On The Importance of Mentorship in the Recording Industry

One of my mentors died today, and I am sad.  Do you have a mentor?  What is a mentor anyway?

A mentor is kinda like a teacher, but different.  It’s kinda like a friend, but different. It’s kinda like a champion, but different.  A mentor is really some of all of that rolled up into one.  And, of course, mentors are different to different people, and at different times in someone’s career.

Last month I wrote about getting and keeping an internship, and about how what you should really be looking for, rather than a studio in which to sit and be ignored, is an engineer or producer who is willing to be a mentor. The subject is so important, and so often overlooked in our industry, that I wanted to write more about it.

One of the most wonderful things about music is that it is a means of communication. It transcends time and personal differences and lets us all just do our thing, but as part of a whole. Playing with a group, be it a rock band, a DJ crew, a school orchestra, or after-work choir is a magical experience that too few get.

So, too, is the process of learning our craft, whether it’s learning to hear critically, understanding compression, or developing the ability to instantly bond with a great but emotional singer.  While we learn from doing, we learn even better from being shown how to do and then doing.

I remember many years ago sitting at a console with a producer who would go on to be another mentor to me, and him saying, “give me some 900 Hz on that bass” and my timid little tweak of the EQ followed by his, “C’mon really crank it, it won’t break anything.” In that quick moment he gave me a lifetime of license to really grab a knob and yank it (yes, I know how that sounded). But in all seriousness, it was only one little comment that set me on a path to being willing to take risks and experiment with the audio.

Me with Tony Schultz, now Eastern VP of AES, and mentor/friend David Moulton

Me with Tony Schultz, now Eastern VP of AES, and mentor/friend David Moulton

Chris Stone, who just passed away prior to my sitting down to write this, reached out to me when I had just opened my first semi-commercial studio (which, incidentally, was already my fourth studio overall).  He facilitated a number of studio connections that lead to growth of my business.  But, most of all, he facilitated my growth as an entrepreneur, being willing to take risks in that realm too, make connections, get out of the studio, and ultimately establish my name.  Without Chris’ mentoring, I would probably never have been able to run that or the subsequent several studios.

Mentors aren’t always people who are older and more advanced in their careers. I have a friend who is an audio professor at a college in central Pennsylvania who was often a panelist with me at a number of music conferences. One day at breakfast he asked me if I had student interns in my studio.  His jaw dropped when I said no, that I wasn’t sure I had enough going on to teach them.  He assured me that I did, and that students would fall over themselves to work with me, given the work that I do, and the way that I view teaching. Further, he said that part of the intern crew’s job would be to find projects that they could work on, as well as participate in my stream of clients.  Suddenly, I was thinking about interns, and indeed my whole workflow, in a new way.  He challenged me to give it a whirl.  I did, and it has been a wonderful experience for me, the studio, and for the students.  I’m so glad I took him up on the idea!

What I learned was that teachers, like performers, need training, but are born, not made. While some find their way to formal teaching, others teach in the context of their work.  These are the ready-made mentors that you should seek out. The question, then, is how to find them.

First, note that in my personal examples, these mentors were not part of any formal educational process.  In fact, they occurred in the context of my professional life, and only really had an impact because I was receptive to their nudges of guidance. So be open to the input of your elders and your peers, regardless of your age or place in your career. Obviously not all of my examples happened to me when I was “just starting out”. Mentoring is important at all stages of your life.

Second, if you are just starting out you have an opportunity that becomes really much harder to seize when you get further along.  Rather than accepting guidance from would-be mentors here and there as they come, you can actively seek long-term relationships.  Ask yourself, “What do I want from a mentor?” I suspect you’d say someone who will focus on showing you the ropes in your area of music.  Beyond helping you develop skills, you’d like someone who will foster your creativity and also help you master the business side that always accompanies what we do. You’d want someone who will advocate for you, help you make connections, and ultimately thrill as you develop your own career.

Me with producer Al Watkins and three interns, one who became an employee before starting her own live sound company, another who I helped land a job at SSL.

Me with producer Al Watkins and three interns, one who became an employee before starting her own live sound company, another who I helped land a job at SSL.

Think about what you have to offer a mentor. This will vary depending on the stage of your career.  Early stage folks should be meticulous, reliable, honest, creative, humble, and willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done right. The goal should be to make the mentor, and her client, say “Wow.” As you progress, you will develop skills, style, and your own connections that the mentor can rely on.  Grow your mentor’s business as she is doing for your career. It’s a win-win.  Hopefully, as you grow and spread your wings, your mentor will be proud of you, and you will be grateful for their nurturing along the way.

Then, go pay it forward.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Award winning mix engineer and producer Jordan Tishler runs Digital Bear Entertainment in Boston MA. Currently in the process of designing and building a new facility with renowned designer Fran Manzella, DBE will, once again, be the pre-eminent mix/overdub room. The SSL console and racks upon racks of analogue outboard gear, tape machine, and gazillions of instruments helps Tishler meet the expectations of artists including B Spears, JLo, Iggy A, MOTi, Justin Prime, SIA, and London Grammar. Contact me about producing your next record, or mixing the one you’re working on now!  For more, visit www.digitalbear.com.

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