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Building a Sound Foundation

Elements of visual design are apparent in the world around you. You may observe and appreciate a custom-made gown or a building's unique architecture. However, you probably think less about forms of design that appeal to your other senses like sound or touch.

When you see a play, go to a concert or watch a movie, there is a sound designer/engineer behind the scenes crafting every effect, ensuring that sound levels are appropriate, and pulling you into the performance by creating a realistic and relatable sound environment. One such designer, Assistant Professor EunJin "E. J." Cho, is sharing her passion for music and sound engineering with equally enthusiastic students in LSU's Design & Technology program.

Her own story would be worthy of a stage production: When it came time to choose a university, she couldn't find one in her home country of South Korea with a four-year sound engineering program. Having grown up listening to her mother's stories about traveling abroad, Cho felt comfortable coming to the United States for college. However, not being fluent in English, she had to overcome the language barrier.

"My first year was rough," said Cho. "Although I was surrounded by a wonderful group of friends and professors, I dealt with homesickness pretty much every day, and the lack of English speaking skills brought so much frustration."

One thing that gave her comfort and, as she discovered, bridged the communication divide was music. To help overcome her inability to fully communicate with friends and classmates, Cho would share music with them and, when she came across a song she did not understand, she would translate the lyrics.

"Listening to music didn't feel like studying English, but it definitely helped," said Cho. "Also, because music is a universal language that often does not require explanations, it allowed me to communicate with my friends based on our feelings."

Cho went on to earn her MFA from the College Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati and, in 2005, she joined the LSU College of Music & Dramatic Arts as the lone sound design professor, building the program from the ground up. While university sound design programs are still fairly rare, Cho believes recognition of the importance of sound designers in theatre is slowly growing.

"In the past, sound designers were the ones that got hired last out of the artistic team," explained Cho. "Nowadays, there is more recognition in the importance of sound design, and we are in the process of finding our place. We have made such progress. Sound design is recognized as an important design element more and more, and it is wonderful!"

When working with colleagues, Cho consciously acts as an ambassador for her field.

"The more I can share with others makes me believe they will see what we (sound designers) can contribute to the art that we are all creating together," explained Cho. "I try to be a sound designer who communicates with directors and other designers about my design process so that they are aware that sound design is not just picking some music or finding a random rain sound effect. We go through just as much character studies and script analysis as the other design disciplines do."

For her students, Cho is a mentor, helping them navigate the realm of sound and fine-tune their talents.

"It's really awesome to have somebody who is so invested in your future and your career, and somebody who you know you can go to and just ask anything," said Design & Technology senior Almeda Beynon. "You never feel alone."

For Cho, teaching is a two-way street, and she also learns from her students during their time together.

"I have been truly blessed to have students who share a strong interest in sound with me and are committed to learning no matter the task. I feel that as I have grown both professionally and personally, the sound design program has grown," she said.

Outside of the classroom, sound design students get hands-on opportunities working on lab shows, as well as LSU Theatre and Swine Palace productions. Whenever possible, Cho takes this a step further by bringing sound design students along when she does work away from campus, whether it is at a theatre across town, with the Playmakers Repertory Company in North Carolina, or taking an LSU production to South Korea. Cho's dedication to her students not only helps them build their skills but also earns her top marks from her students.

"Because we value both classroom learning and hands-on experience, I can say our students get great balance of both while they are with us," said Cho. "Every time I hear about or see a student do well in their career path, it is a constant reminder of why I love what I do."

Cho firmly believes that she and her students must earn respect from other artists and designers not by asking for it, but by simply doing their jobs well.

"I always remind my students to never forget who they are and the love they have for theatre," said Cho. "If they lose their belief, doing theatre just becomes work. Our voice is heard through our design and it is important for all of us to find our own voice."