Ensemble 109: Recording “Session Singer” Training

By Gary Powell
The entirety of American entertainment media is focused on presenting musicians as celebrity. They build it, they burn it, they revive it, they contrive it, and when the story has been fully exposed to death, they trash it; moving on to develop their next prey payday.

Whilst all this non-sense is premiering on your favorite guilty-pleasure channel, there is another largely unpublished story. This other story is about the non-celebrated über talented musician, including singers, who perform everyday in recording studios around the world. You will hear them performing every time you are engaged with any media: television, YouTube, radio, all online productions, etc. These singers who are always there, and unknown to the public, are creating sustainable wages for themselves through singing in recording studios. Have any of them been trained for this? And if so, what’s involved in training singers for this job description: Recording Studio Session Singer? More on that later.

Major media reporting on the music business is essentially silent. You see, they have confused the music business with the celebrity business. And, if not, they are screaming “FIRE” in a crowded building proclaiming that the music business is dead. Why? Because, it’s a great story, whether true or not. Here’s the kicker; while bands and individuals are performing free satisfying only the venues and beer distributors, recording sessions singers are being paid in the studio. But, don’t recording session singers have to give away their talent to bet on the come? No, usually not. If so, they will have a very short career.

Here’s the catch: recording session singers lead with their ears, not their voices.

What are the consequences when applying supply-demand within this music business model for singers…when they are so plentiful? We have millions of singers, just in the USA, hoping to be “discovered” and lifted into celebrity. Of these singers, even the extraordinarily talented ones may not have the skill-set, the talent, required of a professional recording session singer. Here’s why: Most find one small sliver of talent in themselves early in their life, finding no reason to widen it. If everything is going your way, why would you wish to become fluent in all musical genres and vocal styles? Here’s another why: A session singer’s aptitude itself demands being serviced with knowledge, discipline, and practice in order to satisfy its auditory curiosity about sound. These singers may find themselves wondering about the sound of a weed-eater and wondering if there is there anything for them to learn about it. I love these people. Here’s the catch: they lead with their ears, not their voices.

If the aptitude is there and the interest follows, then the rest can be taught. Now, we arrive at the University of Texas Butler School of Music’s elite performing and recording vocal group, Ensemble 109.

Since 1985, I have been training singers to be professional recording “session singers.” The training is unique although it borrows from every possible vocal sound a human can make. Beyond the vocal training, singers are introduced to this hidden world, this non-celebrated world, where talent is traded on the free market. This does not mean these singers cannot have a solo career. Many do. You can meet some of these session singers here on my site.

You can follow the current version of Ensemble 109 at these web portals:

“Ensemble 109 on Behance / Ensemble 109 on YouTube / Ensemble 109 on SoundCloud / Ensemble 109 on Facebook

Ensemble 109 is Back!

Ensemble 109, named after its course number, first came into the academic catalog at the University of Texas Butler School of Music in the Spring semester, 1985. Directed by recording producer Gary Powell, who wrote all the musical arrangements, the group averaged eighteen shows per semester performing for UT System events and gala events in central Texas. This very popular ensemble’s auditions were open to any registered University of Texas student, regardless of major. Many students sang with Ensemble 109 their entire college career. Most former members are still singing and several went on to enjoy successful careers in music. The group disbanded when Powell left UT to pursue his professional career full-time in 1992. He has continued to train singers and performers who are currently working professionally across the country including Broadway, Disney World, cruise ships, Hollywood and points in-between.

Now that Gary Powell has returned to the music faculty at the Butler School of Music, Ensemble 109 is back in the Fall of 2013. The tradition now continues for this elite performing and recording vocal group. The focus this time will be direct and specific preparation for the real world of singing in recording studios. Individual and ensemble vocal techniques are taught which bridge the gap between the discipline of classical singing and popular vocal stylizations. Most popular genres of the vocal arts are perfected and performed, all within the framework of the professional recording studio vocal ensemble. The ability to read music was never a requirement – and so it goes for this new incantation.

Ensemble 109 directly supports he College of Fine Arts curricula in the recording, theatrical, and commercial arts. This vocal ensemble is designed for students of all majors who exhibit both aptitude and interest across the vocal and songwriting arts, inclusive of all genres.


Rehearsals: Monday/Friday-4p-5:30p Butler School of Music
Wednesday 4pm-7pm (Powell Studio Productions)

Anyone accepted through audition will have already proven their talent, interest and work ethic. This vocal experience is designed for the extraordinary person; a person open to the development of their unique “voice” while being in the company of other singers equal in talent and perseverance. In rehearsal, you will have individual style-specific ear-training and vocal exercises while still within the context of rehearsing original solo songs and a cappella ensemble arrangements.


  • Bring two songs of different styles.
  • You are welcome to sing any songs you have written.
  • You are also welcome to accompany yourself on guitar or piano.
  • Gary Powell will also accompany you on piano, if needed.
  • Your ability to read music will not be assessed.
  • You may be asked to sing passages from songs you do not know.
  • If you have accompaniment tracks, you are welcome to bring them on your laptop, phone or iPod.
  • Good luck to all.

    Can Music Survive the Music Industry?

    Texas Enterprise Speaker Series Gary Powell

    Big Ideas from the University of Texas? You bet! Special Projects Marketing Manager Gayle Hight, at the Red McCombs School of Business, has invited me to speak at the Texas Enterprise Speaker Series. Having attended one of these presentations, I can report that they might be described as an extended TedTalk across a wide range of topics offering extraordinary insights with practical solutions from outstanding communicators. I am happy and honored to be included in this bunch of exceptional people. Please join us on September, 5, 2013.

    “The business of music has been failing ever since some prehistoric herdsman improvised a song to his favorite yak. Unfortunately, he did this without the protection of representation or intellectual property law. Long before Spotify, the downward trend had begun. Burdened with the unwieldy underpinnings of avarice and corruption, the makers of music have suffered. From the court of King Frederick II of Prussia to present-day corporate strategies, the music, this natural vessel for humanity’s understanding of itself, has also suffered. Why? We now curry favor by offering the promise of celebrity in trade for legal control and ownership of intellectual property. The musicians are left fallow, land plowed but not planted, and not just causing, but demanding their property be anything but intellectual. The story of this business model now has an upside: the liberation of talent by supporting musical aspiration with effective yet seldom-implemented business strategies. ~ Gary Powell


  • How can artists find the balance of income versus artistic freedom?
  • What business and artistic strategies can contribute to musicians developing and adopting informed decisions in creating a sustainable life-style?
  • Despite the egregious nature of this profession, why does it endure?

  • How digital technological advancements effect both music and profits.
  • How to identify young people who seem to have all the talent and determination to pursue music as a prudent career choice.
  • How to determine which educational construct will support a music student’s breadth of talent.
  • How to support performing musicians and recording artists individually and systemically, regardless of celebrity.
  • How music effects the world’s cultural expansion and developmental losses.
  • FOR QUESTIONS contact Gayle Hight gayle.hight@mccombs.utexas.edu or 512-475-6423
    FOR RESERVATIONS visit Texas Enterprise online.

    Phil Ramone (1934-2013)

    The Producer of Many Influences

    by Gary Powell

    It was March 6, 2008 when this story wrote itself. At this time of Phil Ramone’s passing, it seems appropriate to remember his influence on me and the music I compose and produce.

    Phil Ramone Gary PowellGlenn Richter, a longtime ally of mine and professor of music at the University of Texas, called this morning and invited me to have lunch with Phil Ramone. There are two producers in this world that would make me get dressed this fast. One is Sir George Martin, whom I have already met and briefly worked with. Phil Ramone is the other. Also present at the lunch were Executive Director of the NARAS – Texas Chapter, Theresa Jenkins and Project Director Jennifer Vocelka along with Ed Evans, Director of Technical Operations for Villa Muse and UT Recording Technology professor Mark Sarisky.

    As a producer and composer, I am conscious about who my musical and production influences have been. I have many of these producers’ albums hanging on my “wall of influences” in the cutting room of my studio. Igor Stravinsky is hanging there right beside George Gershwin, Aaron Copeland and Leonard Bernstein. But wait, also present are Simon and Garfunkel, Peter, Paul and Mary, Chicago and James Taylor. It is seldom the artist themselves that attracted my attention.

    So, what was it about these particular artists that make me listen more closely and why are they on my wall of influences? It was Phil Ramone!

    phil ramone book cover

    Following lunch, Mark Sarisky facilitated an interview with Mr. Ramone in the UT Music School’s Recital Studio for students, faculty and NARAS members. My sense was that these college students had little appreciation or knowledge of Phil Ramone’s contribution to the American musical lexicon. Culturally, we tend to buy into the myths sold to us about the capabilities of our recording artists. This was a brief moment for us all to look around the curtain and now would be a good time for us all to contemplate Phil Ramone’s Discography!

    Thank you, Phil, for mentoring my ears ever since introducing Lesley Gore in 1963 and for now writing your book, Making Records – The Scenes Behind the Music. My best wishes for your continued success and for making our popular music more nuanced, more powerful, more meaningful and simply better than it would have been without you.

    Cheat Fear Now!

    by Gary Powell

    In the next five minutes, I want to change your mind: I want to challenge your long-held conceptions of the performing arts and music education. I realize that asking for a paradigm shift in how we perceive the arts is tricky business. But I no longer risk anything when I tell you that there is a lot of unmovable concrete holding up our academic institutions. And on top of that concrete, with a broader perspective of what education is and who should bring it, there does exist the upside of greater prosperity by way of building an effective network of like-minded individuals…and willing institutions.

    The shift will have been successful when education and opportunity conspire to meet and greet your greatest aspiration. If you can imagine a spark – your spark like no other spark – then you can imagine your future in this new world, one that can become inspired in a single moment. Only then can someone else join you in it. What is holding you back in moving your dreams file into the more active aspirations folder? Forget that worn-out unrequited-silent-genius model. It never really worked; take Van Gogh for example and keep both your ears.

    Every gig you play for free is ladened with fear. Which means that every empty seat you see in a theater or concert hall, conversely, is an opportunity for your insight to cheat fear. Cheat it now. But, insight to what? The first thing to do is to introduce your work to chance. Chance has more to do with us than we thought. Within that idea of power living inside a single moment, chance can change our lives forever. A college education is a huge collection of these moments when we become enmeshed with scholars, mentors and that not-to-be-discounted chance that move us toward discovering our uniqueness and becoming it.

    Outside of the fear model there are more opportunities now within the arts than ever in recorded history – we just need new models in education and new inclusive models in business to mine the gold in order to experience a personal and sustainable prosperity within this new, yet undeveloped construct. When aspirations and aptitude, existing business models and curriculum, are all in concert together, they make a powerful formula for creating successful lives: purposeful and self-directed.

    The problem is that stock prices in aspiration have been dropping semester by semester, year after year, decade after decade. The individual student’s aptitude, not meeting the existing academic criteria, is harder and harder for the institution to even recognize. Business models within the recording arts have taken to the smoky back room while ivory tower curricula is stuck in the nineteenth century. Here, we must all agree to not make fear the basis of our relationships, otherwise fear and predictability is all that will be engendered.

    If we educators look more deeply into our students’ experiences, mine their aptitudes, inspire their aspirations, and stretch curricula to include all forms of music and entrepreneurship in the arts, universities will have more than the usual ten former students performing at the fundraiser event in praise of their university. They will add ten a year, then twenty and eventually… your school will need a bigger concert hall. And… your school will deserve it – all because of you the student, and you the professor, and you the administrator for the collaborative effort you have each engendered.

    Photo is the Old Main Building at Sam Houston State University.
    I started my professional career sitting in that green grass with guitar in hand.

    Gary Powell “The Producer’s Workshop” Video

    Sam Houston State University

    Gary Powell brings 33 years of experience coaching singers in the recording studio presenting his skills to universities and vocal studios around the country. As an alumnus of Sam Houston State University, the university music department invited Gary to work with their student singers. Singers were auditioned on the first day followed by three nights of workshop rehearsals and vocal exercises; 12 hours of solo vocal exploration and ensemble singing. These singers, most music and musical theater majors, were wonderful to work with and eager to have fun while in the process. Cheers to all involved.

    FEATURING SINGERS: Nic Alaggio, Rebecca Marie Castillo, Daniel Cloud, Bree Derbecker, Linky Dickson, Justin Michael Finch, Emily Heller, Hubert Jones Jr, Hannah Miscisin, Kiersten Ortiz, Cliff Randle, Maria Roos, and David Smith