How well are we preparing students for the workforce? As they head into their futures, do they have the right skills they need to make their mark?
Four veteran entertainment production professionals offered best practices for nurturing students toward career success during a panel discussion at this year’s NAMM show and conference in Anaheim, Calif.
Anne Militello, the head of Lighting Programs at California Institute of the Arts and founder of Vortex Lighting in Los Angeles, led the conversation with panelists Susan Rose, a lighting designer and programmer in Tennessee; Deanne Franklin, an audio engineer in San Francisco; and Celine Royer, a lighting director in Los Angeles.
Here are lessons from their conversation.
Foster flexibility. Rose discovered her love for lighting during her pursuit of a singing career in Nashville. She got a job running the spotlight at the now-defunct Opryland theme park. During the day, while others were enjoying the park, she was playing with the console. The lighting designer for the act noticed her interest and began teaching her how to program. Almost immediately, she was hooked. “I was fascinated with it,” she said.
Teach students that goals should be guides, not handcuffs. Some career paths will keep them in their chosen industry but not in the role they expected, said Rose. Lighting design became another way to play music, Rose said. “I think being a musician, I just felt the music,” she said, “It was like playing an instrument, but I was playing a rig. I’m playing the lighting.”
Encourage risk. “Fake it til you make it,” said Royer, whose lighting career began during an internship in Paris. She was thrown into the fire one night by her manager who needed her to run lighting for an event. With no experience and very little knowledge, she began programming and playing with looks. Her manager was so impressed that he offered her a job on a two-month tour. One opportunity led to another, she continued to learn, her experience grew and her lighting career took off.
Risk is uncomfortable but help your students to trust their ability to learn. “It’s okay to say you know how to do it, as long as you’re not gonna blow anything up,” said Franklin. “It’s okay because you’re gonna figure it out.”
Promote creativity and persistence. Franklin wanted to make records. She approached numerous recording studios and managers, looking for work opportunities, but came up empty. “Not a single one would give me the time of day,” she said.
Desperate for a shot, she accepted an offer to manage a recording studio in San Francisco. The job did not come with a paycheck, though; the owner would pay her in studio time instead. Franklin got creative. “I sold the studio time to punk rock bands, and we would record at night,” she explained.
Students should know that the road to career success is often not a straight line. Franklin’s creativity and persistence helped her navigate through the roadblocks and detours of her journey. She got to learn her craft and make important connections. “The bands kept hiring me,” she said. “They liked my work and they started getting bigger. I started working at larger venues and then I started touring.”
Nurture mental toughness. Militello’s first job in lighting was at the Golden Gate Theater in San Francisco, working for club manager and drag queen Sylvester. Her job training was a “crash course in lighting” where she forcibly had “her hands pushed around the preset sliders like an out-of-control pinball game by the hysterical screaming drag queen.”
When that club closed, Militello began working as a roadie for a small tour house. The job ended when an unscrupulous lighting director, after hearing she had been given his job, fired her from the tour. Militello tried getting work with the other touring houses but was told “chicks were not welcome.” She said she knew then that “she had reached the plywood ceiling.”
Militello eventually found her niche in the theater world. But she missed touring. She got her chance when Tom Waits approached her to create a theatrical look for his Orphans tour. Suddenly the music world reopened to her and she began receiving more invitations from other bands.
Help students develop mental toughness. It will help them maintain focus when they encounter uncomfortable, unfair work situations. “I’m in a world where the work has to take some amount of physical and mental strength,” Militello said. “I teach and tell my students [to] just know your job and keep your nose to the grindstone and enjoy yourself.”
Encourage exceptional work. When Rose was working at Opryland, a stagehand told her that women didn’t belong in the lighting design world. Another designer who was training her said that he wanted to take her on tour but he “didn’t think the guys would accept having a girl on the tour.” Eventually, Rose began touring with Louise Mandrill but left after a year to pursue her own singing career. Not long after, Mandrill reached out to Rose.
“I was very hesitant when I hired you,” Rose recalled Mandrill saying. “I didn’t know what to expect–if you could do the job. You’re my favorite lighting designer. Will you come back and work for me?” She rejoined Mandrill’s tour then later moved on to work with Ringo Starr. She’s in her 16th year with Starr.
Focus on your work, advised Rose. Exceptional work earns respect and creates opportunities. “I just show up and do my job,” she said. ” If you’re good at what you do, show up and do it.”
Encourage students not to let adversity distract their work. “Those kinds of things happen along the way, but they also go in one ear and out the other. And you’re on to the next thing,” said Franklin. “I always felt like it was important to rise above that.”
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