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A Hitchhiker’s Guide to Sound Arts and Industries

I remember in the spring of my senior year of high school I had the idea to make a video for the end of my AP Calculus class. I re-wrote the lyrics of The Little Mermaid’s “Under the Sea” into “Under the Curve,” which was filled with concepts we used throughout the year. Definitely my finest work. I had this grand vision that my teacher and all my classmates would be able to sing the same way I heard the song play out in my head. Perfection is definitely attainable, right? The result was one day of filming my teacher sing-rapping about integrals, a couple of derailed dance scenes, and the realization that I’m not Weird Al Yankovic.

The video ended up being a mish-mash of awkward camera cuts and lyrics picked up from the camcorder microphone onto a karaoke version of the song. But on the positive side, it was my first realization of how big of a role that sound plays in the production process, and why it can’t be overlooked.

Fast forward almost 10 years and here I am: enrolled in Northwestern’s Sound Arts and Industries (SAI) program and making a career out of filling the gaps High School Brendan neglected. I was at a crossroads before I started at the SAI program- real estate agent by day, stage manager by night. A far cry from the lofty aspirations I had after undergrad. I knew that if I didn’t make a change and chase this newfound love of sound, I would regret it for the rest of my life. I dove into the sonic deep end, and similar to High School Brendan, I learned a lot of lessons along the way.

1. Say yes to new challenges

Did I think I’d be super into podcasts when I started? No, but I signed up for a class dedicated to podcasts and learned an incredible deal about the industry. Did I think I’d create soundscapes that test hearing aids? No, but I got to work in conjunction with the audiology department and use a room with 37 speakers that changed the idea of “surround sound.” Did I think I’d take a class about the makeup of the brain? Absolutely not! I was a theatre major! But now I know how sound is converted from waves to electricity and how we process it. By saying yes to new challenges and keeping an open mind, I grew as a sound designer in ways that I would have never expected.

 2. Explore outside the department

The first quarter is filled with SAI-centric courses that are the cornerstones of the degree, but I would have done myself a disservice if I didn’t look outside the department for courses to complement what I was learning. For example, I took a class through the Farley Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation called NuVention Arts that centered around developing a brand-new creative business. Now my group is still in talks to continue our business model.

Classes through the Radio/Television/Film (RTVF, there are a lot of acronyms here) department as well as the Bienen School of Music offered additional opportunities to bolster a sound resume and meet new people. I had to take advantage of these chances to collaborate with other students. There are plenty of opportunities, such as student films or plays that need sound help, but I wish I had reached out sooner!

3. Know when enough is enough

There’s only one school year to pack as much knowledge and growth as possible, but I didn’t want to take on more than I could reasonably handle. There were plenty of chances to show and prove (shouts to Big Daddy Kane), but I only took on enough projects that I could realistically balance. Fortunately, I only had one all-nighter, but it could have been a lot more if I didn’t have careful balance and prioritization.

Northwestern provides a blank canvas with the chance to create a fully tailored degree. The plethora of resources and support can turn a dream into reality in one full year. I now have a new awareness of sound’s place in our everyday lives and projections for where it can grow. As a sound artist, I’m not defining myself in one particular genre. I’m letting everything I have learned intermingle and influence my next steps. If I knew then what I know now, sure, I’d do some things differently, but my mindset would stay the same: curious.

There’s a saying from an old director of mine that centers things for me: Breathe. Find the Horizon. Begin Again.

This is a perfect saying for the SAI program, and the best time to begin is today.