Silences in Teaching

Les voix du silence dans l’académie

silence and sound in the media room
Dustin Morrow

The closest I’ve ever come to experiencing silence was a trip in graduate school to an anechoic chamber. The anechoic chamber is at the University of Iowa in the Wendell Johnson Speech and Hearing Center, and is used primarily for experiments conducted by that centre. I was taking a course in sound design in the cinema department, and our professor arranged for our class to visit the chamber. The chamber is isolated from the rest of the centre and is a perfect cube, measuring 30 feet on all sides. The chamber is further isolated by a series of springs that permit it to be “suspended in space,” and allows for the absorption of sounds down to 60 Hz. Additionally, the chamber is kept in complete darkness, as any light source will produce sound.

The effect of this chamber is completely disorienting. When you speak, your voice seems to evaporate before you. Indeed, you can barely hear someone speaking at the other end of the chamber. My classmates engaged in a game of sneaking up on each other, an easy endeavour as one could easily be standing right beside someone and not realize it. Because I was effectively blind my sense of hearing became heightened, but the virtual vacuum of sound disallowed grasping any bearings on my environment. Instead of serenity, or any manner of outof- body experience, I became stressed. The sounds of my own body, the heretofore inaudible squishes and gurgles that it likely makes all day long, seemed amplified. I became hyperaware of my body’s inability to quiet itself.

Upon stepping out of the chamber after half an hour, my sense of hearing was utterly assaulted. That which went unnoticed before I went in – ambient sounds of traffic, birds singing, wind, voices – was now deafening. Suddenly, I heard everything.

As a teacher of media production, I seek to create a similar experience for my students. Unfortunately, I don’t have the aid of an anechoic chamber, but I work hard to create assignments that will encourage students to engage with the sounds of the environments in which they live and tread.

In my production courses, I have my students complete an observational exercise that forces them to examine the “silence” that comes with sitting still and being quiet. I ask them to pull out their notebooks and become data recorders for 20 minutes. Sitting quietly in the classroom, I ask them to write down everything they hear – the shifting in seats, the scribbling of pens, the coughs, the sneezes, the footsteps in the hall, the air conditioner, the clanging of distant pipes, the birds and the traffic outside the window, the growling of stomachs, the whirring of AV equipment – to turn up the sensory awareness in their hearing, listen for sounds that they would normally never notice.

They are also required to describe sounds not only by identifying their sources but by their qualities: volume, depth, human and mechanical associations, continuity, rhythm, duration, reverb, echo, tone. After they are through, our discussion of these sound qualities inevitably turns into a discussion of sound signals – the meanings associated with certain sounds like car horns and school bells – and why one sound muffles another, why one sound repeats while we hear another only once. And, most interestingly, they record their emotional responses to the sounds. Sound evokes emotional response like perhaps no other sense; most of us will recognize a voice years after we’ve forgotten the face that accompanies it.

In my production courses, students typically budget weeks and weeks to shoot – carefully designing and lighting each shot – and weeks to edit, score, and add visual effects, but allow just a day or two to produce and mix their soundtracks. While I was an editor in Hollywood, I learned that the best approach to the shortform projects that I most commonly cut – trailers, commercials, promos – was to edit and finalize the soundtrack first before beginning to work on the picture.

So, I tell my students that the most important tool they will have on any shoot is a set of headphones: a big, high-quality set that covers the entire ear, isolating the ears from the environment, allowing them to effectively become the microphone.

When I ask students to listen for silence and the intricacy of simple sound environments, it begins to awaken them to another way of examining the minutiae of their surroundings. And in these small details, these daily invisibilities, are the rhythms of everyday life.