“At Chapin, I was never told that only certain paths were possible,” recalled Jane Droppa ’70. As a result, “I ended up with a decidedly unconventional career, which gave me the opportunity to work with a host of well-known performers.”Her confidence grew along with her talent and reputation as a hard-working and unflappable audio engineer.
“It’s pretty amazing all the stuff I got to do,” she said, referring to packed concerts featuring musical giants like Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie, Heart, Huey Lewis and the News, Roger McGuinn and Stevie Wonder.
Even though, with rare exceptions, she was the only woman on her myriad production crews, Ms. Droppa couldn’t have imagined a more ideal job. “It never dawned on me that sound was a guy’s world,” she remarked.
A shy student, Ms. Droppa shunned college parties in favor of quieter activities. After graduating from Kirkland College (now part of Hamilton College), Ms. Droppa wasn’t sure what she wanted to do next, so when her friends in a band asked if she might be interested in helping out with a series of concerts, she thought, why not? That seemingly casual decision would change the course of her life.
Energized with new purpose, Ms. Droppa enrolled in electronics classes at the local community college, determined to learn as much as she could about the intricacies of sound. She turned out to be a quick study. Equipped with fresh skills and a can-do attitude, she hit the road with her friends’ band, confidently overseeing the sound monitors during the group’s popular regional shows, and earning accolades along the way.
It didn’t take long for Ms. Droppa to realize that live music was her calling. She especially appreciated the satisfying rhythm each day brought. “I loved how every night came full circle,” she said. “In the morning you walked into a bare arena. The production team prepped for a great show, then after the concert, we tore everything down.”
She left the band after several years and freelanced for a sound company in upstate New York and at Folk City, the storied Greenwich Village night club. “Folk City was where all the early folkies got their start,” commented Ms. Droppa, who lives in Maryland.
She met her husband, Larry, also a sound engineer, on the road. When they married in January 1985, she moved down to Maryland, where her freelance jobs led to a full-time position at Maryland Sound Industries(MSI), a prominent audio company at the time.Larry was also an MSI engineer, but they rarely worked the same shows.
The goal of managing live sound, Ms. Droppa explained, is to amplify a performer’s voice or instrument, each of which is picked up by a microphone. These signals pass through the individual channels of a mixing console.As a sound engineer, Ms. Droppa controlled the tonality and volume as well as adding effects like echo or reverberation. Indeed, it was a precise and delicate balancing act with no margin for error.
In 1986, as part of MSI, she spent an unforgettable four-and-a-half months with Stevie Wonder’s “In Square Circle” tour.She drove a 20-foot truck full of speakers and amplifiers from Maryland out to St. Louis to join to tour. That gear was off-loaded into one of the six tractor-trailer trucks that hauled all the equipment for the show.
In addition to helping oversee Stevie’s monitors during his shows, she wired amplifiers, helped hang the 72 speakers and became an invaluable member of the close-knit production crew. “It was awesome!” she exclaimed about working with Mr. Wonder during this 64-city U.S. tour.
Stevie Wonder’s audio required innovative thinking, she shared. “Being blind, he doesn’t get visual cues. Plus, he often got excited and wanted to jump up and down.” These unique factors called for a novel approach to his sound equipment. “Stevie was the first to use in-ear monitors. Basically, we created a mini radio station that transmitted a signal to a Walkman that he wore under his clothes,” she said.
The fact that she was a woman in a male-dominated field certainly set her apart, but it didn’t define her. Ms. Droppa excelled, she noted, because she had the skills, temperament and grit to rise to the top. “Sometimes it was hard being the only female, but people remembered me. As a woman, I often tended to listen better than a guy, which the clients appreciated,” she said.
Even though Ms. Droppa retired a number of years ago, when she and her husband had children, she continues to participate in API, their company that manufactures equipment for recording studios.
The vibrancy with which she shared her professional journey exemplified to this writer just how much these experiences –and her remarkable career –continue to resonate. So do her years at 100 East End Avenue.
“At Chapin you were expected to do well, work hard and succeed,” said Ms. Droppa. She attended from third grade through graduation and remains close with “quite a few”of her former classmates. “When I got to college, I was surprised at how much I did know.”
As for being a trailblazer, “I didn’t set out to be courageous, I just really enjoyed the work,” she said. For those contemplating a less-traveled path, she offered this advice: “It may be intimidating at first, but if it’s what you want, just do it.”
These days, Ms. Droppa’s life may be calmer but no less fulfilling.She volunteers with several non-profit organizations, visits her three children and two grandchildren as often as she can and spends every summer working on her family’s cattle ranch in Arizona. “And I love to needlepoint,” she added with a chuckle.
- Alumnae Profiles