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PREPARING A SUCCESSFUL AUDITION RECORDING
İMartin Schuring 2010
 

In past years, I have been privileged to be a judge for the preliminary, recorded, round of the Gillet/Fox competition sponsored by the International Double Reed Society. Every year, I have the opportunity to listen to dozens of audition recordings for admission to our music school – some brilliant, some a little less. Whenever we have a search for a new faculty member, an audition recording is an essential part of that application. So, I have probably listened to at least a thousand recordings that people have sent as their representative. It’s my impression that sometimes people forget that the recording is their only representative. There can be no bonus points for personality, or intelligence, or fashion sense, or professional demeanor. It either sounds good, or it doesn’t.

What follows is a little how-to guide for making a recording that will get your message across with a minimum of strain for the listener and a maximum of benefit to you. Most of my suggestions will seem like nothing more than common sense. But, remember, I would not be mentioning anything if someone hadn’t sent me a recording, intended as their best representation of themselves, that did not include this flaw or that. In some cases, not as rare as you would like to believe, recordings are substandard in ways that can hardly be described: unwise microphone placement (in the dishwasher, by the sound of things), external noises (far-off livestock of some kind – it was hard to tell whether they were sheep or goats, but the chickens were in fine voice), disturbing and mysterious events (huge thumps about twenty times louder than the music), etc. Anyone who listens to lots of audition recordings will corroborate these stories and add their own. Don’t be one of the after-dinner stories; make a great recording.

My first, and most important, recommendation is: use a professional recording engineer. Find someone with good equipment who knows how to use it, and who will sit there and listen to playback while you are playing. Better yet, also have your teacher or a trusted colleague in the room listening to you and offering advice on how you might improve your performance (in commercial recordings, this person is called the “producer”). These steps will avoid countless disappointments, and spare you the distraction of operating the equipment as well as playing the music. It will also cost money, but let’s apply a cost/benefit analysis to this: you are trying to make an impression on someone, probably a stranger, with only this recording as your representative. Yours must be better than the other recordings.

Some recording guidelines are very specific: they might describe exactly what repertoire to perform, and exactly which order to follow with the selections; they sometimes even include recommended microphone makes and models, and microphone placements. The goal is only partially to make the recordings sound good; it is also to make them sound as uniform as possible, allowing more precise comparison. So, if you are given exact guidelines, follow them exactly, even if your recording engineer thinks he or she can make it sound better with some other technique.

Most of the time, however, you have a free choice of program, so you will need to select what you are going to play. Unless you are very fortunate, or you have performed very extensively for many years, you will probably not be able to use most of the live performances you have participated in. If you want to use something live, listen to it very critically, and have someone else listen to it very critically with you. Chances are, there will almost always be something wrong. This may have nothing at all to do with you: there might be too much audience noise, or the microphone was too close to the piano, or your friend playing the violin got lost. Perhaps the recorded sound quality is a bit fuzzy, perhaps there is water in your octave key. Throughout all of this, your oboe playing might be absolutely first rate. But, if the performance as a whole is not beautiful, it will be difficult for the listener to notice that you, alone, are sounding good. So, unless the live material is really convincing, consider making a custom-made audition recording.

However, just in case, if you are giving a performance that you know will be very well prepared and well rehearsed with good musicians – a degree recital, for example – make sure that a good recording engineer with professional equipment is there to capture it. It would be a shame to play beautifully with no record whatsoever of the occasion.

If the recording guidelines specify that the recording must be made live, reconsider what is meant by the word “live.” By asking for live performances, they are really asking for unedited recordings; they are not insisting that you expose yourself to all of the random and strange things that can happen during a real performance. So, “live” does not mean that there has to be an audience, nor that you cannot play the movement again if you think you can improve it; it does mean that you can’t substitute an excellent phrase for a not-so-good one; nor can you play three lines, take a break, play two more lines, and edit it all together later. Of course, if the guidelines do not specify “live,” then you may edit to your heart’s (and your budget’s) content. There is nothing dishonest about this – it is still you playing – but it allows the best possible representation of your playing.

Speaking of honesty (and, again, I wouldn’t mention this if it had never happened), don’t even think about cheating. Cheating, in this case, means passing someone else’s recording off as your own. There cannot be any good outcome to this: you will be exposed either sooner or later. Either scenario reflects very badly on you and may cause lasting damage to your future.

The audio quality of the recording should be the best you can afford. Use a good acoustic, use a good piano (and a good pianist), and use a professional engineer with real equipment. Don’t make it in your living room, don’t use a friend’s hobby equipment, certainly don’t just leave your portable recording device in the piano and switch it on for a while. The quality of personal recording equipment continues to improve, while the cost continues to decrease; do not be tempted by the convenience and economy of this. Professionals still have better stuff and know how to manipulate it more skillfully. The oboe is difficult to record without distortion, so you need the best possible microphones.

Recording studios are not ideal – they seldom have a really good piano, and they deliberately have no acoustic at all, so that some artificial reverberation will need to be added. Use a space in which you would be comfortable performing, and have the engineer bring his equipment to you. The expense will be considerable, but reasonable if you compare it to the cost of traveling somewhere for an audition. The judges, of course, are not primarily listening for brilliant audio quality, but they should be able to hear your playing clearly without straining through a fog of boomy echoes and fuzzy distortion. Remember, you want your recording to be the best one, not merely acceptable.

Listen to the recording before you send it out. Even if you paid someone good money for it, listen to it carefully for any problems. These include ugly thumps and pops between selections, little bits of conversation inadvertently recorded, pointless seconds of audience applause or audience murmuring, abrupt transitions from applause to silence, pitch deviation between selections, volume discrepancies between selections, etc., etc. About half of the recordings I hear cannot possibly have been listened to. Listen to it more than once on different equipment to make sure that it is compatible with a variety of playback apparatus.

Unless required by the guidelines, do not make spoken announcements on the recording. Do include a neatly printed program.

Leave plenty of time in advance of the deadline to fix any problems. Don’t rely too much on the overnight shipping folks.

Specific advice for university teaching applicants:

You will probably have a completely free choice of program, so please make sure to include a good variety of styles and genres. To keep the recording to a manageable length (a maximum of thirty minutes), it is perfectly permissible to include single movements or partial works. But, please demonstrate that you have command of different styles. If you send six CDs, all commercially recorded, of New Age repertoire where it is difficult to pick out which flute part you are playing, this will not impress. Make sure that you include one designated “audition” CD in your package. If you have commercial recordings and want to include them, that’s great, but do not let them be the only thing you send. Remember that there are always multiple search committee members and that each of them must review every file. Nobody, not even the most diligent committee member, is going to listen to everything you send. So, the first thing on the recording MUST sound wonderful. Almost nobody listens to a recording all the way through, but almost everyone starts at the beginning. Consider that most committee members will listen for about as long as it takes to review the written materials in your file (and that they will probably be reading and listening at the same time). All materials have to be convincing.

If the tape repertoire is a list of required pieces or excerpts, which is the case for most competitions and preliminary orchestra auditions, be sure that you can play that music with accuracy and conviction, and a sense of the proper style. It stands to reason that somebody somewhere will be able to play it really well, so if it’s beyond you, don’t enter.

Use a reed with a really clean sound. Microphones tend to pick up treble – hiss and junk in the reed especially – so the nice warm orchestral reed you used in your last concert might sound spitty and fuzzy when recorded. You’re best off with a nice compact sound that you can control with a minimum of effort.

The worst microphone placement for the oboe is near the bell. The best sound of the oboe doesn’t radiate from the bell, it radiates out of the tone holes. So, a good microphone placement has the microphone a foot or two above the player’s head and several feet in front. The more distant the microphone is, the higher it should be.

When playing for the tape, don’t be seduced by the fact that you can do it over and over. Play the music like it’s a performance. There is no good reason why the fifty-fourth take should be any better than the third. If you can’t play the piece to your satisfaction after four or five attempts, it’s possible you aren’t ready.

Make sure that what you send out meets the minimum standards for competent playing. In other words, all the right pitches in the right place with a good sound all the way through the piece. If you cannot meet those standards, it’s probably better not to submit the recording. Someone, somewhere, will be able to do a really good job with the material.