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GUEST BLOG: "Stop Teaching Karoke," by Carl J Ferrara


I’ve had many arguments with administrators and fellow teachers about the use of pre-recorded accompaniment. Many believe it’s a cheap, easy, and convenient alternative to hiring an accompanist. Purchase of a recording saves you money over the hourly fee charged by most pianists. It is also a godsend for conductors who lack significant piano skills. Just press play, and your choir sounds like it’s singing with a full orchestra. Plus, having a drum beat and electric guitar DOES make those pop music arrangements sound less cheesy and simplistic.

But for all the superficial benefits of recorded accompaniments, what do you lose? Instead of feeling the music, and letting that natural emotion guide the tempo, caesura and dynamics of the piece; students are racing to fit their text into the given span of time dictated by the recording. In short, the recording controls your performance, not the performer. Through adjustment of dynamic elements, students can explore different artistic effects.

A live accompanist doesn’t skip, or break down like a CD does; and they can make adjustments in volume for blend, or recover from a late or early entrance. I’ve seen many absolute disasters happen in performances, thanks to problems with the sound system or the CD, that never would have happened with a live performer.
on October 9, 2012 6:39am
I have had these thoughts about canned accompaniment for MANY years, since I was student teaching and my co-op teacher used a recorded track in the concert. I have since been told by a string colleaugue he creates his own CD accompaniments for his students that he also plays the full performance during concerts, covering up his students but no one else is none the wiser.... A true abuse of technology.
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on October 9, 2012 7:08am
There is nothing better or more valuable to a choral conductor than a fine accompanist.  However, when we have NO BUDGET AT ALL in our schools for an accompanist, we are stuck.  And a piano accompaniment track that you record yourself is better than having a poor accompanist--the parent who comes to volunteer, or the student who comes to volunteer, and they are totally undependable in following the conductor, being accurate, etc, etc.  Unfortunately, there are just some pieces that require too much finesse to be able to use a pre-recorded track.  Unfortunately, I feel I can't choose those pieces to perform.  Currently, I serve 5 elementary schools with a chorus in each, and have 6 choruses between those schools.  I am fortunate to be able to play well enough to play simple accompaniments or pre-record them myself.  Others, I spend my own money to pay a friend to record them. Sometimes I use pre-recorded instrumental tracks.  When I ran and conducted a community children's chorus, I paid the accompanist more than I paid myself--can't afford to pay one in my current situation.
Eloise Porter
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on October 12, 2012 5:41am
Thanks for reading. I feel your pain regarding the budget. Those who would rather us water down the quality of our programs are doing it by giving us little choice than to do it. Tracks are fine for practicing, but a live accompaniment is worth fighting for.
on October 9, 2012 7:15am
I agree that a live accompanist is the best, and trax are often abused, but occasionally, they are a godsend.  The number of accompanists, especially in smaller, rural communities, has been spiraling downward for years.  Many times, the only accompaniment available is from a cd, especially at solo & ensemble contests.  It's essential that we still teach strong, independent readers and musicians and use the trax sparingly.  Now, a real pet peeve: going to a professional production (especially Branson or Las Vegas) and hearing canned trax.
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on October 9, 2012 7:39am
Happy to admit I agree with you for all of the excellent reasons stated. I have been forced to use them in public relations events in the community, but I have always found, much to my delight, that my elementary school students understand the difference between singing with the CD and singing with an accompanist and my direction, and always seem able to adapt between the two situations.
The one instance in which I have used them, and been very happy to have them, is when I have had heavy pressure from parents to use music that "entertains", especially during the holidays. My students don't object to singing Jingle or Rudolph or whatever as long as they know that their quality music will be what they sing at the concert.
The "entertainment songs" are perfectly OK for teaching good unison singing and phrasing, and actually, learning to stay with the thumping accompaniment can be good for teaching listening to each other and staying together, and especially learning to refrain from oversinging. 
The true goal is always to do our "learning" music well, and perform it in the best way we can. Even when the parents, and of course the administrators, don't get it, my students almost always do!
on October 12, 2012 5:43am
I'm going to start pushing the following into the pre-educator rhetoric: My job is not to entertain the community. I would get $100 an hour to do that. My job is to teach your children music, and I can do that better with Good quality repertoire and a live accompanist.
on October 9, 2012 9:58am
Amen, Carl!
I also see, as I do in church work, a case of supply and demand at work here. The reason there are fewer good accompanists and organists is due in large part to decreased demand, part of which is brought on by decreasing budgets in the schools and changing tastes in music in churches. But there is increased opportunity for teaching in both cases! I'm sure we have all seen at work, whether we were aware of it or not, the idea that either we will train our choirs or they will train us. I believe that works at the larger level as well. In addition to our "official" students, we can view our parents, administrations, parents, school boards, parents, pastors, parents and congregations as our "unofficial" students as well. It has been said that everyone is ignorant, only in different subjects. Therefore, we as the professional/leading musicians in our spheres have many to teach. Yes, it will take time and effort. But wouldn't that time and effort make us better teachers as well? Also, if we show ourselves to be open to learning from others' expertise, they may become more open to learning from us and begin to see the real value in live, capable and paid accompanists.
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on October 12, 2012 5:45am
I've also seen a decline in training on the part of music educators. I believe the pianists are out there, they just won't work for the pittance we're willing to pay them.
on October 9, 2012 10:30am
This is where the Middle and High school teachers can be particularly helpful.  They often can accompany well enough and could volunteer to help the elementary teachers out.   If not with their own skills, then getting their helpers to volunteer at the elementary level.   Have any of you secondary level choir teachers offered to help raise money for your feeder schools?  If you feel strongly about this, put your time and talent where your mouth is.
I used to agree wholeheartedly with what the OP has said.  However if you look at the world of popular music, there are a lot of opportunities where singers sing with recorded accompaniments.  A band I worked with this summer uses some recorded accompaniments to produce special timbres in performance that can not be made live.  By shutting and locking the door to "Karaoke"  you are handicapping your students in the opposite direction.   They need the experience of recreating the same performance over an unchanging, unyielding recording as well as the experience of performing live.  I still avoid recorded accompaniments in live public performance, but they have value in rehearsal and in education.  For some they are an essential tool.  
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on October 12, 2012 5:48am
I've performed modern music which needs a pre-recorded accompaniment for unique sounds. But, come on, you know that's not what I'm talking about. And I DO put my money where my mouth is. I constantly lobby for live accompaniment and INSIST on accompanying my own students at Solo festivals. By the way, Autotuning is become very popular in the music business as well, that doesn't mean that we should be nurturing it.
on October 9, 2012 7:10pm
Colleagues:  I definitely have my own very strong feelings on this question, and definitely feel that in almost every situation live performance should be live.  But with that said, there are perfectly valid arguments on either side, and it isn't the kind of simple either/or question that it might seem.
I directed the All American College Singers at Disneyland and then at Walt Disney World the last two years before the accountants shut down the program as they looked forward to building both Tokyo Disneyland and Euro Disneyland.  And prior to those two years the program had ALWAYS used prerecorded accompaniments AND prerecorded voices.  The only question was how much prerecord went into the mix and how much live sound.
But you have to remember that the Disney folks were movie people, which means that they were among the best in the business at creating illusions.  Both Disneyland and Walt Disney World are gigantic stage sets that use all the tricks of forced persepective to create the illusion of much more space than is actually there.  The 3-story buildings on Main Street are actually 2-story, with the corporate offices on the second floor, and the same trick is used to make the castles look much higher than they really are.  And Main Street gradually narrows from the entrance, making it look about twice as long as it really is.
So of COURSE they wanted all of their musical shows to sound as if they had been recorded in the recording studio by the finest singers in the business, just like in the movies, and that's exactly what they did.  In Anaheim the mix was about 90% prerecord and 10% live, because the choreographers directed the shows.  In Orlando it was about 40% prerecord and 60% live, because the head of Live Entertainment was himself a former studio singer.  But they knew that most guests would see a show only once, or perhaps only listen for a few minutes as they walked by, and their rationale was that NO show could ever be less than the best it could possibly be.
But for some reason, and to my delight, the two shows I directed were treated as an experiment, and we were live from beginning to end of the summer.  There was some instrumental "sweetening" on the prerecorded tracks, but there were no prerecorded voices at all.  And by the end of the summer our show in Anaheim was still up and energetic every single show, 4-a-day, while our counterparts in Orlando looked like they were singing in their sleep!
There was another aspect to the shows I directed that helped out.  We were asked to choose a "swing couple" who would learn every track on stage and be able to go in to replace anyone of the same gender when needed, and the second summer we actually auditioned for and chose a "swing couple" for each of the two parks.  (This is now something that everyone does because it worked so very well, and one day in Florida, with a cast of 14, we went on stage with only 8 performers because of illness or injuries and my wonderful "swings" saved the show by jumping from one track to another effortlessly!)  And we found that it also kept everyone on their toes and kept the energy levels up when you might be singing with or dancing with a different partner every day.
So the decision should never be made on purely practical grounds, but driven by a solid performance philosophy of exactly what is more important, creating an unrealistic illusion or giving performers a chance to be their very best and to improve themselves as both performers and as people.  And yes, there can be valid situations in which either takes precedence over the other.  It ain't all black or white!
All the best,
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on October 12, 2012 5:54am
I see your point. That's absolutely the justification for use of canned music in theme parks. When I went to Disney World last year, I avoided the pre-recorded cheesy canned shows in favor of the barbershop quartet that sings on Main Street. Even my 10 year old daughter can tell which shows are "illusions" and where the genuine talent is. It's gotten to the point where I play a recording of Acoustix, the barbershop group performing authentically, and the fact that they're so well in tune prompts my students to insist that it's autotuned.
on October 10, 2012 12:37pm
The problems have been pretty well exposed. I just will add: I was preparing a few show tunes with a pianist of some reputation.
After a few run-throughs, she said, "You are the most difficult to accompany!" I only had a simple answer:
"Perhaps you are used to having people follow you. You have to follow me!"
Don't most choruses follow the piano in rehearsal more than they follow the director? Singing a piece a cappella is a shock for some because they have been following the piano?  Do you think?
Good on you all,
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on October 12, 2012 5:55am
DING DING DING!!!!!!! That's exactly my point. I see it all the time when I judge Solo Festivals. The kid is frantically trying to follow the pianist instead of expressing the emotions of the song. Thank you for getting it.
on October 10, 2012 2:08pm
Lots of interesting points made here. Technology is, indeed, both beneficial and hazardous. My experiences with it  have been mostly professional (as in a choir recording a track for the TV feed, then the choir singing live -- but that was at the '84 Olympics). When I taught HS, the only time I ever used a track in performance was for a dance number that my choir performed -- but that was for fullness and predictability. 

Hopefully the new uses of technology in the upcoming release of Les Miserables will again shine a light on what happens with live performance. If you haven't seen this featurette, it shows how the singers were recorded while singing live on set, THEN the orchestra was filled in later, sintead of the canned, old school way of recording it.
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