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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“When can I do Grade 9?”

Please remember to check the current edition of the syllabus as these change regularly, and marking allocations can be amended. 


You’ve passed Grade 8. What next?

As we well know, there is, alas, no Grade 9 in the UK. So, what are your options for post-Grade 8 examinations and assessments?

I’m lucky at the moment to be working with several musicians who have either recently passed Grade 8, or who are already working beyond that level. I’ll state now, as I always state, music is for life, not just for exams, and it’s perfectly possible to learn post-Grade 8 repertoire without ever taking an exam. That said, in this blog post, I want to consider some of the options available to learners post-Grade 8 level.

In this post, I’m going to concentrate on five options, leading to the first-level diploma exams offered by ABRSM, Trinity College London and the London College of Music.

Now, you may be wondering why I’ve arranged these five exams as I have. Firstly, Trinity’s Advanced Certificate is pitched at the same level as Grade 8 (Level 3), although it’s often seen as a step beyond because of its nature as a recital exam, in comparison to the standard three pieces performed at the highest grade.

Secondly, ABRSM’s new diploma, the ARSM, whilst accredited at the same level as the DipABRSM (Level 4), includes a mixture of DipABRSM repertoire and Grade 8+ repertoire. I have therefore illustrated this as a stepping stone from Grade 8 to the diplomas themselves. Finally, I have included the three first-level diplomas: DipABRSM, ATCL and DipLCM.

That may all seem fairly straightforward, but of course, each exam is made up of different components and each can be weighted differently when it comes to the marking. Whilst for the Advanced Certificate, ARSM, DipABRSM and ATCL performance diplomas, there is only one option, the DipLCM can be further subdivided into the standard, recital and concert options. We can see illustrated below the very different ways each of these exams is made up:

Broadly speaking, the ARSM and DipLCM concert option offer the greatest degree of performance with, in both cases, 100% of the marks being for the performance alone. That said, the Advanced Certificate and ATCL are not far behind as 90% of the available marks are for the performance, with a further 10% for presentation skills. Shortly behind these are the DipLCM recital option which offers 80% of the marks to the performance and 20% to sight-reading, and the DipLCM standard option which offers 70% of the marks for the performance, and 15% each to the viva voce and sight-reading. The exam with the least marks offered for the performance itself is the DipABRSM offering just 60% of the total, with 25% for the viva voce and 15% for the quick study (sight-reading).

So maybe the first question to ask yourself is what do you actually want to be examined on? As is the case for the graded exams, it’s perfectly possible to acquire skills such as sight-reading without being tested on them in an exam.

Then there’s the repertoire itself. It’ll come as no surprise that there is a good deal of repertoire overlap across all five of these exams. Another option to consider is whether you wish to include own-choice items, and if so, how many are allowed. Similarly, will your programme require pre-approval? Also, don’t forget that in some cases, you can offer a portion of your programme on a related instrument (for example, a flautist might offer a piccolo piece).

What surprised me most when writing this post is that the DipABRSM which is so often seen as the ‘gold standard’ in fact offers the fewest marks for the performance. This is something else worth bearing in mind.

Above all, talk to your teacher about your options, but also, where possible, talk to those who’ve already sat these exams. If you know someone else also working towards a post-Grade 8 exam, it can be good to ‘buddy-up’ and work together, even if you don’t play the same instrument it can still be good to share the experience.

As with all exams, you get out of the experience what you put in. Enjoy and value the journey as much as you do the result.


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Embracing Foundations

I know that many of us have found both confidence and solace in yoga, me especially over the past six months. Each Sunday, I wait in anticipation of the arrival of Yoga with Adriene‘s weekly update: a beautifully written message and a new video. A few weeks ago, this was part of the message which arrived:

‘Today, I invite you to take stress energy and root it back down in your foundation.

Trust the foundation and know that each time we come to the mat we are adding to and working with that foundation.

Foundation is important because it allows you to feel where you’re coming from and where you are going without having to worry about either one.

Ground, be present, and recharge your batteries.’

I think that as musicians and learners of music, we have a huge amount to learn from yoga, and I believe this message applies to both equally.

The general expectation for anyone learning an instrument is that the longer they learn, the more advanced they become. Indeed, the more advanced one becomes, the harder pieces one is able to play (all unwritten expectations of course!). ‘Harder’ often equates to more notes, more complex rhythms and faster tempi.

I think that in our quest to play harder pieces, it’s easy to forget our foundations. I believe this happens in two ways.

Firstly, it’s easy when struggling with harder pieces to forget how far we’ve come. We often mark the ‘big’ milestones (exam results etc.), but it’s not as easy to recognise the tiny incremental steps forward we make on a daily basis. Sometimes it does us good to revisit our foundations, to see how far we’ve come and to feel grounded on the journey we’re on.

Secondly, there are also practical reasons for revisiting our foundations, for it’s upon these foundations that everything else on the journey is built.  None of us should feel ashamed at revisiting the basics. The tone exercises we might give a beginner pupil still have much to teach us. As much as we might long to challenge ourselves (OK…humour me…) with G# melodic minor in contrary motion, let’s not forget how we first got our fingers and heads around C major, one octave, hands separately.

So, be grounded in your foundations. Enjoy the journey, but just occasionally take a moment to look behind you to see all that’s contributed to the place you’re at now.


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Setting the tempo: working with accompanists when there is no rehearsal time

David Barton Music student, Ruth Carlyle, has taken part in two local festivals and has also worked with many other accompanists on fairly limited rehearsal time. Thank you to Ruth for sharing her experiences of and tips for working with an accompanist. I’m sure they’ll be useful to you all.


As a singer or instrumentalist there will be occasions when you need to perform with an accompanist without the opportunity for a rehearsal, such as if you are performing in a competitive music festival. These are my personal reflections as a singer on working with accompanists in such circumstances; I would welcome thoughts from others, including pianists or others who accompany.

Preparing the music…

Providing a copy of the music is your first interaction with the accompanist, even if you do not know who will be the accompanist for the event. It is your opportunity to make the accompanist’s role as easy as possible, and to help them to promote your performance. These are my tips:

  1. Provide a clear copy: a basic factor, but if the music is difficult to read, it makes the accompanist’s life much harder.
  2. Label the copy: write your name, the date of the event and any relevant information (such as a time or a festival class number) that may help the accompanist to identify when the performance is taking place.
  3. Number the pages: you want the accompanist to be able to play the music in the correct order. I tend to follow the format 1 of 5, 2 of 5 etc. where 5 is the total number of pages.
  4. Remove any instructions that you are not using: if there are any printed instructions that you are not using in the performance (such as repeats) cross these out clearly and make a note at the top of the music to indicate that you have removed an instruction.
  5. Add any changes: if you are changing the dynamics (particularly if a forte passage is now piano) mark this on the copy.

Before you perform…

Arrange to arrive at the venue before you are due to perform, so that you have an opportunity to meet the accompanist. Introducing yourself before the performance means that the accompanist can identify you. It is also more than a simple courtesy, as it is your first interaction in person and establishes a working relationship. Introducing yourself gives you the opportunity to:

  1. Check that the music copy reached them safely and whether they have any questions.
  2. Let them know whether you will be introducing the piece before you start to perform.
  3. Let them know the speed at which you take the piece and any changes of tempo during it.

During the performance…

Once you come to the performance, it is a collaboration between you and the accompanist. It is important to stand where they can see and hear you. You should consider whether you need to be able to make eye contact with the accompanist, particularly if the accompaniment and the voice/instrument both come in together at the start of the piece.

At the end of the performance…

Do acknowledge and thank your accompanist. They have shared their skills to support you, and you may want to work with them again.


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The Exam-Life Balance

I’m aware that a number of students across the UK are now fast-approaching their GCSE, AS and A-Level summer exams. I know how important these exams are and how stressful they can be. The pressure to succeed in them is immense. As I wrote in a blog post last year, I am, however, a firm believer that music can be a fantastic way to relieve some of that stress and provide a welcome break from both exams and revision.

Each music teacher will approach this differently, but with the above in mind, here are some guidelines  which I’ve offered my own students affected by these exams this summer:

  1. Personally, and I’m sure this will apply to other teachers, my 48-hour cancellation policy still applies: lessons cancelled with less than 48 hours’ notice will be charged for;
  2. We understand that with the stress of the school exams, practice will inevitably be limited (or non-existent). Please don’t let this put you off coming to your lessons though because there’s still lots we can do and enjoy;
  3. If you feel you have an especially busy week of exams coming up, or a heavy revision period, you might want to cancel the lesson that week. Remember though, it’s much better if you can shift the lesson to a different day or time, or maybe double the lesson length the following or previous week rather than missing the lesson entirely. The lesson could be that welcome break and breather you need;
  4. If you’re not in school during the normal school day, why not change your lesson time to a free daytime slot? There are always a variety of free slots available each week. My pupils can see these, book and switch easily just by logging on to MyMusicStaff;
  5. Above all, don’t let school exams eclipse everything you enjoy doing, especially music. There’s so much research extolling the benefits of music in terms of health and wellbeing. This is all the more important in times of stress;
  6. In the past, pupils have asked if they can take a complete break from lessons during the school exam period. I know that other teachers have been approached with similar requests, and sometimes, this ‘break’ can last up to eight weeks. Whilst we understand the pressure to do this, I don’t encourage it as I believe that there are always ways to work around the exams to keep music part of your life. Personally, with quite a long waiting list, I am not able to keep lesson slots open for pupils who wish to take such an extended break over this period.

I wish you all good luck with your exams, and I, like other music teachers, look forward to working with you to achieve a good exam-life balance in such stressful times.


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