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How does this sound?

Posted 5 a.m. Wednesday, March 13, 2024

Leo Chavolla, Sound Designer and Engineer and Bass Trombonist, will graduate in May 2024 with a music performance major with jazz performance emphasis and theater technology minor and art minor.  

Student musician and sound designer earns Kennedy Center Award, plans trip to Broadway

Leo Chavolla is dedicated to the craft of creating the perfect sound. 

And if that means shopping at the supermarket to find a cabbage that can be sliced under the sound recording booth microphone, mimicking a knife entering the body, Chavolla doesn’t hesitate to head on over to Festival Foods. 

The Music Performance major smiles as he reflects on all the fruits and vegetables that helped him craft the perfect horror noises for “Dr. Faustus,” a fall semester theatre production documenting a man’s bargain with the devil for his soul. Chavolla’s sound design on the production earned him a national award at The Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival in January 2024, a theater program involving 18,000 students annually from colleges and universities across the country. 

Chavolla says people probably don’t notice the level of work that goes into creating background sounds for theater, and he doesn’t want them to. 

Leo cutting up fruits and vegetables to create original foley sound for "Dr. Faustus." Photo by Val Fish.

“If people don’t notice what I do — if they feel like it’s all just part of the story —I’ve done my job,” he says as he arches back in his studio chair nestled between an MIDI keyboard, several computers and an effects rack. 

Nic Barilar, Assistant Professor of Theatre Studies, says while people may not consciously think of a sound effect, they can appreciate when it’s done right. Just think of how amplified a scary movie can be with the right creaks and groans in the background. For “Dr. Faustus,” Barilar and his theatre crew knew the sound effects would be crucial to telling the gothic horror tale.  

“Leo took to the project like a fish to water and he instantly understood what I was going for — and he went to some pretty remarkable lengths to getting exactly the right sound for each moment,” says Barilar noting not only the vegetable slicing, but also how he recorded, mixed, edited, manipulated an original score composed by David Dies, assistant professor of Music, specifically for the production. 

Leo's own musical skills also came in handy as he played some of the instruments for the sound effects himself. A jazz performer, bass trombonist, and music performance major, he is no stranger to using music to set a mood. 

“The result helped tingle the spines of our audiences, making them jump —and even shriek — in their seats in the Toland Theatre,” adds Barilar. 

Finding strengths in sound design 

Leo adjusting sound cues after a tech rehearsal. Photo by Krista Shulka.

Chavolla had originally started college studying agronomy in Mexico in spring 2020, but when Covid-19 shut down international travel, he came back home to Galesville, Wisconsin. The pause of the pandemic caused him to rethink his career goals, deciding to build on a life-long passion for music that started when he was a child growing up in Mexico. He remembers spending time with his grandfather, a talented musician and one of the most in-demand performers in his town of Acámbaro, Guanajuato, Mexico. His grandfather practiced constantly, exposing Chavolla to music. He eventually taught him guitar and electric bass. Chavolla continued with music after moving to the U.S. at age 14, singing in his church choir and performing as an instrumentalist for various La Crosse Community Theatre productions during his high school years. He entered classes at UWL in fall 2020 where he continued to expand his interest in the arts. 

 “I always knew I loved musicals, but I didn’t know I loved theater until a year and half ago ... thanks to a sound design class I took with Professor Ben Golden,” he says.  

Chavolla found that sound design for theater overlapped with some skills he had gained from jazz improvisation. Both require loads of practice leading up to a performance — technical work and the repetition — to get the sounds just right. Both also require imagination. 

“With improv, I’m used to coming up with music on the spot … So, as I’m reading the script, especially the first time read it, I try to recall what is that first thing I imagine when the script calls for a specific sound.”  

But unlike improv, with sound design, he doesn’t just get one shot to make the masterpiece. He can go back and refine that sound as many times as he wants to based on research and feedback. That process of perfecting it is what he loves the most. A recent sound design project for a fellow student’s original capstone project play took him until the wee small hours of the morning in his sound studio, researching potential instruments that could create the writer’s cue of a drum beating like “that of funeral drum calling the soul of the dead.” 

Chavolla admits that his first two tries with the drum sounds were fails, but he only learned that after conversations with the writer who understood what would be culturally appropriate but still set the scene. Chavolla says, in this way, his process for sound design is not only about imagination but also conversation.

Leo Chavolla is originally from Morelia, México, a city west of Mexico City. He moved to the U.S. when he was 14.

Working hard is just part of who Chavolla is. It’s ingrained from his father, an agriculture professional who returned to the U.S. from Mexico in 2008. Chavolla came to the States with his mother and brother six years later and spent many summers working at Minnesota and Wisconsin apple orchards under his father’s management.  It was those apple farms where he noticed his father’s hard work and attention to detail, skills that he too began to gain caring for trees and operating farm equipment.  

“He taught me how to work. There was no other way to do things than to do it right. That is just part of who I am,” he says. “When I relate it to arts, when I improvise, I try to be the most prepared. In sound design, I know exactly what I want to hear because I’ve done my research. And until I hear it coming out of the speakers, I don’t rest.” 

Chavolla will graduate this May, but not before gaining a more sound design experience. He will take an expense-paid trip to The Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. April for training, networking, and more at the nation’s busiest performing arts center, hosting upwards of 2,000 events each year. 

He’ll go also to Broadway in New York City over spring break to shadow a few professional sound engineers at their job during productions of “Wicked,” “Merrily,” and “Kimberly Akimbo.” His trip is funded through a grant from UWL Undergraduate Research & Creativity that will allow him to research how professional sound engineers for theatre make professional-sounding shows and how he can use some of their techniques as the live sound engineer for UWL’s spring theatre production of the musical James and the Giant Peach.  

What’s up next for Chavolla? 

See his senior jazz trombone recital the weekend of April 19. Stay tuned for details on the Music Department Facebook page.  

Listen to his sound design and engineering in the spring theatre production of “James and the Giant Peach April 5-7, 11-14.”  


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