Interview: ThinkSpace Education CEO – Guy Michelmore

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guyThinkSpace is an online music school for students interested in composing for games, films and TV, that offers tutoring from established composers and industry insiders. In conjunction with the recent expansion of their range of Masters Programes, I was able to ask the school’s CEO, Guy Michelmore, some questions about the school.

Hello Guy. Thanks for being willing to answer some questions about ThinkSpace and the work you guys do. Can I start by asking how long ThinkSpace has been around and what led to it’s creation?

20 years this year! I was working away as a composer and was regularly phoned up by music graduates wanting to know how to get into the business. After a while it was clear that there was a need, so I put the first course together – audio cassettes and course textbooks through the mail in those days.

In what ways has ThinkSpace had to expand its resources over the past 20 years to accommodate the ever-growing media industry and it’s accompanying demand for composers? Is such an expansion even necessary when the school is online and not a physical one?

Yes, we’ve grown a lot. We’ve had to cover more subjects with a lot more tutors and we’ve built a really cool virtual learning environment which is our bricks and mortar. There is an even greater need for up-to-date information as things change so fast. Making sure all the tutors are as plugged into the industry as we are here is a big deal.

What role do you play as the CEO of the school? I’ve also heard you’re the Course Director. Can you talk about the range of your work role at the school?

I give the whole thing direction, help produce course materials and do a lot of teaching myself. But I have a really great team of people who do a load of things I can’t do, so it’s about listening to staff and students and working out how best to give them what tools and information they need. But like everyone else,  I’m a hard working film, games and TV composer so I am writing a load of music at the same time – just finished a AAA game, moving onto a movie and a TV show right now, so it’s a full life but a happy one.

What are some of the complications that arise when teaching music online? Is there a dimension of learning that becomes impersonal or abstract when students have to extract knowledge about music from behind a screen? Does it affect the intuitive aspect of music-making?

Yes, to an extent it is harder, but then that’s also the way most composers and sound designers work – remotely communicating over the internet and collaborating in dispersed networks. So for the students, learning to deal with that is learning to organize their lives to work remotely as well and that’s something many other colleges can’t really teach.

Other than the use of computers, what other resources are put into use to educate your students? Is it accurate to assume the entirety of one’s education at ThinkSpace isn’t solely concerned with learning about DAWs, plugins, sample libraries and such?

No – not at all! Technology is only a part of it. It’s about learning what clients want, how to become a creative part of somebody else’s larger creative project, taking notes and implementing changes, finding work and getting paid. Our courses are about living as a creative audio or music professional and that’s a lot more than just mastering the technology, important as that is.

How has the school been able to amass its range of tutors and professionals over the years? Also, how many such professionals are required to offer programs exclusively taught by them? Wouldn’t you need a lot of such people?

We know a lot of people.  We work with them all the time, fellow composers, orchestrators and sound designers. Also – believe it or not – many great top-level people really want to pass on what they know and help people climb the ladder. It’s the same reason we are happy to help out ex-students years after they’ve left us.  It’s tough being a composer or sound designer and we need to stick together.

So we have 20+ tutors at the moment with more joining now to tutor the sound design course. They all work part-time. It’s important that we have enough staff so that when tutors get into a crunch on a big gig they can drop out for a bit and let others take over. The whole thing is designed that way.

Whilst the synthetic sounds of certain game scores can be attained with a computer and plugins, a John Williams-esque soundtrack would be firmly out of a sample library’s ability. Is there any combination of physical recording practices and digital music production in ThinkSpace’s education?

We did a live recording session with 62 players at Warner Bros. in Los Angeles in March just for our students. Plus we do solo sessions quite regularly as well. Live players make a huge difference but being realistic, students need to be able to do it both ways.

What was it that allowed ThinkSpace to expand it’s Master programmes to include the recently added game music and audio degrees? Was it a matter of adding the required tutors for those programs or was it some other factor?

It had been clear for a while that games are just different. It’s the only non-linear medium where the story changes as the score unfolds.  That needs a new approach. Also, the need to master middleware like FMOD and WWise and use it creatively suddenly looked like a lot to learn. There is hardly anybody doing this, and at Master’s level that is exactly what we should be doing. So we did it.

What role will your partner, the University of Chichester, play in the launch of these new programs?

We are incredibly lucky to have a hugely supportive and innovative university behind us. Katie Ackerman, Director of Quality and Standards, keeps us on the straight and narrow and is in charge of quality assurance and Dr. Stephen Baystead is a fellow traveller and games composer (Need For Speed, Project Cars, Red Bull Air Racing) so it really couldn’t be better.

Given the online nature of your programs, can you talk about the motivation behind the money required to enroll at ThinkSpace? In what ways does the tuition justify it’s 4-figure amounts?

People. Teaching at this level takes a lot of expertise and time and that doesn’t change if you’re online or face-to-face. Master’s students get a lot of personal attention and there’s no cheap way of doing that effectively. We offer one-to-one tuition. Students are welcome to come and see us anytime at all in person. No other online school does that. All our Master’s students have access to all the course materials on all the courses. No other school does that. We currently have a 100% retention rate which for an online school is unheard of. We are trying to be the school all of us wish we had when we were starting out.

In what way does the school’s network of alumni and professional contacts benefit students during their programs and upon graduation? Is the influence of ThinkSpace’s affiliates and staff a significant one outside of classes?

Well a lot. I currently have half a dozen students past and present working with me on a feature film. A bunch of students came for lunch in Malibu with Oscar nominees Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders because our tutor Bill Boston works with them.  I know other students who are helping each other out on projects as well, so it is a growing thing.

What’s next for ThinkSpace now that your new Masters programs are launched? Do you have your eyes set on further developments?

Well, we need to make sure the game music and audio courses are a solid success so we’re focused very firmly at the moment on making that as good as it can be.  Launching 6 Master’s degrees in 18 months is hard work so we need to take a breath and consolidate. Looking to the future we certainly expect to be expanding our range of courses in the not too distant future.

SamInterview: ThinkSpace Education CEO – Guy Michelmore

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