Recording during singing workshops and choir rehearsals – why, what and when?

Listed on February 2, 2015 in Blogs!

Despite my strong belief in the oral/ aural tradition, there is an increasing number of handheld recording devices appearing in my singing sessions!


People ask if they can record during a singing workshop; choir members record their parts on their phone whilst learning a new song; I record the songs we’ve learnt at the end of each workshop I run. But what’s the best, and most appropriate way of recording during singing workshops and choir rehearsals?

always ask first!

If you want to record during a singing workshop or a choir rehearsal you should always ask first.

Not only is this polite and shows a professional courtesy, but it’s also important because some of the songs may be in copyright and some people might not want to be recorded.

1. copyright

If a song you’re learning or singing is in copyright, then you’re not allowed to copy it any form – either by notating it quickly (yes, some people can do this!) or by recording it in any way (see Choirs and copyright: a beginner’s guide for the bewildered).

That means you can’t record the parts on your phone or take a photo of the big lyric sheet pinned on the wall. Even if it’s only for your personal consumption.

Just because you’re learning a song by ear in a workshop doesn’t mean that somebody hasn’t arranged or written the song. It might be the workshop leader or your friend who lives down the road or someone who’s just published an amazing songbook. You can’t just pass these songs on regardless.

Check with the person leading the session: Where does the song come from? Is it OK to pass it on and teach it to others? Is it in a songbook that you should buy?

It’s important to support people who have written and arranged songs as well as making sure that – if it’s a traditional song – you pass on the correct context, meaning, translation, pronunciation, etc.

2. other singers

Some people may be very new to singing and lack confidence in their voices. The last thing they’ll want is somebody recording them! So please ask everyone first if it’s OK.

The leader of the session may do that on your behalf or you can ask them directly. A compromise might be for you to record the song at the end with those who don’t want to be recorded stepping back temporarily.

what to record and why?

When I first started running choirs I used to be desperate to collect as many songs as possible. At every singing workshop I attended I used to press Record at the beginning and get hours and hours of stuff that I had to wade through at home. At some point I just stopped listening to the recordings I’d made as it would take too much of my time to process them. I started to accumulate a huge library of minidisks that I never listened to.

So I became a little more selective and would only record each part of the song as it was being taught and maybe the whole thing when it came together at the end.

But there was still a lot of processing to do when I got home.

So I stopped taking my recorder to singing workshops and found that I learnt more!

I began to listen more carefully. I could pay more attention because I wasn’t faffing around putting new batteries in. I realised that I got a much better overview of the songs and I was able to remember the ones that I really liked (rather than just recording them all).

If I really, really wanted to teach one of the songs later and didn’t think I’d remembered all the parts, I would ask the workshop leader and they would always be able to point me to a songbook or sheet music or website or even send me recorded parts.

learning by ear in a choir

Choir rehearsals are slightly different from one-off singing workshops. You can attend a singing day, learn a few great songs and then never sing them again.

But in a choir there will often be a performance to work towards or simply the joy of singing those oldies that everyone loves. So you’ll need to be able to remember what you’ve learnt.

One good use of recording devices is to record your part as it’s being taught. Then forget it.

Weeks later, when you’ve really got the song under your belt as a choir, you have the option of going back to that original recording if you need to practice before a concert or if you haven’t done a song for a while and it’s gone a bit rusty.

Try to avoid the temptation of going home and practising on your own whilst the choir is learning a new song. It’s possible to be too keen which then makes the whole thing a bit too much like school. Also, learning in a group is more social and allows you to hear how the harmonies work together.

process or product? – recording the results of a singing workshop

At the end of every singing day or singing weekend that I run I record all the songs that we’ve learnt together.

Often in the feedback forms I get comments like: “Why didn’t you record it when we’d first nailed it rather than at the very end? It was much better the first time we did it!”

Here is why I record the songs at the end.

  1. If you learn songs quickly (during a day of singing, say) then you will forget them quickly. If I send you a recording of what you learnt you will have something to help you remember after the workshop.
  2. You will always hear the others in your part most clearly and not get a good sense of the overall sound. By listening to a recording of the workshop you get to realise how good you sound! Also you’ll hear how the whole song fits together.
  3. Having something to aim for helps to focus the mind. There is also evidence that if you repeat something just before the point of forgetting it, then it is more likely to end up in your long term memory. So getting to repeat all the songs at the end of the workshop rounds off the learning process nicely. It’s NOT about the quality of the final performance then. Yes, there may have been better renditions earlier in the day, but that’s not the point.

Next week I’ll be looking at the kind of recording device that you might want to use.

Chris Rowbury