To optimize student performance on standardized tests, classroom environmental factors are meticulously prepared: carefully arranged chairs and desks, proper lighting, complete silence and even the sharpened No. 2 pencils. Every element is considered to best support this key step in the students’ education.

For student musicians, a performance is their exam — the opportunity to demonstrate the results of long hours of rehearsals and refinements. Performance environments deserve the same attention given classrooms. In particular, poor acoustics will impair critical listening, shortchanging the students’ musical education and diminishing the audience’s enjoyment.

The three most common school performance environments — auditorium, gymnasium and cafetorium — each present their own unique acoustical challenges. Without starting from scratch, how can the acoustics in these areas be improved?

Valuing the Arts

Before acoustical problems are ever addressed, a fundamental question must be asked:“Are the performing arts valued?” Schools that place a high value on the performing arts and related environments usually experience benefits beyond award-winning groups and memorable concerts.

“You can positively change the culture and climate of a school faster through a quality performing arts program than by any other means,” says Dr. Bill Skilling, superintendent of Webberville Community Schools in Webberville, Mich. When Skilling arrived in Webberville in 2003, the high school choir had only 13 members. Today it has 230, and the school’s instrumental groups also saw participation increase significantly.

“The right equipment and environment shouldn’t be considered as costs — they are investments in our students,” explains Skilling, who says his district has invested more than $100,000 on new band and choir equipment.“We have found, and studies have shown, that students participating in the performing arts perform better and behave better in the classroom.”

Auditoriums: Realizing the Potential

School auditoriums represent the best likelihood for optimum acoustics, but even these spaces have inherent problems because of their multipurpose nature — serving music, theater, dance and other activities.

In a typical auditorium, the proscenium arch and curtain separating the stage and audience area pose several acoustic challenges for music performance. The fly-loft space above the stage — designed to accommodate theatrical curtains, lighting and scenery — traps much of the group’s sound, compromising acoustics for both the performers and the audience.

In this environment, sound-reflective overhead panels and shell towers surrounding the group are critical to achieving proper performance acoustics. Together, these two elements create a “blending chamber” for sound on stage, enabling musicians to hear themselves and each other, and allowing the director to hear all parts distinctly. The shell greatly improves sound projection to the audience, uniting the stage and audience areas into one acoustical space.

If budget limitations prohibit both overhead panels and shell towers, we recommend starting with the overhead panels because closing off the fly-loft provides the greatest acoustic benefits. With overhead panels and the group positioned toward the back of the stage, the hard floor surface in front of the group also helps reflect sound waves, like rocks skipping across the water.

Without overhead panels, another option is moving the group forward, in front of the proscenium, and using a portable acoustical shell behind them.

For the audience area in an auditorium, we recommend hiring an acoustical consultant. The proper location and type of acoustical panel can help rooms that are too “live” or too “dead.” Diffuser panels scatter sound and distribute it evenly throughout the space; absorber panels help eliminate hard reflections and echoes.

While electronic sound systems may be used to assist acoustics in an auditorium or other performance space, amplification cannot replace attention to proper acoustic design or treatment. In a similar way, a poor sound system can jeopardize even a well-designed acoustical space. Both must work together.

Gymnasiums: Getting in Shape

“Schools without an auditorium need to maximize the functionality of the space they have,” says Michelle Dudley, AIA, an architect with Pfluger Associates Architects, San Antonio. “A gymnasium will never be an ideal performance venue for music, but the inherent problems of the space can be minimized to make the space as appropriate for music as possible.”

A gym is one of the most challenging acoustic environments for music — it’s usually too large and too reverberant. Hard-surface walls, bleachers and floors separated by large distances create distinct echoes and excessive reverberation. The result is a muddy, indistinct confusion of sound that makes listening difficult among the performers and compromises the enjoyment of the audience.

Dudley says walls can be treated with acoustical panels, and panels or banners can be hung from the ceiling. “Portable acoustical shells and risers also can help make the space more acceptable,” she adds.

A tiered performance configuration on risers is essential for good sound projection in any performance environment but particularly in less-than-optimal conditions. If performers are all on one level, a portion of the group’s sound is always directed at the back of their fellow performers, reducing and interfering with sound projection. Staging or risers also help improve sightlines for the director and audience, so proud parents can actually see and hear their son or daughter.

A portable acoustical shell surrounds the back of the musical group with acoustically reflective surfaces, enabling them to hear themselves better and improving sound projection to the audience. An alternative option is backing the musicians against a wall, but this is often awkward or unworkable.

If the space allows, it’s better to arrange the audience in a long, narrow configuration, such as the middle of the gym floor between the bleachers, rather than sitting off to one side of the space. In the narrow configuration, the sidewalls provide important reflections that help surround the audience with sound.

If the gym has stackable bleachers on the walls, pulling them out slightly can add diffusion to the space. The multilevel, broken surface will help to better scatter and redirect the group’s sound throughout the area.

When the gym has retractable wall dividers, use only the space needed for the performance to reduce excessive reverberation and gain more control over the space. Of course, be sure that no other activities are taking place in the adjacent area.

Cafetoriums: Making It Palatable

“For multi-use spaces like cafetoriums, the ’90-percent use’ will trump the performance use every time when resources are allocated,” says Jason Duty, principal consultant with Charles Salter Associates, San Francisco.

When Duty talks with school administrators about acoustical treatment for multi-use spaces, he starts by asking about speech intelligibility during assemblies, ceremonies and other non-musical events. “This often gets an administrator’s attention,” he says. Students are more likely to be inattentive or disruptive at these events if excessive echoes prevent them from hearing properly. Parents and community members will also be impacted.

Cafetoriums are not conducive to musical performances — even if they have a built-in “picture-frame” stage at one end — unless the walls and ceiling are properly treated for sound absorption and diffusion.

An untreated stage without an acoustical shell may provide visual benefits, but the resulting poor acoustics will seriously compromise performance quality for the group and the audience. A portable shell around the group, with a reflective ceiling above them, offers the best solution in these environments.

Depending on the construction of the floor, walls and ceiling, the space can be acoustically very “live” or “dead.” If a suspended ceiling makes it “dead,” replacing half of the ceiling tile with reflective panels will improve acoustics.

Portable tiered audience seating may be a solution to improve hearing and sightlines for the audience. Since people help absorb sound, tiered seating better positions audience members to absorb excess sound in a “live” room.

If all these recommendations are unworkable, position the group on the floor against a large wall, arranging the audience seating accordingly. The wall will provide some level of reflection and focus for the sound.

Duty says controlling mechanical noise is essential in gyms or cafetoriums. This includes air-handling systems, lighting ballasts and other mechanical systems. “Many schools do not address these fundamental issues,” he notes. “But if major defects like echoes, excessive loudness and mechanical noise can be avoided in these performance spaces, you’re more than halfway home.”

Dr. Skilling tells educators and parents, “If you give students the best equipment and the best teachers, and in return, expect the best from them, you will get it.”

Giving your students the best for the performing arts should include the best possible acoustical environment — whether that’s an auditorium, gym or cafetorium. The results will strengthen the students’ learning and enjoyment of music, while also better showcasing your school’s arts programs to parents and the community.