds knowledge of what to expect, making mistakes early in the learning process builds knowledge of what not to do. If this happens enough then eventually people realize that they may not have all the answers. I know I sure don’t.
7. Know When To Take A Step Back
Finally, trainers and mentors need to know when to step back. In my sector of work in higher education, most of my clients are internal. It can very well be my boss’s boss’s boss who’s up on that stage, and if something goes wrong, you can bet I’ll hear about it from multiple people.
It’s very tempting to say that I have be behind the console every time the university president or provost, or whomever speaks. However, if I’m at the reins all the time then my students are not getting the opportunity to work those higher profile events. Knowing when to step back and let them takeover is important. Maybe not every one of my students will get to this pinnacle in their four or less years working for me, but for the ones that do it’s very satisfying.