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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