How to Make Audition Recordings
I hosted a free Zoom seminar this January to try to help folks sort through the issues that come up when recording auditions. It was interesting to see what came up.
What’s the biggest difference between a recorded audition and a live audition? You have the ABILITY (double edged sword here) to record it as many times as you want or have time to with a recorded audition. When it is live, you get one shot. Most of the recorded auditions now are being asked to be done straight-through, with no edits. This takes more planning and preparation than being able to record one selection at a time. It also gives us as the listeners a better overall idea of your playing.
There are some other differences we don’t often think about…With live auditions, when it finally comes to it, we just walk in and play. Getting there takes a lot of planning – transportation, lodging, etc. but it all takes place well in advance of the actual playing.
Recorded auditions require advanced planning as well: reserving a space, setting up equipment, setting recording levels, making sure lighting is decent (“Will the heat be on in the church choir room where I am recording?”). ALL of these things need to be done as much as possible before the day of the recording so you can just show up and play. After all, it is hard enough to do that! So do this prep before the recording session as much as possible.
It seems these days like people really don’t love recorded auditions – I get it, playing for people and either knowing they are sitting on the other side of a screen or seeing their smiling faces makes a big difference.
Trouble is, there’s this thing called COVID… maybe you’ve heard of it…
Yeah – it’s a whole THING. Anyway…
Most schools and music festivals aren’t allowing live auditions, which is a shame, but try to find a place of acceptance of the current reality, and just DO YOUR BEST. That is what we’ve been doing for two years, and we will continue to do the same until we reach a new normal, and are back playing everything live etc! So, keep that chin up, and let’s find some better ways to approach recording so you can get into the school/festival/orchestra/polka band of your dreams.
Here were the things that came up in the meeting and that seemed to stress people the most, in no particular order:
- How do you know when the recording is “good enough”/done?
- How many sessions should you give yourself to get it done?
- How nice/big/resonant does the room in which you record need to be?
- What kind of mic do you use/what works well?
- How do you deal with feeling like once you press the record button everything feels DIFFERENT?
- How do you decide what to record when you’re given the choice of excerpts and solos?
Let’s dig in here…
Set up a healthy number of sessions as it relates to the music you have to record.
How to decide how many? As many as you can manage and still sound good! That being said there are some things to consider:
- How often can you reserve the space?
- How many times can you run through the list and still sound good? (the lower this number, the more sessions you should allow yourself – HINT: the harder the list, the lower this number will be!!!)
The number of sessions you schedule should also be governed by a simple rule – the better you can prepare for recorded auditions, the easier they will go.
Should you try to “step it up” when we are recording?
This is the biggest mistake musicians make when auditioning or recording. If you’ve set up your sessions in an organized manner, the only thing you are doing is trying to play in the sessions the same way you practiced. This means that how you practice is critical. As much as possible, you must try to play with the ideal version of the music in your head (this assumes you have listened to enough recordings to have chosen a favorite and memorized the nuances of said favorite player). That way, when the red light is on, you just listen to that version in your head that you have been hearing for weeks/months/years and trust your body to produce it as well as it can in that moment.
You don’t really need to think about where to place your feet when you walk down the street – you just do it. Recording is the same. Set yourself up well with your logistics and then JUST PLAY.
Teachers often say JUST DO YOUR BEST. I did it just a few paragraphs ago – we don’t assume you will play your best – we just want you to follow through on the training that got you this far and toss your hat in the ring. I have won 4 auditions for full time orchestras and made semis/finals in all but two of the rest of the auditions I’ve ever taken. I have played my absolute best exactly TWICE, and neither time was in a final round (semis for the Kennedy Center Opera and semis for 4th in Chicago Symphony). The whole point of having good practice habits is to raise the overall level of our playing. That way, we can still find success when we play in the 70-95% range and not have to rely on the rarified air of that elusive top 5%!
So, the whole last paragraph summarized: how you practice is how you should record, and if you’ve practiced well, your recordings are likely to go similarly.
Morgen Low, an excellent trumpeter in the New World Symphony was attending and made this excellent observation:
“It took me a while to realize I should be preparing for a taped (recorded) audition as if the live audition were the day I’m recording and not just do it over and over until a good take magically occurs.”
Amen: treat recorded auditions with the respect you would a live audition. That means, take care of yourself in the days leading up the “audition” (recording). Avoid overplaying a couple of days prior to the “audition”. Block off the time so you don’t have taxing rehearsals or concerts the day of or the night before whenever it is possible.
Remember, you are going for quality, not quantity.
Use a decent mic (ranging from a Yeti Snowball mic on up to… ) – whatever you have access to that captures your playing most accurately. For all of my recordings in the past two years, I have used an Apogee Mic (creative name, right?) and Logic Pro – it is a plug and play mic that captures my sound in a very accurate way. I have colleagues at work with much more sophisticated set ups – it all boils down to personal preference. A good middle of the road USB mic is the Blue Yeti, which you can get at big box stores like Best Buy etc.
KNOW HOW TO USE YOUR EQUIPMENT!!!
I use Logic Pro but there are lots of other routes to choose.
If possible, have an assistant (friend/mom/dad/ etc) to help set up equipment (not to mention schlepping it)
set the levels (or have them figured out ahead of time) etc.
If you are recording in a large resonant space, try to keep the mic around 10-12 feel away and at least 6 feet in the air to avoid a direct bell sound. This way, you get the best combination of your actual sound plus a little ambient help from the room (without it being too boomy).
If you have your choice of material to record, make sure you cover the basics: Classical/Romantic styles at a minimum, something loud, soft, lyrical, loud, and technical. For instance:
- Haydn Concerto (classical soft, lyrical, technical)
- Pines of Rome (romantic, lyrical)
- Mahler 5 (romantic, loud)
- Petrouchka (technical)
It is rare to have your choice of what to record. Choose things you play well and which cover these bases.
- Plan ahead and schedule plenty of sessions
- Practice well!
- Know how to use your equipment.
- Allow time for set up (this is more planning).
- Play it like you practiced it
- Think big picture here – how do you hear it in your head?
- Quality is the goal, so recording over and over alone won’t achieve your goals.
If ANY of this info was new to you, write it down on a to-do list! Take action to make this whole thing go more smoothly. Allow yourself as much time as you think you will need as it relates to all things with your sessions and then add 15% – you may still find you barely are comfortable, but over-budget here!
You can do this!
I had some fun writing this for Trumpet Magazine Online, a publication that has most of its following in Europe. I thank my students both in my T5 Mastercourse and the New England Conservatory and their hard work, which reminded me of these lessons – I often need to remind myself that they work for me too!.
You CAN teach an old dog new tricks. I am 46. I don’t think of that as old, but I have been working in full-time orchestras now for over 23 years. I left school in 1998 to start working and yet, in the last three years, I have learned more about how to play the trumpet (and thus, how to teach the same stuff) than at any other time in my life!
Building accuracy and confidence: playing the trumpet (or any other brass instrument) is like shooting free throws…
Playing a brass instrument is like shooting free throws…Steve Nash is the second-best free-throw shooter of all time at 90.43%… just behind Steph Curry, depending on the week! Nash shot 90% on his first free throw and 91% on his second free throw. That one percentage point difference is smaller than the other players in the top five who were all 3-5% worse on their first free throw. The first free throw is harder because the player needs to access long-term muscle memory. Once they have shot their first, the muscle memory is pulled from their short-term memory which lends the higher percentage to the second shot.