September 13, 2011

The Evolution of Recording Music Rehearsals

I call this: mac,phones,tech,theatre — Posted by KP @ 9:19 pm

Today we started rehearsal for Ain’t Misbehavin’. After a very complex and inspiring opening speech from Andr√© De Shields, we spent the rest of the day on music.

While watching the actors rehearse, I noticed something I had not seen before: one of our actors was using her iPad to record her music. There’s really nothing surprising about this, but I made a mental note that it’s another small step in the evolution of technology in the rehearsal process. In addition to its capability for recording, she also uses one of the many piano simulators available for iOS to find her notes when reviewing music.

A History Lesson as Taught By A Largely Inattentive Observer

Most singers in musical theatre bring some kind of recording device with them to music rehearsals. They use it to capture their individual vocal parts as they’re being taught, the song as it is sung with everyone, and often they will use time on breaks or after rehearsal to have the musical director play through a whole song with the piano part only, creating essentially a karaoke track that they can then sing along with at will. The recordings allow them to continue to review the music at home, on the train, or anywhere else that they don’t have access to an accompanist. Naturally the recording device that allows this is an important tool.

When I started out, tape recorders — either full-size or mini cassettes — were what everybody used. Sometimes an actor would run out of tapes and would be lucky to be able to borrow a spare from a colleague. Batteries would die, and a stage manager who could immediately produce two AAs was a hero.

Around 2005 it seemed that many younger or more tech-savvy actors had switched over to purchasing a mic attachment for their iPods, allowing them to record huge amounts of music and sort through their recordings in an organized manner.

Naturally the plain ol’ iPod gave way to the iPhone and iPod Touch, which have built-in microphones and offer an even easier user interface for making and organizing recordings. The iPad is basically the same thing with a giant screen, so it’s no less useful. Maybe what struck me most about it was not so much what the iPad was doing for music rehearsals, but what its presence signifies in terms of how common the device has become since the iPad 2 came out. It definitely seems more mainstream, and no longer just an expensive experiment for early adopters and Apple enthusiasts. I actually feel like a little bit of a luddite for not having one, or thinking I need one.

I consider myself lucky that my stage management career has spanned a very interesting 10 years. I was around to see the end of a different way of doing things, but thankfully not for too long before the internet age took hold of most aspects of production. I imagine it’s something like what took place when computers began to operate lights, sound and automation in terms of the way the business has changed.

Today in rehearsal the actors were waiting to have their measurements taken, and engaging in a lively discussion about the ups and downs of the business. One of the women somehow got on the subject of the answering service, which made me laugh because it’s been so long since I’ve heard anybody bring up the idea of a service. The rest of the actors in the cast had never used one, having never worked professionally in the time before ubiquitous cell phones, email and texting. I added the stage managers’ perspective — how if, for instance, a call time changed, you had to call every actor at their home, their service, and their cell or pager number — because you never knew which phone they would be near, and cell phones were expensive and had short battery life, so were often turned off when not needed. And you certainly couldn’t rely on actors or production people to a) have an email address, or b) check it more than once a week. Nowadays you can send a single email or text to a mailing list and be confident everybody will get it in a timely manner, and with accurate information — imagine having to leave the same phone message 75 times in a row, and hoping you didn’t accidentally say the wrong time or day on one of them! And that is by far the best thing that’s happened to stage management in the last 10 years.

One last tip on the subject of recording vocal rehearsals: if by some chance your actor forgets to bring their recording device, whatever it may be, a handy way for the generous stage manager to help them out is to use your computer (or iPhone) to record their song and then email it to them immediately — a relatively painless way to keep their process moving, and have the song(s) waiting for them when they get home. The duration of said rehearsal would determine how time-intensive this favor is, but on the occasions that I’ve done it, the very grateful actor and musical director were economical and specific about when they were ready to record, which makes it pretty easy.


  1. To do a full circle kind of thing, this is my first time working again with the director of my production of Ain’t Misbehavin a few years ago. We did this with computers on that show but now the assistant assistant (assistant? lol) choreographer has a handy flip camera that he uses to take video recordings of run thrus of dance numbers. With that we can do a lot of things including uploading it to dropbox and sharing with the actors, making a private youtube video and emailing them the link (I don’t trust this as much.) But it has really worked, and the actors love it cause they have a chance to critique themselves and review. They come in the next rehearsal and blow it out of the water. As for the stage manager well it’s great for things where you can’t take super accurate blocking it gives you a chance to get little details and even practice calling, and helps understudies tremendously. I know with unions there are some issues with that, but I’ve heard talk that even that is changing. I just thought I would mention how the growing technology really helps us.


    KP Reply:

    I’m a huge fan of documenting stuff with video, but it’s always a little bit of a gray area with Equity. Some contracts have an allowance for video of musical numbers to be taken by the choreographer/dance captain (not sure if it also applies to fights, but it should), if they’re only in the possession of the stage manager. I came in as a sub on an Off-Broadway show and they ended up needing me to start calling the day after my first day of training. Thankfully the choreographer had taken videos of the major musical numbers. The PSM showed me some clips and I said, “Give me the files and I’ll come in tomorrow able to call the show.” It would have taken days to be even remotely passable learning it the usual way. I came in not just OK, but confident with the busiest numbers.

    We actually did something really cool when re-mounting a tour of Romeo and Juliet last year. A big fight was totally re-staged, and there was a complex, layered musical score that had to go along with it, that was now totally inappropriate. As it was a re-mount, the composer wasn’t supposed to be there, and was across the country. The day we finished the fight we recorded it in the rehearsal studio and emailed it to him, and a few days later he sent me the new sound files and instructions of how to call it. It’s not an ideal process, but it’s a whole lot better than, “sorry, you’re screwed, you can’t make any changes.”


    Blair Reply:

    On the last show I did (non-musical)we had a fight scene between two older actors, and we recorded it so they could review it really helped them.


    Comment by Blair — September 15, 2011 @ 3:00 pm

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