Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, small business owners and freelance professionals have endured an overwhelming impact. Ben Didsbury ‘96, a Boston-based sound engineer, has experienced this first hand. Over the past eight months, Ben is one of millions of Americans who have had to shift and adapt their work.
As a faculty kid, Ben grew up at Tilton School. His father, Kendall Didsbury ‘67, worked and lived at Tilton from 1972 to 2002. During his tenure, Ben’s father wore many hats including, but not limited to, Director of Studies, English faculty member, Director of Faculty, History faculty member, Director of Student Affairs, and Athletic Trainer. To Ben, this entire campus felt more like a family, and he was able to meet people from all over the world.
While immersed in his studies for four years on the Hill, Ben had his hand in a plethora of interests: sports, music, outdoors––you name it, he tried it. Throughout all his explored interests, a deep passion for music stuck with him. This passion led him to continue his musical endeavors after graduation. He has played in numerous bands and ultimately found himself in the world of audio engineering.
When Tilton School decided to produce our own podcast, we began searching for an audio engineer to help us record and edit. That’s when Ben came into the picture, coming back to the Hill to record audio and handle all post production editing. Last spring, we sat down with him after one of our recording sessions to talk about his unique Tilton experience, and to see what it’s like coming back in a professional capacity. As we were about to publish, the pandemic hit.
Recently, we caught up with Ben again to add a different element to this story: what it’s like running a business during a pandemic.
You didn’t just attend Tilton School - you grew up on campus. Tell us about your deeper connection to the school.
My dad is Ken Didsbury and he worked at Tilton School for over 30 years. There is a plaque honoring him in his old office and an oil painting portrait in the library. He wrote a short book called The Craft of Writing that he gave to his students, and if you talk to alumni from his era, a lot of people still hold on to them for reference. He also wrote a history of Tilton School called In The Shadow of The Tower Clock.
I spent my whole childhood on campus. My parents lived in West Knowles when I was born, then in the first two houses on Dean Jeffries which used to be called School Lane. It was a pretty unique experience–I had all the facilities of the school and a lot of interesting students ran through here. There was a swimming pool, which is no longer there, but a lot of great memories.
What are some of your favorite memories of your time on the Hill?
Tilton always felt more like a family than a school. There were only 187 kids or something like that. I graduated in a class of 65, and my freshman class was 18 but 12 of us were day students. This school felt more like siblings than friends. You saw everyone all the time in your grungiest of times. For someone growing up in a small town in New Hampshire, which was all middle class, all white, and mostly catholic, it was really enlightening to be able to spend time with people from Korea and Japan, New York City and Jordan. That was something I valued a lot.
What activities were you involved in while attending Tilton School?
I was very active during my time at Tilton. My dad designed an extracurricular program called Plus 5. The five categories were outdoor recreation, community service, athletics, academics, and arts. My proudest Tilton achievement was when I won the Plus 5 award as a senior and my father handed me the award at a school meeting. I’ve always had a lot of interests and they certainly were all encouraged at Tilton. I am a musician, so I started playing music and was very involved in the jazz band here. I also played in the pit band for Little Shop of Horrors.
I always played three sports; football, baseball, and basketball. When I was at Tilton, the wilderness program was pretty intense. We hiked, no trails, just using maps and compasses, and they sent us to the peaks of mountains through any weather, even snow. We had to create a basecamp every day, which was usually shoveling through two to three feet of snow to make a fire after hiking all day, then you created your shelter out of tarps. The last three days were solos. They gave you three packets of hot cocoa, three packets of soup, about 15 matches and checked in on you every day. You learned a lot about yourself and felt pretty resilient once you got through it.
After Tilton, what was next?
One of my most important days at Tilton was a career development day. They brought alumni back and I talked to a gentleman who worked as an editor for the Dallas Star. He suggested Ithaca College to me as a good communications school because that’s something I was considering. They also had a great music school. I spent a lot of time with Rick Stewart ‘66 playing music at Tilton and he really cultivated my love for music. I wanted to keep my options open but at least play music, so I applied early to Ithaca and got in. I ended up double majoring in Political Science and International Communications. I also stole a couple of music classes here and there.
I ended up going the political science career route first. I moved to New Jersey with my college band after school. We played in New York and I got a job with the democratic party. I didn’t love it, the band broke up and I moved back to Boston and worked with Sarah Barrett ’96 at the Boston Foundation for several years. Then I had another fork in the road: if I wanted to get ahead in the nonprofit world I would have to get a master’s in public administration, which I did not want to do. So, I went on tour with my new band and thought about things. I decided to see if there was a career where I could use my ears.
I got in touch with a friend and fellow alumnus Aaron Dover ‘96, who went to the Center for Digital Imaging Arts for photography, which is affiliated with Boston University. All their audio professors were in the community; they were very outgoing and had great facilities. I decided that would be a good place to start. I bought some gear and ended up working full time with a production company in Boston. I then realized how much money freelance contractors made and took the jump; I’ve been freelance since 2011.
Wow! That’s quite a story.
It was a winding road. I learned a lot at Tilton, and I’ve always had many interests. I’m trying to narrow down what I’m doing to focus on specific things and do them well, rather than sort of scrambling to get everything going. The world of audio encapsulates a lot of my interests and allows me to still develop my skills as a musician. I’m proud to say that my band of the past 10 years, Coo & Howl, was recently signed by a small record label out of New Jersey and that’s all the motivation I need to keep on going.
What’s it like coming back to Tilton in a different capacity, recording and editing our podcast Independent Thinking?
I love coming back to Tilton, it’s still very much home to me. It’s great to see Mike Landroche. He was not only my teacher when I was here but my neighbor for most of my life. It’s really encouraging to see how the school has evolved and changed. The teenage years are some of the hardest years. I thought I had it pretty good growing up. It’s good to see Tilton has not only improved, but it also seems to be on the bleeding edge of what’s going on in modern educational trends.
The cool thing about my job is that I’m usually right “on” what’s happening now. It's usually people creating video content to send out their brand new message and change things. I’ve worked a lot with Edutopia, which is George Lucas’s education foundation. A lot of these patterns I’m seeing professionally I’m seeing at Tilton. I learned a lot while recording the Independent Thinking podcast, too. Faculty and students at Tilton are really engaged, really excited, really in a growth mindset… it’s good to see.
When we originally sat down for this interview, the world was a very different place. How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected you as a business owner?
Initially, the pandemic was extremely scary. We know so little now, and knew even less then. I’ve always tried to diversify my client base to ensure the work keeps coming in and that spirit paid off greatly this year. I usually have a stable of local clients that are regulars. In addition, I pay for search engine optimization on my website to ensure that out of town productions see me first when they come to Boston and need a sound engineer. I also made sure to keep a toe in a regular studio gig at a live online classroom at Harvard Business School. This gig was always my recession insurance. When the economy takes a hit, video production tends to be one of the first things to go, so I wanted to make sure I was covered. Sure enough, Harvard is really getting my family through this crisis. I still get calls for field and post production but that diversity of income sources helps me sleep at night.
What are some changes you have made to your business in adapting to living amidst a pandemic?
So my wife, Jenny, and I have a small video production company of two called Wonderland Media Productions. She shoots and edits video as well as the occasional photography gig. I handle the audio. We do mostly corporate work. It seems the great wheel of commerce is unwilling to slow during the pandemic and companies still need to communicate both internally to their employees and externally to clients and partners. These companies are always looking for an edge in production value, so while much of this communication is shoddily executed through zoom or other remote recording, professional editing and audio mixing goes a long way to help get that message across in a more palatable way. That’s been our angle in approaching current and potential clients and it’s worked out well for us.
What have you learned about yourself as a person and as a professional?
Self care is extremely important. I have an engrained feeling that I need to maximize my productivity in my professional life and artistic life all the time. I’ve learned to put that down. Happiness and well being are really the most important things. I’ve gained quite a bit of patience over these past few months. I’ve been very lucky and try to count my blessings daily.
What advice would you give to other small business owners, or aspiring entrepreneurs, that you have learned through this process?
Successful businesses are frequently not the largest ones, but the most flexible ones. Having a comprehensive knowledge of what you are good at, who you are, and most importantly, who you are not, will allow you to think creatively about how to adapt to (sighs) “these unprecedented times”. For this reason and many others, diversity of background and perspective should be sought out and cherished within your organization. It’s easy to surround yourself with people that think like you and have the same interests, but the ones that seek out and embrace diversity will have a vast competitive advantage on the field.
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