Q&A: Nicola T. Chang

Hattie Fisk
Friday, September 1, 2023

Award-winning composer and sound designer, orchestral percussionist and performer Nicola T. Chang still finds time to work with young people. Here, she shares with Hattie Fisk her top career tips.

Ben Wulf

HF: Which memories from your music education stand out the most?

NC: I studied music at two different schools in Hong Kong. The first was a very competitive local school where I spent the whole year practising one piece of music. I would then be sent offito a competition where I would inevitably come back with an award. I used to spend many lunchtimes rehearsing and representing the school at award ceremonies. Looking back, I was only getting good at playing once specific piece and not improving in general. It wasn't the best way to build a deep relationship with music.

In the second school they didn't send students to competitions at all, but we played in an orchestra. I remember almost walking out of this orchestra because I thought I was too good for it. A teacher really humbled me, telling me to broaden my horizons: ‘If you are going to walk out of this, then you don't understand what music is about’. That was very eye-opening – realising that I was funnelled into being good at competitions, when music is really about playing together. I stayed in the orchestra.

HF: How has your perception of music changed since composing for the theatre?

NC: I initially learnt classical music and was then exposed to things like jazz and blues. When you learn to be a classical musician, you have music theory ingrained. As my career developed, I learnt that we are allowed to break the rules. I am now constantly learning that it is about the bigger picture and avoiding becoming quite ‘micro’. In sound design, when you write music you have to ask if it really works, and not to get emotionally attached to the rules.

HF: What has been a standout moment from your career so far?

NC: As a performer, Stomp was really great because it was a lifelong dream. But I also performed in Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World, where I was a musician that went on stage and drummed. There was one time in Norwich, in a very small theatre, where an East Asian girl, aged eight or nine, waved back at me, while sitting among a group of white students. That stuck with me. That show in particular is very special, because it tours to communities who don't usually see people like me play music, let alone drumming on stage.

HF: How do you go about creating a composition for a theatre show?

NC: I always try and create emotion when other design elements can't; if lights and movement can't convey something, then you can fill that with sound. What nobody teaches you is how to negotiate space with the other elements. You may end up spending hours on a moment that only lasts five seconds, but theatre is a creature that requires negotiation. Being immersed in a project for four of five weeks makes it exciting, and, at the end, you can impact people tremendously.

Nicola's advice for early-career sound designers:

  • Gain exposure at theatre festivals, in particular VAULT Festival and Edinburgh Festival Fringe due to the high footfall. Here you can gain traction through word-of-mouth and from reviews.
  • Collect reviews of your work and list any mentions on your website. It can feel very self-aggrandising, but it does get your name out.
  • Use job-searching platforms such as Music Jobs, Mandy, Arts Jobs, Up Work, Open Hire and Facebook groups.
  • Shadow other designers. I felt that my career jumped the most when I got the chance to watch others and learn from their processes.
  • Cold-email directors and producers. It's an industry that is reliant on word-of-mouth and reputation, and often the directors will get a chance to name their creative teams, so it's good to be on their radar.
  • Have a website or, at the very least, a SoundCloud. I have one reel that shows offimy ‘sound’ and speciality, one for theatre and one for demonstrating my range. A speciality could be writing for the viola; but you need to be able to show you can compose for a variety of instruments and genres.

Nicola offers shadowing opportunities to students. If teachers would like to discuss this further, email nicolachang@gmail.com