Virtual acoustics are beginning to take hold as a viable and valuable teaching tool. A virtual acoustics system includes an array of microphones and speakers that can replicate the acoustics of a broad range of performance venues — from a cathedral, to a large recital hall, to a small auditorium. The goal is to help performers hear what they’ll sound like at the venue where they will eventually play.
The system can help improve intonation, articulation, balance, blend, interpretation, and (most of all) critical listening techniques. For instrumental or choral instructors, virtual acoustics can enhance the music learning of students.
Most systems are customized to fit any school’s rehearsal room and are compatible with a wide range of room sizes. The components of the system include a control panel, a processor, suspended microphones, and wall and ceiling speakers.
Virtual acoustics help musicians and instructors in three primary ways. They help students realistically prepare for upcoming performances, teach them how to effectively evaluate and critique their performances, and create a space for students to discover the best rehearsal methods and techniques for them.
When Joel Ashbrook, former band director at San Angela Central High School in Texas, and his students had to practice indoors to prepare for outdoor performances, they simply set their virtual acoustic system to an arena stadium setting to replicate the sound of a larger space.
“With a marching band rehearsal indoors, you can work on precision, correctness of notes, and articulation,” Ashbrook said, “but it’s hard to hear balance and blend, especially releases. An arena setting helps us play better together and prepares us for our stadium performances.”
Tami Goss, band director at Bridge City High School in Texas, uses her system in a different way.
“Getting my middle school band classes together to rehearse for a concert is difficult,” Goss said. “We usually get one 30-minute rehearsal with everyone on stage.
“To prepare for our spring concert, we recorded one of the largest classes – trumpets and clarinets – playing the music and the other two classes could play along later, hearing the other parts and fitting together. Preparing was easier and I thought our concert turned out much better, too.”
Some educators who have used these systems like to use the record and playback settings to compare and contrast different recordings.
“When we’re working on a new piece, I usually keep one of our early recordings,” Natalia Albacete, band director at West Lake Middle School in Humble, Texas, explained. “Then right before our concert, we’ll record the piece again. We listen to both recordings, to help them understand how far they’ve come. My students love that.”
Responding to music, an important component of the National Standards, involves emotional and psychological reflection. The record-playback technology gives student musicians the opportunity to respond artistically with an immediacy that promotes understanding and retention, encouraging them to ask themselves if they’re telling the story they want to tell.
Through listening, analyzing, and adjusting, students engage in an artistic process that moves them beyond pitch and rhythm error detection.
“My students across a wide range of skill levels experience similar positive effects using this technology,” said Wayzata High School (Plymouth, Minnesota) orchestra director Mark Gitch. “They’ve been inspired to listen differently and to practice more. Anything that inspires more practice is a good thing.”
Gitch says that many times after school, students – and an occasional faculty member – come in to use the space individually.
“I think they’re inspired by playing in a cathedral setting, for example, along with really listening differently,” Gitch said. “Maybe they’re listening to the last note and asking themselves: ‘Is that really the tone I wanted? Is that really the pitch I wanted? Maybe I should do that again.’ It allows them to experiment.”
In some cases, teachers let the students discover the system themselves and make their own adjustments.
“I recently folded up our choral risers and had everyone sit in a circle, facing each other,” says Michael Gutierrez, Director of Choirs, Firebaugh High School in Firebaugh, California. “First, they sang with the system off, then I turned it on to the cathedral setting and we tried again. I didn’t tell them anything, but they were automatically adapting as they listened to each other more. It was really beautiful.”
Gutierrez also uses the system when he has a non-musical substitute teacher coming in.
“The system allows the sub to easily lead a productive rehearsal,” he said. “On one track I can record basic warm-ups for the students to use, with an accompanist; another track could have the full accompaniment for the songs they’re working on. The sub can also record the students for me to review later.”
Musical game changer
Educators who have used virtual acoustics systems say their favorite things about them are the ease of use, because the environments can be changed at the touch of a button; flexibility, with a variety of preset spaces; and the ability to record and play back. There are additional settings, but these three are the most often used and praised.
Virtual acoustics systems allow educators to “tune” their rooms, and create any variety of acoustic conditions, allowing young musicians to practice in performance environments. The band, choir, or orchestra room can become an auditorium, a theater, or a football field. Taking advantage of those options, teachers can better prepare their students and ensembles to play with confidence, no matter when or where they perform.