Recording: Prepping the Choir

August 27, 2014

Achieving a great recording with a choral group takes more than just perfect mic selection and placement; the ensemble needs to be thoroughly prepared, both in terms of the material and the recording process itself. The fewer surprises encountered, the smoother the process will go. For some best practices in preparing the ensemble for the studio and ensuring that the process goes as smoothly as possible, Choral Director reached out to five experienced educators who shared insight into their own approaches to achieving great choral recordings.

CD: What are some the most important things you try to communicate to your students to prepare them so that they know what to expect during the recording experience?

Marcia Wieland: When you’re preparing to make a recording, whether it’s for archival purposes, for an application for a choral event, or something else, the kids have to buy into it. They need understand that if they don’t do a good job, it will reflect back on them. They will want to be able to have those recordings when they move on from their school choir, and this is something they will be able to look back on and cherish. They have to understand that a recording defines that group of people and how they sound together in a permanent way. Making the recording will be the only time that this exact group of people are going to be together to perform that specific piece. Even if it’s a piece that has been performed for hundreds of years, this is the one chance for those students to give their best and make it sound great.

Jim Wilcock: Some of the best preparation comes from listening and evaluating other performances. If the students have an opportunity to listen to other groups and evaluate those recordings using an established rubric, it helps to build their aural skills and the musicality. They begin to understand what to listen for and, by extension, how to perform to a higher standard.

It’s also good to explain how the recording process works so that students don’t feel intimidated by the microphones or feel like they need to hold back.

Joel Everist: As in a rehearsal, effective communication is key when recording.  Make your students aware of the time constraints, goals, and schedule before and during the session. Remind the choir to eat well before the recording, get rest, and hydrate. 

Les Rowsey: We’re going to have to live with our product a very long time (like, forever!), so we have to be as prepared as we possibly can be. The more you expect of yourself in rehearsal, the easier and better the final product will be. This sets the standard.

In my program, we will not use auto-tune or misrepresent our group in any other way in the final product. Absolute integrity is a life lesson, and I like teaching life lessons with most everything I do. This further sets the standard.

We memorize everything that takes a page turn. You can’t make noise in a recording session.

We practice actually recording, although not in the same space with the same equipment. This makes the “real” recording session go smoother because folks become acclimated to being focused and appropriately quiet. This also serves to improve the group’s concentration and listening skills. We use music when we would use music in the session, and don’t when we wouldn’t in the session. This gets them used to holding music during the session.

We play back these “practice” recordings, and ask: 1) What do you like? 2) What can we improve upon? We also do that in the actual session. I have witnessed numerous groups making huge improvement during their session time. My philosophy is the entire process must be a learning experience.

Jim Wolfe: It’s a fine line between precision and making it perfect and not losing that emotional appeal that the audience needs when they listen to it. Pitch is unbelievably important. There are a lot of tools you can use in the studio, but at the end of the day, if the choir isn’t centered in terms of pitch, it’s very difficult to overcome that, and ultimately you’re not going to be happy with that recording. Having students memorize the music helps, because you can’t shuffle pages in the studio. Microphones pick up every little thing, both the good and the bad, so it’s so important to have the students understand that before they get into the studio. It’s going to pick up the awesome nuances of the voices, but also any little sniffles or areas that might not be as strong.

CD: How does your approach to preparing repertoire for recording differ from preparing material for a concert?

Les Rowsey: Honestly, not very much. I think you should always be trying to do the very best you can in any situation, under any circumstances. There’s a consistency we need to expect from ourselves first, and then our group. Deadlines change, acoustics change, personnel changes, and those can alter our circumstances. Expectations and high standards should not change, regardless of the situation. The reality is that a recording session does not happen nearly as often as concerts, and I speak to that difference when I say we’ll live with a recording session’s final product a very long time. Nonetheless, I find groups working consistently hard no matter the situation, finding joy in their efforts. Consistently high standards should always be the goal, no matter what.

Jim Wolfe: When we’re in the classroom and I hear something that won’t record well, I’ll have the choir freeze on a particular phrase or chord so they can hear if it’s not completely centered, or if the vowels aren’t lined up.

In the studio, they only have to get it once! If we are recording and there’s just a single part that needs work, we don’t have to do the entire song again, we can just go back to that part and nail it. The kids love that challenge of getting something right. It is different from a live performance because you can concentrate on a specific part of a song, and you do have multiple opportunities in the studio to get it just right.

It’s important to let the kids sing material that will let them showcase their talents. When I choose music for recording, I want to have that fine line where the kids have that precision and technical merit that they need when they sing the song, but at the same time they have a connection that allows them to bring emotion into the tune.

A live performance is so much different from a recorded performance. When you have parents, grandparents, and other relatives in the crowd, it can be an emotional experience. But when you make a recording, there’s no audience, so that technical aspect and that emotion needs to come through the recording, and it’s not going to happen if the kids are not connected to it. So I always tell my students that we have to bring the emotion into it. Even though it isn’t a live performance, it has to be like a live performance – pretend that there are people out there hearing you sing.

Jim Wilcock: When preparing for a recording, the focus must move from the physical nuance of the music to translating that into the sound.  We live in a very visual society and so it can be difficult for students to understand how to create emotion and intensity in the music that can be heard, not seen.

Joel Everist: We have found it is best to record within the days leading up to your final performance. Never have a recording session following a concert.  It is human nature that after the final time a choir sings a work for an audience their heart will not completely be in that piece during a recording session.

Marcia Wieland: It’s similar to preparing for a concert – doing daily recordings during rehearsal can really help pinpoint areas that need to be tightened up, whether it’s getting vowels synced up or phrasing. For one, those daily recordings allow us to spend more time shaping phases and consonant endings and less time on notes and rhythms. 

CD: Do you have any tips for ensuring that the entire process goes smoothly?

Marcia Wieland: Keep an open mind. I’m a perfectionist, so when I listen to a recording the first time through, all I can hear are the mistakes. That can be really discouraging. It’s important to recognize that you may not have the best choir on the face of the earth, but if they’re singing better than they’ve ever sung, then that’s something everyone should be proud of. Patience is important, as is keeping an open mind and trying to be flexible. They’re still kids, after all, and you can’t expect them to be professional performers.

Joel Everist: We have found that the more takes you do of a song in a recording session, the more problems you encounter. The choir gets tired, and the fresh qualities of a performance fade under the stress of repetition. Invariably, when we have multiple takes in a single session, it is always the first or second one that has the most energy and vitality.

If you are able to afford to have more than one session, it pays to spread them out enough, so you have time for the choir to reflect on their best work and make plans for improvement. Again, the next time you record the piece do as few takes as possible, then move on to your next song. Work for complete takes of each selection, without recording a piece trying to use edits within the song. The choir’s intonation can vary slightly when starting and stopping, making it extremely difficult to piece together a song through editing.

You also need to build small breaks into a recording session. This is often a concern because time with the choir is precious, and you might be paying for time with your recording professionals. However, the mental focus, emotional energy, and physical condition of the ensemble will benefit from a chance to catch its breath. Do not let the choir members check their cell phones during a break. Being in a choir allows us to be a part of something bigger than ourselves, and a phone takes us out of the group, away from where the music is bringing us.  Have all choir members leave cell phones and watches at home.

Find the best place for your choir to record where they feel at home. While you might be able to use a church or hall to sing in for a recording session that has wonderful acoustics, if you cannot get enough rehearsal time for the choir to be comfortable singing in a new room your results will suffer.

If budget is a concern, seek out advice on recording techniques and equipment, but hire a professional if you want professional results. Technology can allow us to record a choir ourselves without much expense.  However, the ears, quality recording equipment, and skills of an experienced sound engineer are priceless. The cost of paying for a recording session is far less than the expense of purchasing the needed equipment. There is also more value in having the expertise of someone who can achieve the correct balance and levels for a choral recording, as well as providing feedback during the session. A pair of professional ears is valuable when your focus is on conducting.

Jim Wilcock: I record my students every day to help them become comfortable with the idea of having microphones around and to enable them to listen outside of the rehearsal. They can then evaluate their own progress and make adjustments individually and collectively. I use the rubric developed to adjudicate vocal performance in Utah and have my students constantly evaluate and discuss our successes and weaknesses.

Les Rowsey: Practice session etiquette and procedures, and define for the group exactly what that is to you and your recording engineer. Record and play back and involve the group in outlining what is good and what can be better. Get their buy-in: the students should think about how cool it is to have the opportunity, because a lot of folks never get the chance.

Consider making the recording a Kickstarter project, where folks pledge money upfront, and by doing so can earn some reward in return for their pledges (a copy of the recording, a group concert at the date and location mutually agreed upon, and so on). Then, remind the group that folks have supported them in a very tangible, financial way, and we should want to reward them for their support with a high quality recording. This is a win-win for everybody!

Choose your repertoire well in advance, and then work with people who are as flexible and congenial as they are talented. There’s no room for “divas” in a session! I have found these kinds of people in abundance if you diligently look for them. And, be one, yourself: your reputation will precede you. Once you have these folks, if you treat them well, they will be there for you time and time again. We’ve done seven recordings, and have used many of the same people each time.

Choose a reputable company to do the manufacturing of your discs. A good company will give you a point person (a “project facilitator”) to work with who will be hands-on and available to answer questions, troubleshoot, and explain things.

Jim Wolfe: As the director, I need to be prepared more than my students are. I try to block out the amount of time I think we’ll need to get a song down, whether that’s a half hour or an hour, and I will communicate that to the students. This will help them understand the process. They need to know how the process works so they can be mentally prepared. Recording can be a very tedious process, and it can be a fine line between beating the kids down and saying, “Guys, we have to do this again.” Yet, they want success and they want that product to be as good as we can make it.

Joel Everist is Director of Choral Activities for Mason City High School in Mason City, Iowa. Under his direction, the Concert Choir has earned 40 First Place finishes at international competitions; appeared at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, The Kennedy Center, Chicago’s Orchestra Hall, and numerous ACDA conventions, as well as a performance for Vice President Gore with the Prime Minister of Japan at the State Department in Washington D.C. The MCHS Concert Choir was featured in the documentary Invisible Threads airing this year on public television, and had recordings included on a CD for Dr. James Jordan’s textbook The School Choral Program (GIA Publications).

Les Rowsey is entering his 37th year of teaching and his 28th with Jenison Public Schools in Jenison, Michigan. During Rowsey’s tenure in Jenison, the choirs, ensembles, and soloists have received numerous first division (“Excellent” and “Excellent With superior Distinction”) ratings at the MSVMA District and State Festival; Jenison groups have appeared at the Midwestern/Michigan Music Conference and ACDA Regional Conferences on eight occasions; and the Chamber Singers have been invited to perform at the Michigan Youth Arts Festival 19 times, most recently in 2014. Les was named both the Jenison Public Schools’ Teacher of the Year and a State Board of Education Finalist for Michigan Teacher of the year in 1991-1992. He was also the MSVMA Teacher of the Year in the 1999-2000 school year.

Marcia Wieland is the director of Choirs at Grand Junction High School in Grand Junction, Colorado. The department’s notable accomplishments include marked growth of the program, student acceptance to Regional & National ACDA Honor Choirs, All State Choir participation, invitation performances with nationally noted ensembles, a clinic and commissioned work with composer Eric William Barnum in 2011, performance in 2012 for President Barack Obama’s arrival in Grand Junction, and most recently an invitation to the GJHS Chamber Choir to perform at Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center in New York City under the baton of composers Eric Whitacre and Stephen Schwartz in March 2014. Wieland’s professional work as a conductor and teacher spans a wide variety of ages and abilities, including experiences with high school, collegiate, and adult choirs.

Jim Wilcock has been teaching at Pleasant Grove High School in Pleasant Grove, Utah for 16 years. He received his Associate of Arts degree from the College of Eastern Utah where he was the first recipient of the Dorothy Brown Vocal Scholarship, and he earned his Bachelor’s degree in Music Education from Southern Utah University. Wilcock was also honored at SUU with the R. Kenneth Benson Award, an award given to honor the top male student at the university based on academics and service to the school and community. His auditioned choirs have received superior ratings at region and state on many occasions. The PGHS Chamber Choir under his direction was recently featured at the UMEA Mid-Winter Conference in St. George.

Jim Wolfe is currently in his sixth year as Choral Director at Covington Catholic High School, an all-male high school in Northern Kentucky. Wolfe received his degree in music from Miami University Oxford, Ohio, and has over 20 years of experience in choral music. His chamber choir has recorded several albums, raising thousands of dollars for scholarship funds and fine arts improvements, all benefitting the high school.

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