Many times, I’m asked what my secret to volunteer development is.
As you plan to implement volunteers, plan to also include safety nets.
I’m not sure there is a secret.
I do know this, though, that I’ve made a lot of mistakes along the way. Of those mistakes, nearly all of them was failing to plan for someone else to succeed.
As time has developed, I have several steps in my process, to how I prepare beginning anyone in tech ministry. Perhaps the one position that is the hardest, though - only because it may carry the most weight of all tech positions - is that of audio.
While many of these planning principles can apply today to any tech position serving in the church, I have directly aimed them at developing new audio volunteers who are just starting their process.
1. Plan for making the transition
Perhaps the biggest step in making the transition to begin involving audio volunteers, is planning and then committing to it.
The transition doesn’t happen overnight.
In fact, I’d say if you attempt to thrust audio volunteers into action without some preparation, you will make their journey not only harder, but often more confusing.
Next, try to identify where you’d like volunteers to serve.
Often, some churches have benchmarks that require a high level of skills for a particular position, to a level where leadership has asked for a pro. That’s totally OK, because you can develop some roles for volunteers to serve as assistants, to better understand advanced mixing and delegate stage setup.
For those areas in which you want to have volunteers to serve, identify those venues and events, and begin to think through what it would take to ensure that a new engineer can have success in that role.
Lastly, as you plan to implement volunteers, plan to also include safety nets. What this means, is make sure to have an additional skilled engineer available, someome to guide and watch new volunteers on the road to success.
In all things I do as a developer and teacher, I run three goals side by side.
The first is to clear the way for the volunteers to do it.
The second is to still obtain quality.
The third is to make sure they do not fail.
As you begin to work through your transition processes, to incorporate any new tech volunteer, try to strike a balance between these three goals, without letting one dominate over the other.
2. Simplify the process
Some of the hardest work you will do, is to simply clean up your workflows.
Let me be clear, with that statement. While you can have a very complex show file on your audio mixing console, it needs to be organized.
Think of it much like you are inviting in another guest engineer. Could a touring pro walk up to your console, and easily find and identify what is on that console?
Try to organize your inputs, so that they are in a logical order, making sure all inputs and outputs are clearly labeled. If you have layers and banks, you might consider breaking them down by categories, such as drums, guitars, vocals, keys, and so on.
Continue on with your groups and/or VCAs and stick with a similar naming convention for your labeling.
Looking specifically into bank layouts, if you are mixing a show, try to achieve a layout in which you could mix 90 percent of your event. If your band needs to become quiet, for instance, you need to pull down your vocal reverbs. At that moment, your pastor simultaneously walks up on stage. Can you from one layer, have control over that?
While not all audio consoles offer customizable banks, you may want to strategize having key inputs, VCAs, and other master outputs all on one layer.
The less an engineer needs to bank around during important transition moments, the greater success your transitions will be.
The last bit of organization is to go around your stage and begin to clean up anything that is unidentifiable. Clean up audio snakes, label cables and snakes, label wireless, and perhaps laminate some procedural steps for startup and shutdown processes.
3. Practice makes perfect
Long before digital, the only way to develop your skill sets, was to actually mix an event. The problem, though, in such a scenario was that inexperienced engineers often were making all their mistakes during a live show. As a result, most of the more challenging events were often manned by well-seasoned engineers. Therefore, it made it very challenging for the up-and-coming engineer to gain experience.
In this current digital age, developing your skills as an audio engineer leaves little room for excuses. Among the useful tools readily available today on most digital consoles is virtual soundcheck.
Whether you are a veteran audio engineer or curious audio volunteer, taking advantage of today’s technology is a must. I’ve said it many times to people I teach, musicians practice and refine their craft at home, the pastor spends all week (if not more) writing his sermon, and often even from home rehearses a run-through. So why shouldn’t audio engineers be putting in the same amount of effort, to refine their craft?
Create routines in which this time for this rehearsal process can occur. Since virtual soundcheck often can only be done with one audio engineer mixing at a time, create a schedule, when each of your audio engineers get regular times slotted in.
Utilize virtual soundcheck as a tool to refine everything from the simple basics of mixing, to advanced development of fine tuning your library of reverbs. Use this time to give focus to one element of skills.
As weeks continue on, build upon each week’s focus. If possible, also vary the music content to introduce additional unfamiliarity, to emphasize the basic mixing skills of EQ, dynamics, and balance.
4. Get out of the way
There are two methods of developing people. The first is having them observe and watch. The other is letting them be hands on. Both have merits for developing audio engineers.
I often find that spending a concert carefully listening and watching an engineer’s hands make moves, is actually very educational. However, I have a fairly good idea of what I’m watching and hearing, and how I can use what I’m observing in my future workflows. An inexperienced engineer might not know what they should be looking for, therefore sitting around watching isn’t so appealing.
Try to minimize the amount of time you ask someone to be just an observer.
As the saying goes, “use it or lose it.” People have many other places they could be spending their time, but they have chosen to spend it with you.
Look to get your volunteers hands on time, as soon as possible. You say they are not ready, though, to mix an event. That’s fine!
Your audio volunteers might not be able to mix an event solo for a long time, but there is no reason they cannot be practicing with virtual soundcheck and learning the ropes to console layout, patching, stage set-up and other basics.
To take it farther, once they have their time on the console, be as hands off as possible. This may take some practice on your part, because at this point, you need to be able to verbalize thoughtfully your instructions.
If you have some moments prior to a sound check or in-between soundcheck, deliberately save some basics for your volunteer to go through on the console, while you talk them through it.
To conclude, never underestimate your preparation process for any step in which you spend time with a volunteer.
Think of this time as where you are the instructor, and the volunteer is the student.
Come in with a game plan to see your volunteer take on the day with success and walk away knowing they have not only gained more in knowledge but have also contributed to something greater in return.