Who Minds the Music Lab When the Prof's Back is Turned?

Dear Squeak and Blat,

I am setting up a new music lab that has about 14 stations and need some advice on how to keep it running with personnel. The lab is in a college music department that has about 124 students. I know you two guys do this. Any tips?

Ben J


Dear Ben:

Sure. Give up teaching and research and just sit in the lab and run it yourself! Just kidding. When I set up my first lab, this is just what really happened to me, so I am really trying to make a point here. Be careful not to let people assume that you are the lab director! Think of yourself as the "artistic director" and find some folks to really run it day to day!

I have had very good luck with a combination of a part-time person (20 hours per week or so) and student helpers. The part-time person really runs the show, keeping track of the students and making sure that all the procedures are followed. I would try keeping the lab open about 50 hours a week if you can, given the size of the lab and the number of students you have.

My experience is that students are actually great monitors. They enjoy the responsibility and can really be helpful to their peers (perhaps better than you!). I would probably want to have some kind of training period and a manual of operations to set the standards. In choosing your personnel, look for people with high tolerance for stress and great patience. Strong interpersonal skills are important. You don't want a person with a "don't-bother-me-I'm-programming" mentality.

You might be tempted to consider keeping the lab open without monitors, checking in occasionally to see how things are going. Bad idea! You always want someone there to help and to keep an eye on the equipment and software, especially if there are a number of MIDI devices and software manuals floating around.

By the way, as the demand for the lab grows (and it will, I promise you) you might make the case for a full-time person. This is absolutely the best way to go. You might still use students for late night hours and on weekends. The full-time person can help to establish budgets, maintain equipment, write software, act as an assistant for faculty computing problems, and even offer a course or two to augment what you might be doing. This person might also develop and maintain your web site as he or she is sitting in the lab. It doesn't take too long to create a job description that clearly needs a full-time individual. My own view is that this sort of person is just as important to the health of a strong music program as some of the teaching faculty!

Great news about your lab, Bill. Staff it well. People are far more important than the machines and software.


Ben. Blat has touched on a number of good suggestions. Let me try and summarize the options for supervising a music computer lab:

1. Borrowed space. Add your music software and hardware to a general purpose lab or a lab in the library on your campus that is already staffed by the campus or school.

2. Faculty chaperone. Combine the lab as part of the office of a faculty member or teacher who will watch over the facility.

3. Classes only. Put a touch-pad lock on the door and only have the facility open when an instructor is there to use the facility for a class or supervised lab time.

4. Student managed. Using a combination of "trained" student workers, have the lab open for as many hours as necessary for open student and class access.

5. Staff managed. Hire a part- or full-time staff person with training and expertise in music technology to manage the facility, student workers, and class use.

6. Student owned. Require all students to have their own computers and MIDI keyboards so a general-purpose lab is not required.

All of these models are useful at one time or another and in various combinations. And, like Blat, I've been there, done that, for everyone of these except number 6.

I have four labs that I manage at present for fine arts at Illinois State. We use Model 5 for our main open lab for student use, and we use Model 3 for two closed-access computer classrooms that are only open when a faculty member is holding class or our graduate assistants are there for tutoring sessions. Our electronic music studio is also managed using Model 3 with a key that can be checked out from the main open computer lab.

We use Model 2 for several small labs for graphic design, computer-assisted drafting in theatre, the digital sound editing workstation, the digital video studio, and the like. The faculty working most closely with these students have the equipment either in their office or a room next door. This is usually reserved for more advanced computing tasks and equipment. The primary professor can better manage the software and hardware and it helps insure that only his or her more advanced students have access to what tends to be very expensive and complex equipment.

Then, we encourage our students to make use of the general campus labs (Model 1) for their word processing and Internet work.

Model 6 was put on the list to get you to stop and think. Many campuses are moving to require every student to have their own computer either in the dorm or from their off-campus living accommodations. This may drastically reduce or eliminate the need for large open labs on campus for general computing tasks. What it may then allow us to do is to focus on the specialized applications where small, advanced workstations are available under faculty supervision for multimedia, composing, digital audio and video editing, and so on. Model 6 is not one I've had the opportunity to try but I keep thinking about it in my future planning.

So, in the end the keyword is "flexibility." Try something that works for the moment and that you can afford. Be prepare to expand and change as the lab usage expands and changes. But as Blat pointed out (I think he did!) always write in liberal funding for the soft side of music technology: people, training, and software should consume at least half of your budget for lab operations.


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Last modified on Thursday, 19/12/2013

Peter R. Webster and David B. Williams

Peter R. Webster (a.k.a “Blat”) and David Brian Williams (a.k.a. “Squeak”) have presented workshops and other presentations together for CMS/ATMI conferences and workshops for more than 20 years.  Their collaboration has led to publications and presentations internationally on music technology as well as the co-authorship of the textbook Experiencing Music Technology (Cengage Learning/Schirmer Books, 3rd edition Update, 2009), a widely adopted and highly acclaimed music technology textbook for high school and college students. Dr. Webster is emeritus professor of music education at Northwestern University and Scholar-in-Residence at the University of Southern California; Dr. Williams is emeritus professor of music and arts technology at Illinois State University, a freelance consultant, composer and musician, and immediate past president of The College Music Society.

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