At the end of Stanley Kubrik’s 1964 film ‘Dr. Strangelove, or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb’, a war council made up of the American president and heads of the army are gathered at the US’s Pentagon headquarters – they are dealing with an impending nuclear threat. The eponymous character – the mad ex-Nazi scientist Dr. Strangelove - proposes to the panic-stricken council that in the event of this imminent global nuclear disaster, the outcome might not be so bad. He describes a post-apocalyptic world in which the best and brightest specimens of humanity – including the present company of officials, of course – would take refuge in deep underground mines until the nuclear storm had cleared, calculated at approximately 100 years, during which serious efforts would have to be made to repopulate the planet. This would mainly be achieved by ensuring that there was a ratio of ten attractive women for every man (the intention of such a strategy being of course quite clear!). This proposal obviously changes the look of panic on the character’s faces to something rather more thoughtful and intrigued!
Of course I am not condoning the sexist tone of this scene in the movie, and neither am I comparing the situation in a recording studio to an impending nuclear disaster, but what can be seen as similar is the theme of making the best out of a bad situation, and then, despite current fears, perhaps realising that the alternative is actually quite an attractive proposition!
Apart from the fact that I liked the snappy sound of this often-borrowed phrase, this is relevant because my research has revealed that classical musicians often do not love making recordings, and I have sought to address this problem by training conservatoire students to have greater knowledge about and experience of performing for recording. I help them to start to see the benefits in what at first seemed to be a bad situation.
In this paper I would like to highlight two ways in which my work has moved from output to impact. Firstly, in the foreground, by using my research into studio practices to create courses which train students in studio practices. Secondly, as an undercurrent, in using the set of ethnographic methods I developed for researching classical music as cultural practice to inform my teaching. These techniques can help musicians and researchers to look at musical life as a process, and developing techniques to document it in order to be able to reflect upon it is an important skill to acquire.
I will also describe the main elements of the studio course, and finally will explain how this model of teaching is an example of both professional and paradigmatic reflection, to use John Sloboda’s definition. This last point is important because I believe that in order to incorporate new research into teaching, a process of reflection is needed, and more often than not, this will need to be paradigm reflection. This will become clearer towards the end of the paper.
MANY MUSICIANS DON’T LOVE MAKING RECORDINGS
Now to briefly explain the research – the output element of our trajectory from output to impact. It is obvious that a recording is not simply a live performance captured. From Benjamin to Gould to Auslander, musicians and listeners have been aware that the two performance modes are different. However, in today’s climate of ubiquitous recorded music, consumers seldom question what impact the different situations have on the resulting performances, nor do they consider the effect the process and product of recording have on the musicians who create them. I studied this question of live performances and studio recordings through detailed comparative analysis of performances, and by conducting an ethnographic study to contextualize this. The focus of my research was the conductor Sir Charles Mackerras, and the orchestras, performers, and production teams he was working with at the time. Between 2005 and 2009 I conducted fieldwork observation of rehearsals, concerts, and recording sessions, and conducted interviews with the various parties involved. In my fieldwork interviews with these musicians in which I asked them about their approach to and feelings about live concerts and recordings, I was surprised to find how stark were their comparisons, and that there was a considerable amount of tension in their feelings about recording. Many musicians working today express a fear of the process and a dislike of the product of recording. For them the recording process is far from the collective musical experience of the concert hall that gave the profession its allure in the first place. This was a surprise to me. (Of course there are exceptions to this stance – Glenn Gould with his preference for the recording studio being one of the most famous).
The elements that they feel negatively about in a recording session are the lack of an audience and sense of occasion, the lack of control of the situation, the different recorded balance, the question of whether the results are representative, the effects of editing and the expectation of perfection; this last issue has in their opinion created a prioritization of perfection over musical expression. The results of repeated takes and editing have trained the public to expect perfection and finesse, something that many musicians feel is somewhat at odds with the expression and excitement they aim for in a live concert (see Blier-Carruthers 2010 and 2013).
For James Clark, violinist and concert-master of the Philharmonia Orchestra, where live concerts are ‘an event’, studio recordings are ‘plastic music’ and ‘sound the same every time’ (Personal communication.: Interview with James Clark, December 20, 2007). For Lisa Beznosiuk, principal flautist of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, where concerts are ‘thrilling’ and ‘each night is different’, recordings are a ‘manufactured product’; concerts are ‘fabulous, but then you go into the studio and it’s not so much fun’(Pers. comm.: interview with Lisa Beznosiuk, December 7, 2007). For trumpeter Alistair Mackie of the Philharmonia Orchestra, where concerts are about ‘expression’, recordings are about ‘balance and accuracy’, you have to ‘tense up, focus, and get it accurate’; recording has created an ‘expectation’ of ‘perfection’, and for him recordings are ‘aesthetically not a good experience’ and are ‘fundamentally dishonest’ (Pers. comm.: Interview with Alistair Mackie, Thursday December 13, 2007).
TRANSFORMATION IS NECESSARY – TRAINING IS NEEDED
The musician's performance goes through the prism of the production team and recording process, but they have never been taught how to manage this experience successfully. Is it because of the inherent qualities of the product and process themselves, or because of a lack of preparation during their training? Musicians spend thousands of hours preparing for the concert platform but nearly none preparing for the recording studio. So it seems clear that something needs to be done - musicians studying in conservatoire should be trained to achieve this transformation.
What baffles me is that most conservatoires have ignored this issue until very recently. Many musicians I speak to about this are equally amazed, considering how many years recordings have been a fundamental part of our lives. I teach this subject, but really I believe it should be embedded in all conservatoires.
DESCRIPTION OF THE COURSE
In this Studio Performance course, which is a postgraduate level course, there are several conceptual elements and stages to the process. The students learn to look critically at the concepts, issues, and processes relating to recording, and gain practical experience of performing and producing in a studio environment, and engage in self-reflection as they go through the process. We begin with a series of introductory seminars which address the aesthetics and history of recording (and points of tension and opportunities), and the roles of the performer, producer, sound engineer and editor (including input from invited speakers active in the profession).
The students then engage in some experiential learning. They attend a demonstration recording session so they can see how a session unfolds, in order to help them to get ready for when they go into the studio themselves; this is especially useful for the role of producer which they are not usually accustomed to. This recording session is contrasted with a field trip to a live concert in order that they can objectively consider the different contexts for performance. They then go into the studio to make their own recording, and it is an important aspect of the course that they have to make their own editing choices. On another occasion, they act as producer for one of their peers; this is also a new experience for nearly everyone, in which they get a rare chance to experience the challenges and opportunities of recording from both sides of the control room glass.
At each stage the students write a reflective commentary about their developing thoughts and opinions. Through these experiences and opportunities to discuss and reflect upon them, I hope that they will learn to be as creatively in control in the recording studio as on the concert platform, and to collaborate meaningfully with other parties in the studio and to therefore be better prepared to lead their own
I asked my latest batch of students why they were taking this course; what they were hoping to learn or gain. Several had had a bad experience recording, and wanted to get over this – they had felt blocked in front of a microphone, they saw it as a barrier for performance). Several wanted to know more about how to get the sound they want across on a recording - they felt a sense of exposure knowing that everything has to go into the sound, they want to channel that sound, to improve in live as well as recorded performance. Some wanted to develop a coping strategy - one hoped to learn how to trick himself into embracing the studio as a live space.
WHAT YOU NEED TO DO TO ACHIEVE A SUCCESSFUL RECORDED OUTCOME
When I teach the course, there are several significant characteristics of a good recording session (for both performer and producer): performance and preparation, communication and collaboration, ability to adapt, engage with opportunities afforded by recording, the feeling of positivity and forward movement, of something unique achieved. However, someone recently commented to me that these headings might be equally applicable to describing a live performance, so instead I will try to highlight more clearly the differences – what needs to happen in the studio in order to create a successful recorded outcome.
(I hope you will excuse they slightly prescriptive tone in which I will set the following comments, but it is simply to give a sense of the kind of advice I give to the students when teaching this course. It is useful to remember that although we seek to train, we also are constantly asking students to discuss and debate the issues, so all points are up for argument.)
Performance for the studio
In brief, a live performance needs to be translated, it needs to go through a process of transformation, to work as a recording. The performance analysis part of my research reveals that live performances and studio recordings show points of difference in all aspects of performance (for instance timbre, declamation and characterization, expression, dramatic timing, phrasing and articulation, tempo), as well as the working process and expected final product), so it might help to consider these things before going into the studio (see Blier-Carruthers 2010). As a performer you need to be prepared to give your best live performance, and then willing to do it repeatedly, and keep the inspiration and energy levels up (it’s like a rehearsal and live performance together, many times over). Preparation is therefore very important in both the aspects of creative translation and stamina aspect.
Relationship with the producer
In a live performance, you should always communicate and collaborate with fellow musicians, but in the studio the pivotal relationship is that with the producer and the production team. You are the performer and it’s your recording, but your performance needs to pass through the prism of the producer and production team, and the process, so you need to work consciously and constructively with this. Your producer is your second pair of ears. It’s incredibly difficult to perform in a fully engaged way and listen out for what needs to be done again, and how it comes across through the microphones and speakers. You need the help of your producer. People tend to build relationships with producers that they enjoy working with, that they trust, that they know will make them sound good, and they continue in these partnerships for many years. Too often control is handed over to the producer because the musician feels that he has a lack of knowledge about the recording process, that the producer is the expert. Even amongst the highest ranks of professionals you hear things like ‘just do what the producer tells you – in the studio, he is god. You just do as you’re told’ (Anonymous, Nov. 2014). But too much control either wielded or yielded isn’t good. If you’re holding the reins too tightly you’re not allowing the process to work to its best potential; but if you relinquish control to the producer, you’re likely to feel disempowered or disenfranchised, and not to have creative control of your recording (and therefore perhaps not be happy with the final outcome).
Adapting performance and using the opportunities of the studio
It is unadvisable to go into the studio thinking ‘I’ll just perform it a few times through and then let it be edited together’ – you won’t get a result you’re happy with. Firstly, there’s your sound – this is the first thing that hits you in the sound-check and first playback. It is not what you hear live. It is not next to you, it is out in the room, what other people hear, and is then mediated by microphones and speakers. It’s important to find a sound that you’re happy with, you will do this through discussions with your sound engineer – using metaphorical language to discuss sound – and through experimentation. You should be willing to explore the details of sound – experiment with exaggerated dynamic range (especially quiet, breathy passages), and find different kinds of attack, intimacy and characterisation. You have to consider the lack of the visual element – you’re channelling a performance through sound alone. In a live concert the visual element is a very significant factor - how will you put your performance across when this is removed? You need to be willing to work in long and short takes – they offer you different opportunities. You want the long takes for the arch of the performance – the long trajectory. Then you need to work on small details, be willing to work as a craftsman with the creative finer points.
Learning about the process
It is important to learn the normal aspects of the process, the basics of control room and studio etiquette. The more you know the less you will be surprised or distracted by when you go into professional studio environments. You will know what kinds of things the producer and sound engineer can and can’t help you with, and will be more comfortable with making suggestions and experimenting with the various possibilities.
Working positively towards a goal
You should be working positively towards a goal that is understood to be a constructive product with a different aesthetic to a live performance. It has gone well when you all get the sense that you and all those involved have worked until you have achieved an ideal version, at least for today/now, both musically and technically. You all feel that you have the takes you need to edit together a great recording, and that this great outcome was only made possible by your team-work, combined input, and creative collaboration.
Facing problems of perfection and editing
In the first instance, you need to embrace the possibility to take risks – risks that you wouldn’t dare take on the concert platform. Too often musicians think this isn’t possible, because time is short, and time is money, and their professionalism is on the line. However, conversely, production teams see recording as the ultimate safety net – it is a place to try things and take risks, so perhaps everyone needs to be more explicit about this when they go in to the studio and declare what they would like to achieve. Ask yourself: do you have preferences in terms of editing? is it an ethical issue for you ? is editing for fixing mistakes, or harnessing artistry? should producers be in charge of choosing edits? In the industry, the producer makes the edit plan, but we think it is important for the performer to gain experience in choosing his own edits. It is a painstaking and often painful process to have to listen to oneself in such detail, but extremely useful. One is confronted by one’s performance, “warts and all,” and has to decide where one stands on questions of long takes versus short takes, whether editing is cheating or a positive force, and how to achieve a good arch in the recorded performance. The reaction to this is mixed; roughly half of students find it very difficult to make their own editing choices, and the other half love being able to craft their own final output.
IMPACT ON STUDENTS – WHAT HAVE THEY LEARNT?
Looking at the students’ concept of recording before and after taking this course will help to show the impact of this learning environment. When asked, in the first lecture, “what is the first word that comes to mind when you think about recording?” they replied: “Perfection; permanent; clean, tidy; exposing flaws; no audience; microphones; not natural, no visual [dimension], clinical, tiring.” The tutors then interjected, suggesting that they might want to think of some of the positive aspects; the students continued with “commercial opportunity; pressure not to [do] too many takes; trying to fix things; self-criticism; time limits; experimental; part of your history; exciting, imaginative, no audience; performer becomes audience, too; intimacy; hearing yourself differently; daunting, expectation of perfection.” We can see that the tone of their responses did not lift very much, even when given this encouragement. This cohort emerged from the learning process saying that for them recording was now: “experimenting, trying different ways of doing something; time going fast, faster than you expect; concentration of the producer, [attention to] detail; stress, good stress; preparation; relief, because you’ve already captured some good moments; pressure; detail; layers of detail; a lot more fun than expected; need forward planning and structure; good intensity, stressful and fun; not enough time; more creative than I was expecting; catalyst, crucible, transformational.”
The fact that the course seems to have had this kind of effect on the students is reason enough for me to feel that it’s important that I keep teaching this course, developing this idea, and sharing this teaching model with other educators and institutions. (I must say this has also had an impact on me – on my outlook as a performer, and as a teacher and researcher).
PROFESSIONAL AND PARADIGAMTIC APPROACHES TO TEACHING
Before I conclude, I now would like to address the element of my title that you might have been waiting for - the professional and paradigmatic approaches. It has been in the subtext of what I have been explaining, but I’ll clarify it now. Since I started teaching I've been instinctively attracted to a teaching style which might be called multi-perspectival, or even dialectical. Multi-perspectival in the sense that I like to place a thing or concept in the middle and encourage students to look at it from a number of angles, or dialectical in that I like propose two opposing views and see what the students come up with from the tension between the two – I am interested in the debate that this inspires. So when I started teaching this course on studio practices I was focused on at once preparing the students for the profession, but I also wanted them to question the accepted norms of the profession at the same time. What better place, I thought, than a conservatoire course to get students thinking about these issues than in the safety and openness of an educational environment? I then recently came across a concept of John Sloboda's which I found very interesting, apposite, and inspiring. (I am grateful to John Sloboda for sending me some unpublished material about this). I am talking about his concepts of professional versus paradigmatic reflection. These are very interesting concepts and educationally I think could be of great value to many of us.
Sloboda first introduced these two types of reflection in his keynote speech at the Reflective Conservatoire conference at the Guildhall in 2009, and then in a short article for the Incorporated Society of Musicians in 2011. Helena Gaunt has also taken up his headings in an article in her 2013 edited volume Collaborative Learning in Higher Music Education. Sloboda’s two modes of reflection can be described as activities where professional reflection is about improving what you do and preparing for the profession, and paradigmatic reflection is the process of questioning or rethinking accepted mores, often resulting in news ways of thinking or doing (so paradigm shifts) (Keynote, 2009).
I’d like to recast his headings in terms of types of teaching and learning (instead of reflection), as that is essentially how he describes them. Professional reflection/teaching has to do with ‘improving what you do’ or perfecting existing skills (ISM, 2011): a conservatoire provides this in the shape of one-to-one instrumental lessons, masterclasses, and other activities which prepare the student for the profession. Paradigmatic reflection/teaching, Sloboda writes (I’m quoting fragments of sentences here), is ‘the stuff of high creativity’, it happens once in a while, and can often lead to ‘the setting of new trends’, the ‘reconceptualization of the field or activity’ (ISM, 2011). At an institutional level, within a conservatoire for instance, this could take the form of a teacher reassessing whether the master-apprentice model could be usefully improved upon by adopting some peer-learning or student-led activities, or looking at the profession critically to ascertain what is changing in terms of the workplace that the students are going into. Looking at employability, Sloboda argues, ‘drives curriculum development, which expresses itself through new courses’ (Keynote, 2009). He describes that these two types of reflection can create a tension between the ‘need for stability’ of the ‘system in which existing skills can be perfected’, and the ‘need to review the system in relation to changing circumstances’ and ‘ask whether the system is fit for purpose in a changing world’ (ISM, 2011). Sloboda argues that in reality both types of reflection are needed, and that the tension between the two is actually necessary, and to be welcomed. However, he posits these two kinds of reflection or teaching as usually happening in different spheres, albeit under the same roof. (ISM, 2011)
I would like to suggest that my course is an example of the simultaneous use of Sloboda's concepts of professional and paradigmatic learning. When these two concepts are applied simultaneously to teaching it can create a very fruitful creative tension within this one teaching environment, which opens a space for debate as well as increased knowledge and mastery, and which therefore enhances the students’ learning and the students’ creative and professional engagement with the issues at hand, and might additionally serve to change the culture of recording as these students feed into the profession.
As you can see, from my initial output, I actually have two intended impacts. Firstly, I want students to be more prepared for the profession in its current state. Secondly, I would like to inspire them to find ways to take control in the studio and actually come up with new and improved ways of doing things.
I think that, even in a small way, I have been teaching students to learn to stop worrying and love the studio, transforming fear to love for these musicians. My hope is that this new batch of better prepared musicians will go out into the professional and change things, will have their own impact – from output to impact, to explosion, perhaps! But in a good way!