Ten Things to Know About Making a Supplemental Recording

Happy October!  Having lived most of my life in the Midwest and in New England, fall to me means changing leaves, cider doughnuts, apple picking, and of course, a few decorative gourds.  But for a lot of us, Fall also means School Application Time.  Whether you are an 8th grader applying to private high schools or a Senior applying to college….. the application process as a whole can be overwhelming and stressful, and while school guidance counselors can help with the academic side of things, for many young musicians, the question of sending in a supplemental recording can leave them and their parents scratching their heads.

Wanting to be able to give the best information to my own students, I had the pleasure of sitting down for a chat with Dave Jamrog (check him out here!)– Boston-based recording engineer and videographer extraordinaire (he recorded my CD, the French Cello!)– about the ins and outs of the supplemental recording process.  Over the last five years, Dave has worked with hundreds of student musicians and helped them get their materials together.  With his help, I have put together the 10 things you need to know about making (and sending) a supplemental recording.

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1)There is a big difference between sending something in for high school, college as a non music-major, and for those of you who are applying to colleges or conservatories as a music major.

High School:  This one is pretty easy and pretty basic.  Having once held the dual positions of Strings Director and Admissions officer at a prestigious NE Prep School, I can tell you:  I just want to know what level player you are.  I’m thrilled if you are an extremely advanced player because you will likely be one of my principal players, will be able to perform solos and will probably do some chamber music.  I’m thrilled if you are a “decent” player because you will fill out my section and be an enthusiastic member of the group, and I’m thrilled if you’re a relative beginner, because you will grow and become a better one. You should send a recording of yourself performing a work for your instrument, either solo, or accompanied by piano.  This one can be an iphone or home-made video.  What is NOT helpful, is a full length video of your latest orchestra concert.  You’re sitting somewhere in the middle of the violins, but I have no idea who you are, or how well you are playing. Save that one for the grandparents.   And please, I beg of you: DO NOT send in a recording of you playing an instrument as part of your application and then show up to the school having decided not to continue playing “in order to focus on your studies”.  Your oboe playing helped get you into that school, not because it showed what discipline you had, but because that school needed an oboe player! If you are sending something in, you need to be committed to lending that talent to the school.

College (non-major):  This one is slightly similar in that the repertoire is going to be your choice.  You should send in a couple of pieces that show a good contrast in style, tempo or genre.  As a trumpet player, you could play a little Haydn and then some jazz, for instance, or a slow piece and a fast piece.  Again, this college is looking to fill its orchestra, chamber music and private lesson program.  If they don’t have players, there is no point in paying for the faculty or the facilities, and colleges know that people who play instruments are smart, creative and on track to be successful students, so they need to have the program in place to attract that kind of student.  While it might be less competitive than going in as a music major or applying to a music school/conservatory, your financial aid might be affected by whether you are the best cellist applying, or just an okay, half-decent player.  Believe me, they’ll want both of you, but program directors can only submit a short list in order for it to hold any weight with admissions.

College/Conservatory (music major): Okay, this one is the biggie.  You’re not just going up against other random students applying to said school with varying interests and talents.  You are going up against all of the other talented 17 yr-olds who play YOUR INSTRUMENT.  You need to show your strengths and show them that they should pick you. It is imperative that you send in your absolute best, most polished looking recording.  For most, if not all, of these programs, you will need to submit a preliminary recording in the late fall/winter, along with your application, and if that is accepted, you will fly to the school in Feb/Mar and play a live audition for the faculty.  Each school has their own repertoire lists for the preliminary rounds, but for strings, it is usually one or two movements of solo Bach, and the 1st movement of a standard concerto. If you are a Junior in High School, and you even THINK you might want to go into music, this is a great time to hop onto the websites of a few schools you are interested in, and look up the repertoire lists so that your teacher can start you on those pieces now.

2) You should listen to your teacher and do exactly what they suggest regarding your recordings. 

High School students are told time and time again that they should start taking initiative in their lives.  Trust me, this is NOT the moment to do that.  Your private teacher knows your playing inside and out.  They know your strengths and they know your weaknesses.  They know how important this recording is, and they have undoubtedly chosen pieces that will show off said strengths and hide said weaknesses.  Just because your friend is sending in his Dvorak concerto doesn’t mean that you should whip up some Prokofief Sinfonia Concertante in the next couple of weeks just to make sure you’re playing something harder than the competition.  It’s not about how difficult the piece is: it’s about how well you play, and the longer you have known a piece, the better you will sound playing it.

3) Book your time in advance

Take a look at your calendar now and take note of all of your deadlines Book your recording for two to three weeks before the first deadline.  Bear in mind that your recording engineer is dealing with 100 high school seniors who all share the same deadlines.  Your deadline is their deadline.  YOU might have the time three days before you need to hit send to deal with post-production and finalizing your recording, but your engineer might NOT.  While we’re on the subject of deadlines, please be sure to let your private teacher know ALL of your deadlines as well.  Give them one spreadsheet with each school, the pieces needed, prelim deadlines, recommendation letter deadlines, etc.

4) Book a long-enough window of time (Yes, 2 hours IS needed to record 15 minutes of music)

A lot of young musicians (and their parents) underestimate the amount of time it takes to make a good recording, and a lot of parents wonder why they need to book (and pay for!) two hours in order to record 10 minutes of music.  Well, here’s why.  When you’re booking time with a recording engineer, you are booking their time.  That’s two hours of them being there (usually, they don’t charge for travel time, but they should if you are asking them to travel a far distance to come to you).  Part of that 2 hours is spent setting up microphones according to the space (every space’s acoustics are different, and the engineer knows how to set things up to get you sounding amazing).  Then you need time to tune, warm up, and get comfortable.  It’s nerve-wracking to play in front of strangers/microphones/cameras in your face.  You will also want to stop after your first couple of takes and listen back to yourself to make sure YOU like the balance, and so you can hear for yourself how the dynamics are coming through the microphone).  Besides, if you’re going to bother doing it at all, you want to make sure you get exactly everything you need, rather than feel like, after all that, you still never got a good take of that last page.

5) Audio vs. Video. Dress the part, make sure you have figured out page turns, and that your stand isn’t covering you completely.

Certainly, for video, you need to be sure that you are dressed as if you are playing a concert.  Doesn’t have to be a concert gown or a tuxedo, but definitely dress trousers and a button-down shirt, Long skirt and dressy top, or a long dress. Wear your hair in a way that doesn’t cover your face, get in the way of your instrument, etc.  I once had a student who ALWAYS wore her hair up in a bun.  For her senior recital, her mom took her to get her hair professionally done and wore it down in gorgeous, flowing curls. Well, she had a hell of a time playing with her hair suddenly getting caught between her fingers and the fingerboard, in the pegs, in front of her face so she couldn’t see the music.  Not surprisingly, she came out for the 2nd piece with her hair pulled up in her usual bun!  Page turns!  Photocopy pages and tape them out so that you can avoid turning the page if you can (or make sure everything is memorized). If you are recording at home, make sure that the space around you is clean and not too distracting.

6) Piano accompanist vs. solo:

Pianists always make us sound better, but they also help us  to actually play better.  You’ll hear the harmonies better and make better dynamic contrasts, and because they are professionals, their high level of playing will help you to boost your own level of playing–even just in that moment.  It’s for this reason that Dave recommends doing the  pieces with your accompanist first (if you have a mix of accompanied and unaccompanied repertoire.) That energy will carry over into solo stuff (he’s seen it happen a million times!) Get an accompanist that you trust and allow them to help coach you.  They probably have a lot of experience doing this, have figured out a few tricks of the trade,  and they are there to make you sound your best.

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7) Make sure you are recording something that you feel very comfortable with, and that you are as prepared as you possibly can be.  

Ideally, you should be recording pieces that you have already performed, either in a recital or an audition.  This is where trusting the teacher comes in again.  I have had students decide (on their own, 3 days before their recording) that they wanted to record their NEW piece instead of their “OLD” piece because they felt that the “NEW” piece would be more impressive.  Don’t underestimate how different it will feel to have that camera and those mics in front of you, when you are trying to get a “perfect” take.  If you miss something once in the practice room, you’ll miss it 10 times in the recording space.  You want tried and true.  One way to get more comfortable with the process as a whole, is to practice doing recordings on your phone in the week prior.  See how it feels to “just keep going” and then be sure to listen back and take note of what went well and what you want to fix.

8) Don’t stop too often. 

It’s never going to be 100% perfect.  Dave said that this is one of the biggest and most common mistakes he sees. In an attempt to get everything absolutely perfect, a student will stop every time something small goes wrong.  A good rule of thumb is that if something goes HORRIBLY wrong in the first 30 seconds, then go back and start from the beginning, but once you get into the piece–keep going.  It is far better to have three complete “less-than-perfect” takes that you can choose from, than 68 “perfect” snippets that are completely useless to you.  I like to have my students start with one “no matter what” run-through of each piece.  Psychologically, they are under less pressure to “get through it” because they know they already “have one in the can”.  Then, we can take the time to get better takes.

9) This one is for the parents:

Please trust the other adults in the room and know that they all want the best outcome for your child.  From the recording engineer, to the teacher or the accompanist.  If you start trying to micro-manage your child’s session, you are going to add to their stress and cause unnecessary tension for everyone.  If the teacher is not there, and you are not a musician yourself, you can ask the accompanist or the engineer to help keep tabs on their takes.

10) What happens after the recording session:

Your engineer will send you all of the files of your various takes, and you (and possibly your teacher) will listen to them, take notes, and decide which one(s) are the “keepers”. You won’t be doing any editing or splicing  (never allowed for this kind of thing!) so you can disregard any partial takes.  You’ll tell your engineer which takes you want to use, as well as all of the information the schools have given you about how they want the files submitted (they often want different sizes, formats, etc.).  The engineer will then send you all of your neat and tidy files labled and ready to send off to your schools.  Make sure you listen to it before you send it in. and please, please, please, don’t forget to put your name and instrument on the file or in case of a hardcopy, on the case and the CD/DVD itself.  Also, be sure to save those files to your computer, dropbox, or an external hard drive.  Check with your engineer about their file management.  Dave keeps all of your files for 6 months so if you need to send something in for another audition later, he can format it however you need and you don’t need to re-record.

11) Bonus:  What to do if you really cannot afford a professional engineer? 

I get it!  Between lessons, chamber music, orchestra, summer festivals and application fees, sometimes it’s difficult to find the few hundred dollars that a supplemental recording generally costs. Here are some alternatives for those times when you’re in a bind.

  • Dave had a great suggestion, which was to book a group session for several of your friends/studio mates/school peers.  And split up a shorter time.  Since there would be zero/minimal set up time between players, you wouldn’t all need a full two hours and if you hired one accompanist, you might get a deal of that as well.
  • Ask you school A/V department if they have any good recording equipment, and see if they have a student who knows how to use it. Maybe you can help tutor them in AP Bio in return :-).
  • Call Berklee and see if they can suggest a talented music production/recording engineer student.
  • If you have no other choice, Røde makes a $50 microphone that works with an iphone that will help with the quality.  You’ll still have to figure out the file compression/uploading logistics, but if you are particularly tech savvy, this might work for you.

From the bottom of my heart, I am wishing all of you the absolute best.  Prepare well, go in with confidence, trust your teachers, and this should be an enjoyable experience for you.  If you are interested in setting up a session with Dave, you can find him here.  Thanks so much, Dave, for your input and stories!

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Photos of our recording sessions for The French Cello.

 

 

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