By Greg McDougald
There are many different types of training. Some training is done in-house where the tech leader, paid or not, trains the volunteers. There are seminars where the tech crew can go to and learn in a hands-on classroom. There are online classes that teach the fundamentals, and there are on-site training sessions using a hired-gun instructor where the learning is based on what you actually do. Any of these can be effective or they can be a total waste of time.
Over the years I have installed literally hundreds of sound systems and have trained over a thousand techs in person. Unfortunately, I spent much of my time spitting into the wind. In many of the situations, someone was “appointed” to just show up and learn how to operate the equipment. This person had no real interest but “someone had to be there” so, “someone” showed up. If almost forty years of mixing has taught me anything, it’s that someone has to take ownership of the system. I’m not talking about a being a dictator, but there has to be a passionate overseer who manages the mixing or every service will be damage control at best. That passion can and should be shared with the other techs, (if there are any) so that duties can be covered if someone is sick, or scheduling is tight. Unfortunately, passion can only be shared, it can’t be taught. If you have no desire for the role, even Zig Ziglar or Tony Robbins can’t instill “passion” in you. Until someone steps forward, my best training plan is to hand out a single page worksheet on how to turn the system on and off and how to turn a microphone up and down.
I’ve had other situations where the church brought me in but with very unrealistic expectations. I can’t teach someone how to mix on a Saturday afternoon. Operating the system….possibly, but mixing is an “art” that takes time to develop. While I always discuss these matters in advance, many churches still believe that in two or three hours, these guys will magically become seasoned engineers with great intuition, and great ears. To be honest, my goal is simple…..help them learn how to learn. Operating a sound system is actually both art and science. The textbook side is learning things like basic mixer operation, what plugs in where, how to set up monitor mixes, solving wireless mic issues, gain structure, etc… The art side comes with actually moving faders with real musicians on the platform. There is also the magic that comes from years of experience – finding the sweet spot when micing a guitar amp, using reverb, compression, delay, and other things that are seen as Voodoo to the textbook guy. A great mix has more to do with an experienced ear than technical know-how.
Instead of continuing the lecture, let me share three situations I encountered to see if you can understand my dilemma. While I have hundreds of stories, these three are representative of what I go through.
I was hired by a large church in Alabama to resolve some technical issues and then train the crew. This was a fast growing church with a young, motivational pastor. They were chomping at the bit to take things to the next level. They had bought an existing performing arts center that had gone bankrupt. The system had all the right pieces and parts, so with a few wiring changes and tuning it was ideal for their style of worship. I often come into situations where the needs to fix their issues far outweigh the budget. These folks had the tools; they just needed to know how to use them. The real beauty of this scenario was that I was working there for three weeks building the broadcast studio, so I had the benefit of time (or so I thought). There were ten guys on the tech crew who were to be there for training. One of the guys was even part-time staff who was paid to mix. When I was introduced to them, I was told that these guys would do anything I instructed them to do. First task. “Hey guys, I have to get under the stage to solve some wiring issues – can you pull everything out so we can go through it, see what we might utilize, clean it up, etc…”
This was Monday morning mind you. Four of these guys did not work a regular job so they were around everyday and five of the remaining six was there every night. After ten days of waiting, I finally had to do it myself. On Saturday, we were ready to set the stage back up then rehearse that night. To my dismay, ten guys watched me set everything up while they drank coffee and played games on their phones. This same attitude prevailed with the band. I had to assemble the drum kit, set up keyboards, and carry the amps to their designated positions. No one was willing to lift a finger. After all was said and done, I learned that the mindset was that it was my job since I was getting paid. Actually, I was there to work along side of them and teach them how to get the most out of the sound system. Instead, I wound up doing their job. The first Sunday after I left, my phone rang off the hook with question after question on how to do the most basic of tasks. Mind you, I had been there for three weeks and yet they learned nothing. They continue to have weekly issues and have hired and fired several part time sound guys. It’s no wonder. Their problem was a leadership issue that had almost nothing to do with the technical realm. Until those issues are addressed, nothing will improve.
I recently got a call from a church where I had installed a system two years ago in a building they were going to use on a short-term basis. The rent was way too high for long term practicality. They were now going to meet in a local hotel convention center setting up every week until they found a building they could afford to buy. I had to make the permanent system portable and train the volunteers how to set up each week. The first part was easy. They had adequately budgeted for the necessary racks and road cases as well as the labor to make the transition. The nightmare came to light when I was introduced to the sound engineer for the church – a super nice lady with great ears and the chops to mix. She was very willing to learn but, this was Saturday afternoon with a rehearsal starting.
The volunteers had spent several hours setting up the room as I connected the sound system. I had made the setup as simple as possible but each week they set up a full band, eight vocalists, and three video screens that have to be ready to go at 9:30 Sunday morning with only two and a half hours for load in. I quickly found out that the drummer did not even know how to set up his kit much less mic it. The media people did not know how to focus a projector or use their brand new Pro Presenter software. The lighting guy was using a new software controller that he had never seen before and the used lighting truss would not go up as far as our plan had called for because of a broken part. There was a pattern emerging here. Some of it would be ironed out over the coming weeks. But most of this wasn’t specifically my worry. I was there to help with all of it but sound was my primary concern. And I had reason to be concerned.
Against our recommendation the church had bought a very capable digital console that had a high learning curve. It is a great desk with internal support for the in ear monitors and the digital snake makes set up much easier. One really needs several training sessions to get around on it. Anyway, when I was introduced to their sound engineer, I found out that she had been put in that role a couple of weeks prior to the move. Now she was going to be expected to set up each week two hours prior to the service. The problem is that she literally had no comprehension of how a sound system is to be wired and connected. Her entire audio experience was pushing faders. No clue about plugging in microphones, setting gain, much less routing the in-ears. And she wasn’t even there for the initial setup! They literally expected me to teach her all she needed to know during the one rehearsal. Needless to say, I spent most of the next Sunday morning on the phone. If I weren’t such a nice guy, they would have gotten a bill commensurate with my frustration. I’m just hoping they will schedule some real training for her.
They say everything is bigger in Texas. The mess I found myself in there sure was. This was a thousand-member bilingual Pentecostal church in a demographically changing area. To save money, the Pastor of this church, a former building contractor, chose to self install the recommended speaker system. What I wound up doing for them was the installation of racks and system training. After travel expenses, he could only afford to pay for four days of my services. This wasn’t a problem until we got to the training on Saturday afternoon. Once again, against our counsel, the church had bought a complex digital desk. Don’t get me wrong, I am a huge fan of a digital console but one needs to realize the differences between an analog console, and a digital console are akin to comparing a computer and an adding machine. The problem is that there is a learning curve when switching to a digital console. A HUGE learning curve. How long it takes to master is dependent on the board and the skill level of the operator, but every digital board has a learning curve. We had warned of the potential pitfalls but a pastor friend across town had a digital console and this Pastor was not going to be outdone by them. Some admonition about pride comes to mind, but that’s a different topic for another article.
Anyway, I was just finishing the routing of all the inputs when I looked up and my afternoon class attendees had shown up. After hasty introductions, I inquired about the audio background of those that were there. Of the five guys and the Pastor, only one had mixed sound before. He used the six-channel mixer in the children’s ministry on a regular basis. The Pastor played guitar on the worship team and since this was his system, I expected him to be there. His real job that afternoon however was to be the interpreter as none of the five others spoke English. I now had three hours, during worship team practice, to teach five non-English speaking guys and a distracted Pastor, how to mix sound for the first time, on a high-end digital console. I could not have taught these guys enough to get them through if I had been there for a week. He had also booked my flight for early Sunday so I would not even be there for the first service with the new system. Needless to say, this church is not high on my list of references as his failures according to him were obviously all my fault. He told the guy who recommended me that if I had more skill as a trainer that they could have been prepared. Go figure.
I share all of these stories not to defend myself but to point out the great challenges in preparing techs to do the task they are asked to undertake. Realistic expectations, proper budgeting of time and resources, understanding the mindset of your volunteers, the churches philosophy of ministry, and many other considerations will affect the success of any training program. Proper education is vital. There is no shortcut. Ultimately, your crew needs to learn how to learn so they can improve. You can teach a child to read but if they don’t open a book occasionally, they will never be able to get past “See Spot Run”. Your tech team is no different.
Consider this…..On September 11th, 2001 a group of Islamic Extremists flew multiple airplanes into The World Trade Center, and The Pentagon killing thousands of people. The men that did this had trained for months on how to fly airplanes, planned their course of action, and studied their objective so that on that terrible day all would go as planned. And…..it did. They studied, trained, and planned on how to kill all those innocent people as well as their selves, all for a lie! To make matters worse, they were all volunteers! With that in mind, what if sound people and musicians in churches today put the same amount of effort into their jobs as those militants did, but instead for the truth? That question you will have to answer for yourself. Think about it. Those militants changed to world forever….again, all for a lie, and it happened only one time, on one single day. Just imagine how worship ministries across America could change the world if they were as passionate as those militants….on a weekly basis. WOW!