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Shure Helps Educators Capture Native American Musical Culture
Posted on Monday, November 1, 2010

NILES, IL, November 1, 2010 — While most university music education programs concentrate on the preparation of prospective teachers for traditional work in school orchestras, marching bands, and jazz bands, the University of Washington in Seattle has added cultural relevancy to the mix. Among the requirements of students in Dr. Patricia Campbell’s music education program is a residency for performing and teaching at the Yakima Nation Tribal School in the city of Toppenish, located on the Yakima reservation in south central Washington.

“The Tribal School has a program where students are taught to play native instruments,” explains Robert Pitzer, a doctoral candidate who assisted on the project. “They don’t have a marching band or a jazz band. Instead, the students learn powwow music, and do improvisatory music on Native American wooden flutes and handheld frame drums. It’s unique and interesting, both musically and culturally. We decided it would be a great idea to record their performances, and Shure was kind enough to lend us a selection of microphones for that purpose.”

The recording process was also an education for Pitzer, who had no formal experience in that area. “I’m a music education guy, a band director, so this was new territory for me,” he states. “Since we had access to this wide selection of Shure microphones, we basically tried different models and positions and compared them in headphones. When we found a combination that sounded pretty good, that was the mic we went with. I guess you could say we took an empirical approach.”

In addition to traditional tribal vocals, there were native flutes and handheld frame drums.
Fifteen performances were recorded, ranging from soloists and duos to larger groups with drums and vocals. “We ended up using three different microphones. For ensembles, we used both the KSM32 and KSM44,” notes Pitzer. “We generally miked the group, using a pair of mics. Everything was done live, with no overdubs. We got much better results that way, as opposed to miking each individual.”

For solo performances, and to isolate a specific performer, the SM57 was selected. “We found that mic had a great sound for the flute and the frame drums, and gave us the best isolation,” he reports. “At the suggestion of the school’s music teacher, we recorded the flutes in the shower of the boys’ gym for the natural reverb, which sounded amazing.” Solo drum with vocals were done in the classroom, captured by a single SM57 positioned about two feet away to balance the sources.

Ensemble recording took place in the school’s highly reverberant gymnasium, and relied on a mix of KSM32, KSM44, and SM57 mics. “We used the studio mics in pairs for the vocal ensembles, just trying to get a good balance of the group while capturing the sound of the room,” recalls Pitzer. “Everything was recorded live. To make sure we got everything in good balance, we had the boys doing frame drums and vocals in one area, with the four female vocalists in a different spot. It really worked out well.”

The University of Washington’s music education team was very pleased with the results of their recording experience. “This was a great opportunity to document a different approach to music education, incorporating cultural elements that make music relevant to students in a different way,” Pitzer summarizes. “These recordings sound like you are standing in the room during the performances, which is exactly what we’d hoped to achieve. Considering how little recording expertise we had, I have to give a lot of the credit to the Shure microphones. They made it easy to get great results.”  The team will give back to the Yakama youth, sharing copies of the recordings they made.

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