Enhancing Rehearsals with Active Acoustics

Mike Lawson • Uncategorized • December 13, 2016

Student musicians and their directors are too often shortchanged in their preparations for concerts by the acoustical inadequacies of their rehearsal space. New active acoustics technology is available to overcome those deficiencies, providing more productive and enjoyable rehearsal sessions. The students of two high school music teachers – one in Minnesota and the other in Texas – are already experiencing the benefits of this technology.

Problematic Differences

In sports, it is intuitively understood that the best place for athletes to practice is where they will be playing: tennis players practice on the court, football players head to the field, etc. For music students, however, there is often a significant difference between the acoustics of their rehearsal space and their performance venue. And unlike tennis courts and football fields, which feature uniform dimensions, performance venues can vary widely in dimensions and construction materials, both of which greatly impact acoustical characteristics.

Acoustical differences between a rehearsal and performance environment can be especially problematic for student musicians. In rehearsal, students and directors work to refine often subtle aspects of intonation, dynamics, articulation and balance, with the goal of recreating these elements in concert. When the performance venue is significantly different than the rehearsal venue, even the most carefully rehearsed musical touch-points can easily become lost or stifled. The best solution – rehearsing in the concert venue – is not always feasible or practical.

Bridging the Gap

Active acoustics technology can bridge the rehearsal/performance gap by simulating a wide variety of acoustical environments within a single rehearsal space. In real time, the system’s microphones pick up sounds generated in the room; the sounds are electronically modified by a digital signal processor computer and played back through speakers on the walls and ceiling. The system also features digital record/playback capability. Ongoing technology advancements have made these systems more sophisticated and more affordable.

Specific benefits include accelerated skill development and assistance satisfying district, state and national curricular requirements, including the 2014 National Music Standards formulated by the National Coalition for CORE ARTS Standards. In the National Music Standards, for example, active acoustics technology aids three artistic processes: Performing, Responding and Creating.

Performing Successfully

For music students, the performance is the final exam that caps their preparation. By enabling students to rehearse in a variety of acoustical environments, active acoustics helps them learn to perform at their best in any venue.

“Although we’re rehearsing in our orchestra room, our active acoustics system allows us to rehearse as if we’re on our stage,” says Mark Gitch, orchestra director at Wayzata High School (WHS) in Plymouth, MN. Gitch believes that easing the transition from rehearsal to performance environment allows students to focus more on the skills they’ve developed in rehearsal and less on the unfamiliar space.

An active acoustics system can simulate either the venue the composer intended (a Baroque-era recital hall, for example) or the venue where the performance will occur, whether recital hall, auditorium or football field. Customization is also possible; a custom WHS setting emulates that school’s auditorium.

Central High School (CHS) in San Angelo, TX, purchased two custom settings with their system, enabling band director Joey Ashbrook to choose between the two contest venues where his bands frequently compete; CHS lacks an auditorium.

“Practicing every day in a hall that sounds like the contest stage can’t help but give us an advantage,” he explains.

By developing their critical listening skills, students learn how their technique needs to adjust to different acoustical environments. For example, when learning intonation, students can better hear and blend their own sound with the ensemble in a reverberant, acoustically enhanced room. With the system off, students hear their own pitch more clearly.

Students’ understanding of dynamics is also enhanced by active acoustics. The definition of “loud” or “soft” varies based on a room’s size and acoustical characteristics. Musicians learn they can actually play more quietly in a resonant space because the acoustics help carry the sound. In contrast, playing in an acoustically dead space can be a stifling, challenging experience as musicians strain to be heard.

Gitch also believes this technology helps develop the skill of musical risk-taking, which is a key element of teaching artistry. With dynamics, for example, students can risk playing louder or softer and learn what’s possible in different acoustical environments.

For all instrumentalists, active acoustics helps ensemble members learn to coordinate attacks and releases, which are essential aspects of playing cohesively.

Responding Appropriately

The artistic process of responding requires students to analyze and interpret musical works while considering the composer’s expressive intent.

When an active acoustics system features digital record/playback capability, solo practice sessions or ensemble rehearsals can be recorded for immediate review or downloaded for later self-critique, director evaluation or even contest submittal.

This facilitates different levels of listening as students’ abilities advance. The first time Gitch’s students heard themselves, they asked him, “Are we really that bad?” “Yes you are,” he told them with a smile. “That’s why we’re listening.”

Through use of the system’s easily accessible recording feature, his students quickly moved from being novice listeners (labeling what they heard as good or bad), to responding with technical and expressive observations about pitch, blend, dynamics and articulation. Over time, students begin creating solutions to challenges discovered through their observations.

Ashbrook uses the system daily for comparison listening, which he considers a highly effective method for students to understand differences in sound, balance, starts/stops to notes and tonal matching. He begins his rehearsals with the system off, then adds acoustical enhancements to subsequent recordings so students can compare; finally they compare with the initial, system-off environment.

He calls the technology eye-opening, noting, “I may have explained something a thousand times, but hearing it makes the light bulb go on.” Ashbrook recalls his woodwinds rehearsing a long, technical lick in four different room settings – from large arena to small practice room. “Once they listened, they immediately corrected a problem we had struggled with for a month! It’s a great time saver.”

Beyond issues of technique, the technology also enables students’ deeper, artistic response. “Let’s set the question of playing in tune aside for a moment,” Gitch will say. “We’re trying to shape this phrase to say something interesting. Listen to yourselves and evaluate if you’re using dynamics and color as we’ve discussed to create a convincing phrase. If not, we need to work on that.”

The record-playback capability strengthens students’ ability to listen intently, which accelerates learning. Gitch believes that when students are empowered to identify their own strengths and “not- there-yet” habits, they become significantly more interested in reinforcing those strengths and finding and employing effective solutions to those things that need further attention.

From the perspective of the National Standards, responding incorporates emotional and psychological components. The record-playback technology helps student musicians respond artistically, encouraging them to ask themselves, “Are we taking the composer’s intent to heart and feeling moved by this recording? If I’m not moved, how can I expect the audience to be moved?” According to Gitch, those are all challenging questions for developing musicians.

Creating Imaginatively

Finally, the National Standards encourage students to create musical works meeting appropriate criteria, along with sharing works that convey intent, demonstrate craftsmanship and exhibit originality. Individual practice and group rehearsal are where the work of creating is accomplished. Students creating a brand-new musical work can download a recording and take it with them to evaluate and refine later.

There is also an inspirational benefit to this technology; active acoustics raises the students’ engagement with the creative process. Rehearsals and practice sessions become more engaging and fun.

To evaluate a musical composition, an ensemble can listen to its own recording rather than a recording by a professional ensemble. This is a more immersive, inspirational and educational experience for students because they realize that together they are co-creators of the final piece.

Gitch observes WHS students across a wide range of skills experiencing similar, positive effects from the system. “They’ve been inspired to listen differently and to practice more,” he adds. “Anything that motivates additional practice is a good thing.”

Ashbrook also firmly believes in the technology and its benefits, for both students and teachers. “Everyone is looking for a better way to effectively teach,” he declares. “I think this is going to be the future of music, from the college level down even to our beginner bands.”

As composer Ludwig van Beethoven so wonderfully said, “Music is the electrical soil in which the spirit lives, thinks and invents.” This active acoustics technology inspires students to fully experience the ‘electrical soil.’

Denny Meyer is acoustics product manager at Minnesota-based Wenger Corp., a manufacturer of products and services for music education, performing arts and athletics markets around the world. He has made numerous presentations on music facility planning at national and regional conventions. [email protected].

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