How To Create Backing Tracks for Students

Recitals are front & centre for many studios at this time of year.  It can be a stressful time, but it can also be an exciting time of seeing students go above & beyond what they normally would in their practice times. What if your recital had backing tracks for students to play with? How much fun would that be!

In my studio, students are busy practicing with backing tracks that I created for their recital pieces.  When they played with the tracks the first lesson, a few things become quickly apparent to many of them.

  • There is a big difference between playing with Ms. Rosemarie (who will stop if needed) & a backing track that keeps going regardless of what happens.
  • Even though they know their songs, they are not necessarily performance-ready yet.
  • A backing track tells you exactly where you need to practice … without saying a word.

This isn’t to say that my students haven’t been preparing for the recital.  But, playing with a backing track is a whole new level of being prepared.

What is a backing track & why use one?

Simply put a backing track is a “recorded accompaniment for someone to play or sing with”. (Thank you, Google Dictionary)

For students & teachers, it opens up a whole new world!

  • Acts as a metronome without the steady click
  • Develop a steady pulse at different tempos.
  • Changes or modifies the style of a song to something more interesting to the student
  • Students hear how instrument & style choices change the genre of a song
  • Shows students where there are weak spots in their piece

Making a chord chart

The first thing I needed to do when creating the backing tracks was to get or make a chord chart.

Many contemporary arrangements of top 40 songs already come with chord symbols written above the melody line.  However, what if this isn’t the case?

You can figure out the chord progression on your own.  But, you may not feel comfortable doing this if:

  • The piece is in a style that doesn’t easily show the chords
  • You feel uncomfortable figuring out chord progressions
  • You have a lot of backing tracks to complete in a short period of time.

I’ll admit that I am not always confident in finding the chords in a classical piece (depending on the genre & time period).  However, my bigger problem was completing a large number of backing tracks in a very short period of time.

I just didn’t have time to do this old-school.  I needed help.  I needed an app (or two).

Can we keep a little secret between us?  Typically, I insist on using the instruction booklets when we build something at our home.  It goes faster & if pieces are missing, well, we find out in a few minutes rather than a few hours.  I didn’t use the manuals for either of these apps.  (Shh.  Don’t tell my husband.). Turns out that they were pretty self-explanatory & only needed a few searches online to figure out specifics.

(This may not be the best-kept secret though since my husband often reads my articles.  If that’s the case … “Hi, babe.  Just pretend the previous paragraph isn’t there.  I still want to use the instructional booklets when we build something.”)

Alright!  I will be sharing the pitfalls I went through so that you are able to do this without the guessing.

Yamaha Chord Tracker (Chord Charts)

Yamaha Chord Tracker is an iPhone/iPad app that determines the chord progression of any song on your device.  If you have a Yamaha digital piano, you can connect the iPad to your piano for additional features.  This was not something that I did though.

Once you open the app, you can choose to search for songs based on:

  • Playlist
  • Artist
  • Song
  • Album
  • Genre

As long as you have uploaded onto your iPad the music from the lovely CD’s or digital downloads that came with your student’s books, they will appear in this app.

Tap the song & automatically a chord chart will appear.  It will divide the song into measures & allow you to change the tempo or suppress the melody (though I didn’t always find this did very much of anything).  You are also able to view the chord chart in:

  • Full screen format
  • Staff notation
  • Keyboard
  • Guitar

Keep in mind …

As awesome as Yamaha Chord Tracker is there are few things to keep in mind.

  • The app will assume every measure has 4 beats.  There is a way to change it, but the only options are 3 or 4 beats.
  • If there is an introduction to the piece, the chord shown is not actually played.
  • The written chords don’t always line up with the actual audio of the song.

The best ways to get around this are:

  • Have the sheet music in front of you with a pencil
  • Listen to the song & follow along with the chord chart & your music.
  • Write out the chords where they actually appear in the music
  • Pause as needed to give yourself time to jot down the chords
  • Use the rewind button liberally (it goes in 6 second spurts)
  • Test out the chord progression once it is all written out
  • If a chord doesn’t seem quite right, the app allows you to test out different chords (press on a chord, pause, lift your finger)

Don’t make these mistakes

Don’t do the following (AKA, don’t do what Rosemarie did to start)

  • Take a screenshot or write out the chord chart on blank paper … just use the sheet music to save yourself a step
  • Use songs that have multiple time signature changes
  • Assume the chords are correct as written … it’s a guideline & needs to be compared to the audio

Ironically, the first few songs I did backing tracks for included multiple time signature changes & this was how I figured out that things were going completely awry.

Now, I know we all will use the Chord Tracker Manual (wink, wink).  So, I am including the link here.

iReal Pro (Backing Tracks)

Once I had a workable chord chart, I used iReal Pro to create the actual backing tracks.

iReal Pro is a fantastic app that can be used on iPhone, iPad, Android, & Mac.  It’s an app I’ve heard quite a bit about but was rather nervous about actually using.  Turns out there was no reason to be nervous.

This app also comes with a manual that I did (not) read.  There are also forums that I found hugely helpful when I got stuck.  And, you can use the tutorials on the iReal Pro site.

In the video below, I will show you how to:

  • Create a new song from scratch
  • Set the key of the piece
  • Add time signature markings
  • Add measure & end line markings
  • Change the number of times the accompaniment repeats
  • Change the tempo
  • Change the style of the accompaniment

Some of the information you will see when editing “Chords” is:

  • Letter names
  • Numbers for scale degrees
  • Suspended chords
  • N.C. (no chord) symbol

Some information you will see when editing “Symbols” is:

  • Time signatures
  • Measure lines
  • End lines
  • Repeat signs (closed, first & second ending,etc.)
  • Codas & Dal segno
  • Fermata

Keep in mind …

With iReal Pro, there are also a few things to keep in mind as you use the app.

  • When you are editing, the flashing square represents one beat regardless of the time signature.
  • If the piece begins with an incomplete measure, the only way to deal with this is to add “N.C.” for each beat until the student plays.  There will still be a percussion part, but no chord played.
  • Dynamics stay at one level throughout, though there is a way to play with the dynamics of elements of the backing track before starting.
  • On the chord screen (bottom left corner) is a measure icon.  It makes input much faster.  But, it puts the line on the LEFT of your beat.  The workaround is to go to the first beat of the next measure before pressing the icon.
  • Almost anything not related to chords will be entered into the left of your beat.
  • If you run out of measures, tap the blue plus button (left of the information icon) to add as many beats as you need.

I really liked the versatility of this app & how easy it was to input a new song. Honestly, this app intimidated me a bit. Now, I wish I had started using it so much sooner!

Backing Tracks For Everyone!

Backing track for you. Backing track for you. Backing track for you. Backing tracks for everyone! (For the Oprah show fans when she gives away cars.)Perhaps not backing tracks for everyone. Some of my students are doing songs that will be much better without the busyness of an accompaniment. There is something to be said for simplicity.  The process of making backing tracks did get easier with each track I created. She. I first started, it took 30 minutes to create the first track. However, you will not be figuring things out as you go.

How to use this during lessons

Once I found my flow & used the steps I listed above, I was able to create 3 or more pieces in that same 30 minutes.  This was opening the song in Chord Tracker straight through to a finished backing track in iReal Pro to send to a student.

In the lesson, students got to choose from 6 different styles so they had ownership of the accompaniment.

  • I played excerpts from their piece in 2 styles.
  • The student chooses which arrangement they liked best.
  • I played another style & the student decided which they liked best. The original favourite or the new style.
  • Repeat until the student has heard 2 options in each genre (jazz, Latin, pop)

Several were surprised that they gravitated towards jazz styles. Once we had the style, we practiced playing with the accompaniment in the lesson at a speed that worked for the student.

Lastly, I used AirDrop (or email in one case) to send the backing track as a WAV file. We double-checked that the audio was good & the student knew how to access the file easily on their device during the week.

A New Way of Practicing

My students definitely had their eyes opened once backing tracks came into the picture. As I told them, there is no hiding from a backing track.

But on the bright side … it does let us know exactly where we need to put our practice time!

I could definitely see us incorporating more backing tracks & arrangements into the studio throughout the next year. The benefits are numerous & I love how easy it is for a student to personalize the style so their music becomes more meaningful to them!

Do you use backing tracks in your studio? Would you like to?

Let me know in the comments below what this looks like in your studio or how you would like to add it to your studio.

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