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She's got an ear for acoustics

As volunteer 'sound master' for the Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Eileen Jeanette adjusts how sound is heard based on how many people will be in venue, type of music and more.

December 27, 2012|By Michael Miller
  • The Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts.
The Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall at the Segerstrom… (Cris Costea )

Alfred Hitchcock was once quoted as saying, "I enjoy playing the audience like a piano." And so does Eileen Jeanette.

The vice president of artistic and orchestra operations for the Pacific Symphony keeps a keen eye on how many people have bought tickets for every show at the Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall. It's not just a matter of fretting about the crowd's reaction; Jeanette needs to know how many human bodies will occupy the seats, because that will indicate how much she needs to shift the room's acoustics to accommodate them.

Jeanette, who works as a Pacific Symphony administrator full-time, has volunteered since 2006 in another capacity: as the tonmeister (that's German for "sound master") at the concert hall. Before almost every show, the Aliso Viejo resident takes all available factors into account — number of ticket buyers, type of music, position of performers — and has the venue's staff program a computer to adjust the venue.

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Is it a hard job? Not as hard as it might be in Jeanette's home state.

"I sometimes wonder what it would be like if we were in Minnesota and the people wore winter clothes," said the 47-year-old, who explained that thicker fabrics soak up more sound.

The hall, which opened in 2006 and was designed by the New York-based firm Artec Consultants, offers Jeanette an array of tools to achieve perfect acoustics. Aluminum-coated canopies on the ceiling can rise or lower; banners can move back and forth in reverberation chambers; curtains, known as travelers, can block or expose chamber doors.

It's a time-consuming endeavor; Jeanette sets the acoustics for nearly 100 shows a year. But she's never asked for a penny in return.

For that matter, she's not an expert, at least not officially. Jeanette has no extensive math or science background, and she learned to navigate acoustics on the job. Even with the staff's computer on hand to calculate a show mathematically, Jeanette often does her calculations firsthand — sitting in the audience during rehearsals and tracking the sound as it bounces around the 1,954-seat room.

When the Orange County Performing Arts Center, now Segerstrom Center for the Arts, began construction on the concert hall a decade ago, it sought the most state-of-the-art sound possible, according to public relations director Tim Dunn.

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