Recording Strategies for Auditions
Tips for Quality Recordings
By NAfME Member Tomás Cotik
This is an expanded version of an article that first appeared in the April 2021 issue of Teaching Music.
In the current period of the COVID-19 pandemic, students and their teachers have been forced to pivot their lessons, ensembles, school groups, studio recitals, festivals, and auditions to an online medium. While learning the new skill set involved in this transition came more easily to some than others, even the most tech-savvy among us have had to learn and adapt to a digital way of life. When it comes to recording auditions in particular, becoming knowledgeable about the recording process and the technology involved makes a big difference in achieving results such as winning a coveted spot in an All-State Orchestra or an honors ensemble or advancing in ensemble placement. For some, it eventually becomes the vehicle to an acceptance and scholarship for college, and later, a professional orchestra spot or an album release. Regardless of how it is ultimately used, recording helps musicians of all levels grow as they reflect on their own playing.
Following the Instructions
For recorded auditions, students can benefit from some practical advice for the actual recording process and the technical aspects involved in the submission of the excerpts. Following the audition instructions closely and carefully cannot be overstated. For example, some auditions ask students to submit each track as a separate audio file and to not electronically enhance the recording in any way.
Recording the Practice Sessions
It is critical for students to regularly record themselves when they practice so that they are used to recording, aware of what needs work, and are realistic about their playing. Students should keep in mind that a close recording mic reacts differently than the ear in a large hall. It also feels different to record the excerpt as a solo versus with an orchestra.
Choosing the Space
Really good sound quality in these recordings is vital. Committees want to hear an accurate representation of an auditionee’s playing. In finding a room with good acoustics, students should try to avoid acoustics that are too dry or too wet. Ideally, students should record in an uncluttered room and avoid tight spaces with too many hard surfaces and right angles. A room that produces a live, warm sound with a small amount of reverb is best. It is worth exploring the possibility of obtaining access to a larger hall at school, a club, or at a house of worship. It is essential to choose a quiet time and to be aware of background noise (e.g., traffic, ceiling fans, etc.). Students should also watch out for any noise coming from squeaking floors or lights/electronics and set their phones on airplane mode.
Preparing Logistics and a Game Plan
Scheduling the recording well ahead of time and planning in advance of the due date to ensure all requirements are followed is essential. Students should play their recordings for several people before submitting them. They should also consider having someone in a coaching position present in the recording room. It is a good idea to plan on recording five to seven takes and then choosing the best one (with ample lead time, students can always do one more session if they are not satisfied). During the recording session, I recommend listening back once after doing the first take. This will provide students with a lot of information on what to improve in the next takes. It is not easy to play the same excerpt over and over again. Students should take breaks. It can be helpful and motivational for them to imagine that they are playing for an audience and to remember their love for music. Mistakes are human, and juries overlook mistakes when they see talent, musicality, and potential.
Acquiring Entry-Level Recording Equipment
Especially if students are not working with a sound engineer, they should record with the best possible equipment. It is a good idea to invest in a quality digital audio recorder, for example Zoom or Tascam, which cost around $120. These devices can be connected to smartphones to capture enhanced audio. Likewise, connecting an external stereo mic like the Rode i-XY ($200) to a smartphone can bring the quality of the audio up to a very high definition (24-bit/96k). Alternatively, students can purchase a good USB mic to plug in to their computer, which allows them to record sound directly to their hard drive.
Positioning and Setting Up Mics
Once the room and the microphones are decided upon, students need to find the optimal microphone placement. They should try different placements for their stereo microphone, starting with the microphone placed six feet from their instrument and recording a few tests while moving the mic farther away. The height and direction of the microphone placement also affect the resulting sound. It is crucial to check the volume level of the recording input. This is the level at which the recording device is receiving the sound. The key here is to avoid having this level be too high or too low. Students can balance the frame they want to use for the image and independently set the distance they need to have the best audio with their mic by either zooming in on the camera or by connecting the mic with a longer cable.
Students should not only strive to present the best audio possible, but to also capture a high-resolution video recording to match. The video quality of newer smartphones is remarkable, especially that of iPhones. Regardless of the device used to capture the video, choosing a nice frame for the composition and ensuring that the lighting looks good makes an impact on the final product. Students can buy a couple of dimmable video lights for as low as $40, but even some indirect light, like a desk lamp pointed at a wall in front of them, can provide nice lighting. Finally, I would recommend students present their best selves by being well-dressed, poised, friendly, respectful, and confident.
If students are using a computer to record or to stream an audition live, it is worth using a USB mic such as the Blue Yeti Microphone ($150) or purchasing an audio interface such as the PreSonus AudioBox USB 2×2 ($100) and a pair of pencil mics such as the Behringer C–2 ($70). For those who are serious about investing in their recording setup, acquiring a matched pair of Rode NT5 ($430) or exploring ribbon mics, which can capture a warm and natural sound, can also improve the sound quality. With higher end options, a mic stand and XLR cables will likely be needed. In terms of streaming video, a 1080 HS webcam will significantly enhance the image. The audio interface and webcam can be chosen as inputs for Zoom, streaming and recording programs such as Open Broadcaster Software (OBS), as well as social media platforms.
Selecting a Take
I recommend taking a few days before reviewing the recordings and deciding on the final take. Having some distance helps students be objective and not overly critical. An idea for choosing the best interpretation is to assign a “score” while listening to each take. It is helpful to start with a general impression of how the take went. After a general impression is established, students can focus more on crucial areas such as rhythm, bow stroke, articulations, dynamics, intonation, vibrato, style, and phrasing to help them refine and choose which to submit. In a way, the assessment process here circles back to the work in the practice room when students were learning the excerpts. Once they have decided upon the winning take, they can trim the endings with any editing software such as Audacity or QuickTime player. It is also easy to trim videos on the video app of a smartphone.
Growing as Musicians
Recording is a fantastic tool that can be used to help untangle some of the most crucial challenges for musicians! One of these challenges is the paradox of needing to simultaneously imagine the sound (pre-hearing), execute the sound, and also continually assess the sound that is created while adjusting the execution accordingly. Using a recording simplifies this feedback loop and allows students to better analyze their playing. Similarly, recording allows students to gain an accurate sense of how they sound from a distance. Listening back to a recording exposes the differences between a student’s perception of their sound and reality.
It can be fun for students to learn the rudiments of recording video and audio and improve the product they present. The investment of time and money will pay back! Even outside of a pandemic, learning these skills helps students prepare their college auditions, share what they do on social media, and capture the ephemeral nature of music and live performances as they create their own artistic projects. While outsourcing some of these tasks can also be a good option for students both at this stage and in the future when they become successful musicians, the resulting free time should always be used for more practice! 🙂
To help students and teachers in the preparation of All-State violin auditions, I recently wrote a series of articles. Each of the articles includes various resources to help players learn the violin excerpts that are standard for many student and professional orchestral auditions. The articles include parts with fingerings and bowings as well as full orchestral scores, brief introductions to each piece, links to my solo and orchestra recordings, and advice on solving the typical problems that I have seen students confront in terms of rhythm, bow stroke, articulation, dynamics, vibrato, intonation, and phrasing.
Read parts one, two, three, four, five, and six of the “Resources for Learning Violin Audition Excerpts” supplemental articles.
Tomás Cotik would like to thank Anwyn Willette and Patricia Jancova for their help in editing this article.
About the author:
Hailed by Michael Tilson Thomas as “an excellent violinist,” Dr. Tomás Cotik was a first-prize winner at the National Broadcast Music Competition in his native Argentina in 1997, and the winner of the Government of Canada Award for 2003-2005. An avid recording artist, Dr. Cotik has recorded fifteen CDs for Naxos and Centaur Records, which have received enthusiastic reviews from publications such as Gramophone, Fanfare, American Record Guide, Downbeat, and MusicWeb International. Dr. Cotik was a rotating concertmaster with the New World Symphony and has performed hundreds of recitals and chamber music concerts across the globe. Committed to passing on his passion for music, Dr. Cotik was appointed Assistant Professor of Violin at Portland State University in 2016. He previously taught at West Texas A&M University, Florida International University, and at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music. His articles about pedagogy have been published in renowned international publications such as The Strad, the American String Teacher Journal, and the American Music Teacher Journal.
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April 20, 2021. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)