by Michael Refvem (MGBH)
With the end of the summer festival season, a new school year has arrived, and for many young pianists so has the college application process. Perhaps, the most important aspect of applying for music schools is the pre-screening recording that determines which applicants are invited for a live audition in the winter. With the level of competition higher than ever to be accepted to prestigious schools, the level of professionalism behind your recording can make the difference in being invited to audition or being rejected.
Being new to this process can feel daunting. From a young age, we, pianists, are trained to focus on just one thing – our playing. But in this modern world, it isn’t enough anymore to just play one’s instrument. You need to also have knowledge of other aspects of the music industry, where the art of recording is one of the key aspects.
There is something sacred about the recording process. All is silent in the hall, you press “go” and wait a few seconds, absorbing the silence. Then, when the moment is right, the music takes over. Unlike in a live performance where the audience is, to an extent, also a participant in the activity, recording is all about the pursuit of perfection, seeking your definitive interpretation and setting it down for all time.
You’ll be surprised at first to hear your recording. The way we perceive our playing when it is happening often isn’t the same as the audience perceives it.
WHAT TO PLAY
I would recommend only setting your most comfortable, well-tested pieces to record. Try recording yourself on a regular basis so that by the time you get set to make your final recordings, you feel centered and ready to go. You’ll be surprised at first to hear your recording. The way we perceive our playing when it is happening often isn’t the same as the audience perceives it. You might notice strange tempo fluctuations or that your range of dynamics needs to be improved.
With most pre-screening recordings due alongside the applications for many schools on December 1st, I would recommend doing your recordings well before the due date. October is a really good time to record, and it can be helpful to do a live recital a few weeks before to make sure your pieces are really ready to go. Setting your music to record a few months before the due date also gives you the chance to do the recordings again a few weeks later if you discovered that you weren’t ready.
Of course, it helps to have a well-maintained piano of the highest quality possible. Of course, if you’re still in high school working on college pre-screening recordings, your best options may be a church or a local piano dealer. See if the manager will let you do some of your recordings after normal business hours.
On the day of the recording, it is worth it to play around with the arrangement of objects on stage and the lighting in the room. It also helps the overall production your playing to dress professionally. Treat this like an actual performance!
Recording equipment (cameras, microphones, tripods) is usually available for check out from the technology center at your school, meaning this can be done for cheap.
Make sure to test out all of the equipment a few days before you record to make sure you are familiar with the set up. Some microphone systems require a ‘mixer’ that plugs into your computer (essentially a device that helps the microphones communicate with your computer). There are also some microphones that require what is known as “phantom power.” Without the phantom power switched on, your microphones will not actually pick up your performance. Try to familiarize yourself with GarageBand if you own a Mac or a related program so you aren’t trying to learn this for the first time on the day of the recording. Video cameras should also be tested a few days early so that you are familiar with the recording mechanism. Once I turned on the camera and played for about an hour and a half only to discover that the camera stopped recording after 30 minutes because it was on the wrong setting! Be sure to check the settings for automatic shut offs. You want to make sure that you have all of your bases covered prior to recording.
Once I turned on the camera and played for about an hour and a half only to discover that the camera stopped recording after 30 minutes because it was on the wrong setting!
The placement of your equipment during the recording is also an important factor to consider. I had the best result when I placed the microphones about 4-5 feet away from the piano. Having the microphones at this distance from the piano allowed for the sound to blend with the natural acoustic of the room without sacrificing the clarity of attack. Placing the microphones too close to the strings works with some types of microphones, but I found that it creates a sound that is shrill and bright. Placing the microphones too far away from the instrument results in a warm quality of sound, but the music itself sounds washed-out. On the day of the recording, you should expect the set up to take at least an hour in order to arrange the equipment and balance the microphones. The input level should be set as high as possible without “clipping” the sound and tripping the feedback detector; you should play the loudest sections of your pieces when testing the microphones to attain the right balance. If the input is set too low, then the recording will not register a very wide range of dynamics.
For the camera, you’re going to want to make sure you can see your whole body in the pre-screening video, and especially the hands must be easily visible. The most conventional position to film is the pianist’s profile, but one time I experimented with setting up the camera way up high over my left shoulder and was quite satisfied because it provided such a great view of my hands (see my self-produced video of Liszt’s 13th Hungarian Rhapsody on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-GZDA5H6ops).
THIRD TIME’S THE CHARM
In my experience, if you haven’t gotten the take you hoped for by the third try, it probably isn’t going to happen that day. I have found that two things could result from putting in too many tries. First, continued takes will put a strain on your concentration and the mistakes will begin to multiply. The second thing that may happen is that you finally achieve that note-perfect performance only to listen back and realize that the expression was flat. You’ll be surprised how many times I listened back to my own takes just to realize that the first take was actually where I played with the most vitality.
SHOULD YOU HAVE A HELPER?
I have found that I perform at my best when I am uninhibited by time restraints. Having others around causes me to feel concerned about how the process is taking up a lot of their time. Of course, it can really help to have someone more experienced with the recording process around, but once you get the hang of things, it is best to manage it alone. I have also found that it isn’t always necessary to stop recording in between movements or entire pieces. If you think the extra step of getting up from the piano bench to stop the recording is distracting, then keep recording.
Remember that, above all else, you want this recording to capture the essence of who you are as a musician.
Many schools require pre-screenings to be submitted as a video in addition to the audio to ensure no cheating took place. This video should be submitted without any cuts, but it doesn’t hurt to use iMovie to put some credits and a fade-in at the beginning.
Remember that, above all else, you want this recording to capture the essence of who you are as a musician. The faculty are really looking for somebody who plays with a lot of expression and personality, and who seems very dedicated to the music. They aren’t necessarily looking for perfection, so get out there and have fun while you play!
About the Author:
Michael Refvem enjoys a multifaceted career as recitalist, chamber musician and concerto soloist. He recently moved to Montréal, where he enjoys walks in the old town and Mount Royal in his spare time.