On the record: a music student’s reflections on recordings as a part of learning

Ruth Carlyle is an adult student, studying singing with David Barton. She reflects here on her experience of making recordings of her singing as part of her learning. You can hear some of her recordings on SoundCloud.

Musical performance is often hard to assess when you are the performer.  For singers, the sound that you hear is not the same as the sound that an audience hears.  For instrumentalists, the shape of a phrase, the relative dynamic or the length of a note may only be apparent by listening to a recording.  In this blog post, I share personal reflections on the potential purposes of recording as a part of learning, the practical issues, and the choice over whether to share recordings that you have made.

Purpose of recording

Knowing why you are making a recording is important, as it impacts upon choices you make about the technical process and also the issues that you need to take into account, notably copyright.

From my personal experience, there tend to be three principal purposes for making a recording:

  1. Improve: to listen to a performance, or a series of performances, to reflect on technique. This may just be a recording of a few bars, or a full work, to check a specific detail, such as tone, line of sound or dynamics. For singers this can be particularly helpful to check the clarity of vowels and consonants. 
  2. Rehearse: to provide a sense of performance when rehearsing a work. Switching on a recording device mimics the start of a performance with an audience, which can be helpful when rehearsing for a concert or for an examination. When learning works by heart, it is a good tool for checking how well you know the piece and where to focus prior to a performance.
  3. Share: to produce a recording that can be shared. This may be a private sharing, such as with a music teacher, or a public sharing.

Practicalities and sensitivities

Digital devices make recording performances increasingly easy, but there are still practicalities and sensitivities to consider. On the sensitivities, if you are performing with someone else you need to have their permission to record and to be aware that they will have performance rights over the choice as to whether the recording can be shared. If you wish to make a recording in a music lesson, this needs to be agreed with the music teacher, as it takes time and may distract from other activities in the lesson.

Some of the practicalities are personal. I know that I feel nervous when making recordings, particularly if they are recordings that I might share. There is also a fair chance that you may hate the first recordings that you make. This is particularly the case for singers, as the sound inside a singer’s head is different from the sound that it picked up by the microphone. It is important to allow for your own responses to recordings, and not to assume that your first live recording will be as polished as commercial studio productions.

From a technical perspective, a wide range of recording Apps are available (many free) for smart phones and tablets. You can use microphones embedded within digital devices, or a stand-alone stereo microphone for a slightly better sound quality. For most purposes, setting to record as an MP3 file is sufficiently good quality; if you are likely to want to share a file, consider setting your device to record as a WAV file, but be aware that the resulting file will be roughly ten times the size of an MP3 file. It is worth taking time to check that the recorder is on and taking sound; you can edit the file to remove any “sound check” or footsteps as you walk away from the microphone.

Sharing recordings

If you are recording for improvement, or for rehearsal, there is no need to share the recording. You may choose to retain some recordings to provide a record of progress over time, or to delete recordings once you have listened to them.

Files can be shared privately or publicly. If you are sharing publicly, you need to be aware of the copyright status of the piece of music.  Creators of an original work (whether an author or a composer) retain copyright until 70 years after their death.  Living composers are often very happy for recordings of their works to be shared by music students for non-commercial purposes, and are usually fairly easy to contact through their websites or through social media.  If over 70 years have elapsed since the death of the composer (and lyricist, where appropriate), then the work is no longer subject to copyright. Where the creator of an original work has died within the last 70 years, the copyright may have passed on to a relative or a trust; this makes active permission harder to obtain.

I share recordings using SoundCloud as it provides a means for family, friends and others who may be interested to hear my performances. 

These are my personal reflections on recording performances as part of my music studies. I would welcome thoughts from others.


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Work and music: fitting in music lessons and practice with full-time employment

When adults learn an instrument or study singing, they have to juggle music lessons and practice time with other commitments, notably full-time employment. In this guest blog post, David Barton Music pupil, Ruth Carlyle shares her thoughts and personal tips for juggling music lessons/practice and full-time work. Some of her tips may be of interest to anyone taking music lessons and needing to squeeze in time to practise.

Balancing full-time employment with the commitment of studying music requires sensitivity to the needs of employers, as well as managing time for lessons and for practice. This short article opens with the employer relationship, then tips more generally on making the most of limited time to practise.

Work: the employer relationship

When you work full time, fitting in a commitment to a music lesson can be challenging.  If you travel for work, or have nights away from home, a music lesson can be a commitment that creates complications for employers as it may reduce your flexibility on particular days or evenings. This requires sensitivity by the adult learner to the needs of their employer.

  1. Be open with your employer: before making a commitment to music lessons, discuss your plans with your employer and close colleagues. If there are days on which you need to juggle your hours or to leave work promptly, this has an impact on those working with you.
  2. Work within your organisational culture: if it is culturally acceptable to take a late lunch break to attend a music lesson close to your place of employment, or to work from home on a particular day of the week, plan your music lesson to fit within that culture.
  3. Plan ahead: employers rarely like surprises. If you are likely to need a day of annual leave for a performance, to take an examination, or as recovery time, book the time as provisional annual leave well in advance of the date so that meetings do not have to be rescheduled. In the case of examinations, this may mean that you are having to hold several days as provisional annual leave until the examination time has been confirmed, so it is important to explain this to your employer.

Music: realistic practice planning

Time to practise will always be limited and activities shaped by the realities of daily living, particularly if you have travel commitments and spend time away from home.

  1. Think about what you want to learn between lessons: there will be activities that you have discussed with your music teacher for study before the next lesson, but also points that you have identified that you want to try out (such as a different approach to a particular phrase, or shaping the narrative of a piece in your mind). What requires you to have access to the musical instrument, or a private space in which to sing? What could you do just from the printed music without having to perform out loud?
  2. Plan your activities according to your resources: if you have time travelling or staying in a hotel, you will not be able to perform (unless you are very confident and have very tolerant fellow passengers/guests!), but you will be able to learn lyrics or to think through approaches to a piece. Plan your time so that you have the relevant piece of music with you for practice without performance.
  3. Make the most of performance time:whilst it is lovely to play through full pieces, making the most of limited performance practice time often requires repetition of difficult passages, including recording yourself and listening to the recording, rather than performing the whole of a piece.
  4. Keep records:note what you have rehearsed when, so that you can avoid unintentional repetition and pick up from where you finished practising.

Learning a musical instrument or studying singing can be a rewarding complement to full-time work and have a positive impact on health and well-being. Whilst making the commitment is a challenge, for many adult learners it is possible to juggle full-time employment with music lessons and practice.

Having shared my reflections, thoughts and tips from others are warmly welcomed. Don’t forget to share in the comments below.


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