Your school grades you 0 to 100%. But what does a real-world client think of your work?

David Mellor

David Mellor is CEO and Course Director of Audio Masterclass. David has designed courses in audio education and training since 1986 and is the publisher and principal writer of

Wednesday July 4, 2012

I've been involved in audio training for a long time, since 1985 in fact. There is a phrase I have heard many times in the context of practical project work... "The student will learn practical skills in the context of a simulated working environment". That statement can be formulated in a number of ways, but the essence is that students should be given tasks that are typical of processes that take place in commercial industry, and they should perform them in a context that is similar to industry.

So, for example, a student bricklayer will learn to lay bricks and a tutor will take the place of the foreman, telling the student whether his work is good enough.

This is fine. But the modern educational environment is meant to be helpful and supportive. So if the student lays a brick out of line, the tutor has to point this out gently, not hurt the student's feelings, and guide them towards a better placement.

In the real world of work however, a bricklayer learns of the foreman's dissatisfaction through a stream of expletive, shouted at high volume. And if he doesn't get it right after that, he doesn't get to work on that site anymore.

So, as you can see, there is a big difference between education and the real world of work.

The problem is compounded in private education, where students pay for their own training entirely, without any other financial support. In a school, college or university that is supported by the taxpayer, endowments, donations, commercial spin offs and other means, then although the student may pay a fee, much of the cost of their tuition is paid by someone else. So the school always has a lever over the student - shape up or ship out, effectively.

But when a course is completely paid for by the student, then it is difficult to speak to that student in real-world terms. And you can't 'ship them out', because they have paid for their course and would demand a refund. That wouldn't be a good way to do business.

Let's move into the audio world. Almost always in the world of audio, a musician, producer or engineer is working for a client. That client in turn is being paid by someone who also has to be satisfied, who - for the purpose of this article - I will call the 'superclient'. The chain might be longer than this, but in this instance I will consider that the superclient supplies the market directly.

Let's say that the superclient has a project that requires a variety of different pieces of work. They have a relationship with the client, so the client is asked to supply some of the product. By chance, you have left your calling card with the client recently, and they decide to give you a try.

But when they hear your work, they don't like it. So what happens next? Well it could be any of these scenarios...

  1. The client doesn't get back to you. Eventually you call and ask what happened. The client fobs you off with, "It just wasn't right for us", or something like that. You never hear from them again.
  2. The client analyses your work in great detail and breaks down the areas where you have gone wrong. He calls you and suggests you take notes.
  3. The client calls you and screams and shouts down the phone, telling you you had better fix the problems (which he doesn't specify in detail), or else...

In an ideal world, I think we would all wish that Scenario 2 would happen. It won't. You're the musician, producer or engineer. The client just knows what they can sell to the superclient. They couldn't advise you other than in the most general terms, even if they wanted to.

Scenario 3 wouldn't be common early on in a working relationship. However, as you do more work for a client, they come to rely on you more. If you don't fulfill their expectations on a particular job, then you may well expect verbal abuse. It's no use whimpering that this shouldn't happen in the workplace. Maybe it shouldn't, but that's not the world as it exists in reality.

No, Scenario 1 is what is most likely to happen in the real world. Scenario 2 is what should happen in education. But the student should also be made aware of what would probably happen in industry.

There are two things you can do to succeed in the real world. One is to analyze work that does please the client. So, whoever you are working for, if you can find examples of previous output and imitate that, you are far less likely to go wrong.

The second is to 'get inside their head', to use a cliche. The more you know about the client on a personal level, the more likely it is that you will develop a close understanding of what they want, even if they can't explain it clearly in words to you. Developing a range of social skills will help massively.

In summary, the real world of industry is a very different place to education. No matter how close any educational establishment attempts to imitate real-world practices, there is always the limitation that they have the requirement to be helpful and supportive. Industry can't afford that. They'll just get someone who can already do the job better.

So in education, you might have one tutor who is helpful and supportive. Fine, learn all you can from them. You might have another tutor who just says, "I don't like it" and gives you a low grade. Take that as an example of what you will encounter in the real world. A combination of both might just be the key!

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