On average, Americans spend 25.4 minutes commuting to work each day—about 12.6 miles each way.
Michelle Sabolchick Pettinato has got that average beat by miles—literally. As a front of house engineer, Michelle has toured with some of the biggest musical acts around, including Gwen Stefani, Mr. Big, Adam Lambert, and Styx.
“I usually average somewhere around 270 days a year on the road,” says Michelle, who developed a sense of wanderlust early on.
“My family used to travel in the summer—we’d go camping up and down the East Coast. I always loved discovering new places. Coming from a tiny town in the middle of nowhere, all I wanted to do was get out and see the world. When I discovered live sound, it was perfect because I got to be creatively involved in music and I got to see the world.”
And see the world she has. After graduating from Full Sail in 1989, Michelle landed a gig with the Spin Doctors. Now, with more than twenty-five years of touring experience under her belt, Michelle has traveled to hundreds of cities over the course of her career. She’s also served as mentor for other live sound professionals, participating in industry conferences as a panelist and co-founding SoundGirls.org, an online community that allows women in audio to network and support each other, while empowering the next generation of female audio professionals. In a few weeks, Full Sail will honor Michelle with an induction into the Seventh Annual Hall of Fame.
Touring has provided the framework for virtually all of Michelle’s adult life, but she admits it hasn’t always been easy striking a balance between life at home and life on the road.
“It’s getting easier as I get older, though” she says. “It used to be if I was home more than a month, I’d start to go stir crazy. Now, as soon as I walk in the door, I’m in home mode.”
So how does Michelle achieve an equilibrium? For starters, she and her husband Jim (who also tours as a Production Manager for Trans-Siberian Orchestra) designed and built their dream home a few years back. The inviting, modern space serves as the perfect backdrop for pursuing leisurely activities. The house is filled with books and trinkets Michelle and Jim have collected over the years, and in at least a few instances, the design was directly informed by something she and Jim encountered while touring.
“The carpet we chose was something we saw at a hotel in Europe. We’re huge fans of Frank Lloyd Wright and we visited Oak Park a few years ago, and a lot of our furniture has a mid-century feel. So it’s just encountering things out in the wild and then finding ways to incorporate them into our home.”
Michelle also cultivates a number of interests outside of work that help keep her occupied and grounded when she’s not on the road.
“When I’m home, my time is truly my own. I love to read. I’m a science geek, so I read a lot of non-fiction about physics and the origins of the universe. What I love about science is that it shows you anything is possible. If you can think it, sooner or later someone is going to figure out how to make it happen.”
“I also love to bake,” she continues “I’ve been trying to perfect my breadmaking skills—teaching myself how to make a proper french baguette and sacrificing a lot of flour in the process.”
As for life on the road, it can wear on a person after so many years.
“Everyone thinks it’s such a glamorous life, and that you’re jet setting and partying with the band all the time. It’s really not like that. It’s a job, just like anything else. A typical day can run sixteen to eighteen hours, and there are entire tours where you don’t get more than three hours of sleep a night.”
Sticking to a routine helps combat the inevitable fatigue. On her days off, Michelle does yoga or works out in the hotel gym. She also finds a certain zen in reorganizing her suitcase and setting up her bunk.
“It’s a form of nesting,” she laughs.
Community also plays a large part when it comes to making a home away from home. Michelle and her crewmates have been known to take catering matters into their own hands, occasionally hosting “Roadie Fridays” where they cook elaborate meals as a team. She’s formed long and lasting friendships with the people she works with, though their paths may not cross again for years at a time.
“I love the camaraderie of the crew and the people that I get to work with,” she says. “Rolling down the highway with the same people day after day, making the show happen no matter what, even under the worst conditions sometimes. And then the energy that you get when a band walks out on stage and the lights go down and the crowd goes crazy—it’s a thrill to be a part of that.”
Nearly three decades in, Michelle has built a name for herself as one of the premier engineers working in live sound—and she shows no sign of slowing down. There’s still plenty of world to see, and even then she’s not limiting her options.
“I would love to travel to space. When they finally figure out long term space travel and humans are able to go out and explore the far reaches, I would love to be a part of that. It probably won’t happen in my lifetime, but when I dream about my next adventure, that’s were I want to go.”