Guest author: Judith Bell

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 Recording a Middle School Orchestra

How a makeshift recording session turned out to be one of the best hours of orchestra all year with the most learning outcomes

It was the last term, and this year it was a short and full term. I have traditionally produced an annual set of recordings (CDs) so students can take some memories of their ensemble playing home at the end of the year, but the year was rapidly drawing to a close; I hadn’t managed to record any of their previous performances; term 4 rehearsals never had all the students at school due to class trips and camps, and I knew that trying to record the orchestra when they played at the end of year prize-giving was unlikely to be successful.

So, on the only day I had key players, we launched into a makeshift recording session. I hadn’t even had time to set up a full set of mics and headphones – so I made up a quick solution and tried something a bit different in our penultimate rehearsal of the year.

Equipment and software – use what you have

I had set up a recording in GarageBand with the following channels through an audio interface:

  • a keyboard (DI)
  • an SM58 mic
  • an NT4 (stereo condenser) mic
  • a double bass DI’d (direct input) from a bass amp

This gave 5 channels in total. They were connected via a snake from our practice room to a recording room.

I set the chairs up differently, in just one semicircle, which also turned out to create a sense of anticipation for the students. I had a headphone amp with just four headphones on a return through the snake.

Working with a variety of skill-levels

We have an all-comers orchestra for players who are 11-13 years old.  Students are welcome to join at any stage that they feel ready, so we always have a range of players from those with a year or two experience to those who only know a handful of notes in their first few weeks with the ensemble.

Because of this experience range, and also a unique diversity of instruments from year to year, we use a couple of strategies such as

  • arranging parts for all the individual students
  • asking for their own ideas of orchestral music they’d like to play
  • or taking an accomplished piece of a pupil and writing parts around it

This was the case for the piece we recorded that day.  I chose a Mozart Sonata that featured one of our pianists, so I asked the pianist and all the strings to play first.  All the other instrumentalists (wind, brass and percussion) were allowed to sit silently in the room listening, but not in the semicircle of chairs close to the mics.

After recording the strings, we took just three instruments at a time. Students wore headphones and played along to the recording while I conducted them as usual. Next was the flute and glockenspiel, then brass, then saxes.

Mozart Recording GarageBand

Unexpected outcome: increased student engagement

What I didn’t anticipate was the huge level of engagement from all the students who weren’t recording. I think it was genuinely fascinating for them to hear the parts being played right through in one take without hearing anything else at all! I could see they were using inner hearing to imagine what was happening in the musical gaps.

What about the students who were absent on the day of the recording?

On the following days, we were able to call in the students who had been missing from rehearsal and they were able to contribute their parts to the recording. This meant there was more inclusion than if we’d done it on one performance or rehearsal.

I also got to hear how well students had been practicing (I was actually impressed), and the other great outcome was that two interested year 7 students took over the recording and were soon making sure all the missing students and instruments were recorded – even if it meant that we ended up with 6 channels of triangle with various takes and edits!

Links mentioned

About the author

Judith Bell has led the music programme at Chisnallwood Intermediate School since 1999. She works with a wide range of performing groups including rock, jazz, orchestra, percussion, Irish, ukulele, theory, computer music, and sound tech, and is developing ways to integrate music learning with the new Digital Technologies curriculum.

She has a MusB (Hons) in composition from the University of Canterbury and is a registered music teacher (AIRMT) in flute, clarinet and saxophone, and plays in 3 bands. Prior to teaching at Chisnallwood, Judith taught early childhood music classes for 9 years, alongside itinerant and private music teaching and arranging work. She is a music director for Christchurch’s Strum Strike and Blow Festival for ukuleles, marimbas and recorders, and organises Christchurch’s Junior Jazz Jam (for Primary school jazz bands), and the Christchurch Big Band Festival.

She is co-chair of Music Education Canterbury, on the MENZA board and is a MusicEdNet mentor.