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As featured in The Harmonizer.

Digital technology makes it easy to provide custom feedback to individual singers

About 20 years ago, when I was director of the Chorus of The Brandywine in Wilmington, Del., we instituted an effective vocal feedback program—effective, but also cumbersome and time consuming! Fortunately, advances in technology can make critical vocal feedback much more painless.

The old process consisted of the singers holding up what was then a brick-sized or larger cassette recorder to their faces and recording either parts of rehearsal or doing it solo, at home. They’d label the cassette, hand it to a section leader, and the next week (or weeks) later, the men would receive their original along with a feedback cassette.

Fast forward to today: electronic file sharing is a very easy process. Feedback remains a critical step for choruses in our style to enhance the development of individual singers, as well as the chorus as a whole. Here are some details as to how an effective, modern feedback system works:

Provide a platform for home rehearsal. Most barbershop choruses use professional rehearsal tracks with voice predominant, voice minus, and mixed versions. These are an excellent foundation for your program. There are many excellent sources for high quality tracks.

Establish a voluntary submission procedure. Ask for volunteers to go through the recording and feedback process, to help smooth out the process before it is implemented chorus-wide. The practice submissions might include simply recording your voice at rehearsal on a recording app for your phone and emailing or texting it to the appropriate party. Note: some smartphones have proprietary recording software that produces less common file formats (AIFF, WAV etc). These often use more data and are difficult to convert on the receiver end, so you may consider designating a common app or format for all singers.

Create a practice assignment. Once the volunteers are comfortable, assign a practice submission in which they sing at home with a rehearsal track. This requires both a playback device for the digital file (computer or tablet) and their smart phone or digital recorder to record their voice on top of the audio from the playback device. Be clear with the expectation and make it simple at first. The singing evaluators should check submissions for recording quality and balance. Encourage one headphone in and the other out, so the singer can hear both the track and himself.

Train the evaluators. After all have successfully submitted once, train section leaders or other evaluators on what to listen for on recordings. In most cases, they will serve the singers best by focusing on constructive feedback aimed at low-level issues pertaining to whether a passage was sung correctly. They should not give feedback on vocal production and techniques unless they are schooled and skilled in these areas. Poor strategies and improper technique have caused many a setback for our singers over the years.

Have section leaders create practice feedback recorders and submit to the chorus music leaders, who will ensure that the commentary is appropriate and accurate. It may take some time before the feedback team is fully prepared.

Give specific assignments to the chorus. Once the feedback team is truly ready, begin regular recording requests, or requirements, depending on your goals and expectations. Don’t bite off more than the music team can chew! Requests need to be specific and in writing to the membership. Example: “Basses, please submit measures 1-38 of “Melancholy Baby” by Sunday, March 26 at 8 p.m. Remember we are especially working on the breathing, so double check this as you prepare.”

Make use of effective feedback strategies. Ask both individuals and the chorus as a
whole early on in the program, to be sure they understand and are comfortable with the process and the feedback. Here are some other tips:

Evaluators should use the written music, and note concerns verbally as they record both their voice and the submitted track.

An excellent variation is to stop the singer track and describe the particular concern, model the passage correctly, then play back that area for the singer to hear.

Summarize at the end of the feedback track. Example: “Thanks, Bob, for the submission. Remember the stagger breathing techniques discussed and try these at rehearsal next week.”

Send the feedback to the singer as promptly as possible.

Develop an electronic tracker for submission dates and feedback dates so you have a record for follow up as needed.

A regular feedback program takes a while to get implemented, but it will pay huge dividends both for individual singers and for the chorus as a whole. Good luck!

Jay Butterfield Musical Director, Parkside Harmony