Welcome to the Friday Faculty Spotlight! This week, we’re talking with Shenandoah Conservatory Assistant Professor of Sound Design & Reinforcement Anna Alex, M.F.A. Alex is one of Shenandoah’s newer professors, having joined the university in 2021. In her Friday Faculty Spotlight Q&A, you’ll learn about what sound design and reinforcement is, what made her shift her focus from being an instrumentalist to a sound designer, her teaching philosophy (entertainment is key) and what she does for fun!
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Why did you want to work at SU?
I am in a very specialized field and not many jobs are looking for someone who only specializes in sound design and reinforcement. I like to say that I am not a one-trick pony, but a one-trick unicorn, because although my speciality is only in one discipline of technical theatre, I know it better and more in-depth than most people.
What is sound design and reinforcement? What skills does it utilize, and can it be a surprising field for those unfamiliar with it?
Think of every live event you have ever been to – a concert, a theatre production, theme park, a fundraiser at a park, a club, bar, etc. Was there a microphone? Some speakers set up? Was music being played? If the sound was good, which typically goes unnoticed, you can thank someone in Sound Design and Reinforcement. We are responsible for designing, setting up, and running the sound systems that fulfill the practical side of “Can you hear?” and the artistic side of the aural environment.
How did you become interested in sound design and reinforcement?
I started as a musician playing the reed parts (clarinet, oboe, bassoon) in orchestras for musicals in high school and college. I remember watching the sound technicians measuring out the distances between microphones, adjusting mics with such precision and thought, and being so intrigued by that process that I enrolled in a sound course. Instantly I was hooked. It was a mix of science, music, art, and technology.
The first time I mixed a show, standing behind the console controlling all of the sound for 1,000 people in the audience, when people laughed, cried, bobbed their head along to the songs, I knew, in some small way, that I was a part of bringing joy to all of these people every night.
What kinds of careers can someone carve out with skills built in a sound design and reinforcement program?
The skills that my students learn throughout this degree program can be translated to all live events. From theatre performances, to music concerts, broadcasting, TV/film, video game sound design, cruise ships, entertainment parks and beyond! Anything that requires microphones and an audience, my students will be prepared for.
You’re in your first year of teaching at Shenandoah. What has struck you most about the campus culture?
100% the students. They are such an amazing group of people who truly want to absorb as much information and experience as possible. They are encouraging to others and put in the effort no matter what the task is.
How do you approach teaching?
Entertainment. I believe that people learn the best when they don’t realize they are learning. I am a huge fan of documentaries, because the information is presented in a way that is palatable and enjoyable. I strive to bring that same energy and style into all of my classes.
I teach information through real-life stories and experiences I have. Instead of testing my students on information, we do projects. Instead of the projects being unrealized, I link all of my classwork to our productions happening on campus – that way, they can see how this information directly relates to real life.
How do you encourage your students to access their best work?
As a teacher my job is not to make carbon copies of myself – no one wants that! Instead, my job is to teach my students the “how” and “why” behind the topics and then share best practices. I encourage my students to take that information and own it by making it their own. I regularly tell my students “any assignment that looks like I created it will not receive full credit.” I want them to be encouraged to try to reinvent the wheel, or at least make the wheel fit their own aesthetic.
What do you hope your students keep with them from your classes?
When my students leave my class at the end of the semester, I want them to feel like they grew in the 16 weeks we spent together. That they are more prepared for their careers and, mostly, that they are excited to put to use the skills I taught them.
What do you do for fun?
Is it too nerdy to say I work on freelance sound projects for fun? Besides sound-related hobbies, I love hiking with my wife and dog and exploring the area. This is my first time living in Virginia, and I love trying new food, exploring the history here, and taking advantage of being so close to D.C. and all it has to offer!
Photo Credit: Charles King