music performance major

What I Learned Judging A Round of Pre-Screening Recordings

I was recently asked to be a judge for a round of pre-screening recordings, and it was my first time being on the other side of a recorded round. Listening through each candidate, I began to think about how I was listening based on the recording, and I made a mental checklist of things to take into account for myself and my students in future recording sessions.

Copy of Copy of Copy of D-I-YHOLY GRAIL (1).jpg

Here's what a I learned while judging a round of pre-screening recordings:


1. Recording Quality

Recording quality is really important for showcasing your true sound. The listener will have to guess about your tone if the quality is low or the distance from the microphone is off. Your tone is the first basis for determining your level of playing when it comes to competition recordings, and it makes the difference between the listener falling in love with your playing versus trying to decide on your ability in the first few moments. (Don't make them guess, make them love!)

2. Microphone Set-Up

Microphone angle and distance are just as important as a good recording device. Too far, and the quality can seem too low - the intricacies of your sound will be lost. Too close and you'll hear loud breaths and possibly even keys moving. Both things can distract the listener from how great you are.

3. Intonation

Intonation translates no matter the quality of recording! Take the time to practice playing in tune, and tune well on your recording day. A recording with few technical flaws but poor intonation throughout is very distracting to hear. Bring a recording device into your rehearsals - a phone works fine for listening back for pitch issues!

4. Play for the Space

Know the space you're playing in. If it's a dry room, be intentional about creating vibrancy and spin in the sound, and releasing the ends of notes. If it's a live or echoey space, keep things clear and precise.

5. Take a Sample First

Listen to the recording tests for yourself. Are your contrasts coming across? Are you happy with the balance? How's the distance and location of the microphone? Take a moment to make sure you're happy before proceeding.

Thinking back, I never heard the recording tests for myself - only the recording engineer listened. I didn't know how I was coming across in the room through the microphone, and in some cases, I would've played differently had I listened first. This can also help you hear whether you've tuned well or not before you proceed with a full take!

6. Have a Back-Up

Use a back-up recording device when possible. If you had a great take, but the recording device shut off halfway through (or you forgot to hit record altogether), you'll thank yourself for having a back-up device!

7. Don't Forget About Your Collaborator

Don't forget, your pianist is most likely going to be using an instrument that isn't their own. They may have insights or a preference as far as the location of your recording based on the instrument available, so account for this before deciding!



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Customize Your Warm-Up: Two Ways To Get More Out of Exercises

When I first learned about the four-part formula for a practice session (Tone, then Technique, then Etudes, then Repertoire), I committed to it completely. However, I found myself spending a lot of time on tone and technique exercises, often running out of time or energy before making it all the way through repertoire. In addition, my fundamental work was very often exactly the same each day. I implemented the same pretty good ideas over and over again each day, but rarely had a new a-ha moment from them. Does this sound familiar to you?

Here are two ways to freshen up your warm-up and fundamentals and make your warm-ups work for you and your repertoire.

Bring Context To Your Exercises

When you’re doing your exercises, warm-ups, scales, long tones, harmonics, etc., place whatever repertoire you’re working on in front of you. Choose a section and consider the mood, character, type of air stream needed, the articulation patterns, dynamics, phrase lengths and breath marks.

Now, apply some of these musical ideas to your exercises. For example, if you're working on Moyse's De La Sonorite, play what's on the page, but in the style of the opening to the Dutilleux Sonatine. Now try it like Jolivet, C.P.E. Bach, or the Firebird excerpt! Each one feels different, right? Bringing specific musical contexts to your every day exercises will bring a fresh perspective, and ensure that you're thinking musically while observing. The warm-up should prepare you to play, and you're now ensuring that your warm-up is specifically warming you up for the repertoire ahead. Playing a complete exercise in all keys in the specific styles needed for a piece will give you lots of opportunities to refine your set-up, too.

"Bringing specific musical contexts to your every day exercises will bring a fresh perspective, and ensure that you're thinking musically while observing."

FIND EXERCISES WITHIN REPERTOIRE

Okay, now let's try the opposite. Put the actual notes from your repertoire into your exercise. This can be very simple, such as choosing several notable intervals to sneak into your De La Sonorite. Or, add the broken chords from Mozart's G Major Concerto into your arpeggio exercises in Moyse's Gammes et Arpèges or Taffanel and Gaubert exercises. You can even take a note from Robert Dick's Tone Development Through Extended Techniques, and turn a Bach Sonata into a Throat Tuning exercise.

Altering repertoire to learn and improve is something that you're probably already doing! The difference, however, is that now we are borrowing the notes and applying them specifically to familiar exercises.

Here's My Breakthrough:

During a recent warm-up on long tones, I found myself working towards a set-up that was conducive to playing luscious high notes at a soft dynamic. I found myself playing notes from the Daphnis et Chloe excerpt, and realized I was playing them more freely than usual! Normally, I look at Daphnis and start panicking about rhythms, the opening run, changing colors, etc. Taking only key notes while I was in sound-exploration mode helped me understand what kind of mind-set and airsteam I'll need for that excerpt. Once I felt that I was producing those sounds naturally, I played the excerpt in full and had a very different experience.

WHY IS THIS HELPFUL? CHANGING CONTEXT CHANGES YOU

Where do you spend more time luxuriating and observing a small collection of notes? During warm-up / fundamental practice, or while practicing a piece? When I’m on actual exercises, I’m super focused on improving. When I'm at the repertoire stage of practice, more factors come into play. It can be easier to feel distracted and start jumping around too quickly before solving a problem. 

One of the greatest benefits, however, is injecting actual musical context into fundamentals. If you need a fresh idea for which character you'd like your Taffanel and Gaubert scales in, look no further than your repertoire!

Life-Changing Performances: Never Apologize

Today's post from The Sensible Flutist, 'Enriching your artistry through life experience' inspired me to reflect on my most life-changing experience as a performer. When I consider my most thrilling experience on stage, this is the performance that I think of. It was the first time I truly connected to my own emotions while listening to the piece I was playing. Personal experience truly does enrich one's art.

Last summer, as a part of my Musicians' Wellness research, I attended Amy Porter's Anatomy of Sound workshop at the University of Michigan. The guest artist was Ian Clarke, and I was to play Sunstreams for one of the first classes: Clarke compositions with little or no extended techniques.
After I played it through once, Ian asked me what I thought I could improve upon. I really didn't know what to say, so I mentioned something about giving the piece more character. Then he asked the audience what they enjoyed about it. I was surprised when many participants offered kind, positive comments.

Mr. Clarke hadn't quite made his point yet, so he decided to show me what I needed to improve by taking away my music stand
   
He asked, "How do you feel now?" 
I responded with a very honest: "Horrified." 
Everyone laughed.
  
He told me to let go and play. "Just make it up if you have to." Listen to the piano and hear the music.
   
Panicked thoughts flooding my brain: 
"BUT I HAVEN'T MEMORIZED THIS. I ONLY STARTED LEARNING IT TWO WEEKS AGO. YOU WROTE THIS PIECE AND I'M ABOUT TO BUTCHER IT. AMY PORTER IS SITTING OVER THERE WATCHING ME. THAT GIRL STUDIES WITH (FILL-IN-THE-BLANK FAMOUS TEACHER) AND SHE'S GOING TO JUDGE ME. I DON'T KNOW HOW TO IMPROVISE."
   
Tim Carey began playing the opening bars. I felt confident in my ability to come in on my first E-natural at the beginning. The first phrase was a success and I started to relax.
I managed to play almost the entire piece from memory. Without having a music stand, I felt an incredible sense of fear and risk, but it was thrilling.
   
I have never felt more "in the moment."
I was looking out at my audience, and I felt personally connected with each person. Everyone was making eye contact with me, and it helped me to feel more alive than anything. I already knew they were on my side after their verbal comments. I could feel their support and encouragement.
  
I was hearing the music. I was completely aware of Tim Carey playing behind me. I watched Mr. Clarke run to the middle of the hall to egg me on, and I started to really play to the large recital hall.
   
I looked to the top seats at the back of the hall while I played, and I pictured an individual that stirred an emotional place in me. I poured my heart out. I vented, expressed anger, sadness, disappointment, asked questions... I said things that I had yet to express verbally. I experienced a feeling of strength and healing.
   
I filled the hall. I felt huge. I felt powerful. I embodied the "stand-and-deliver" ideal. I was in control and free. I have never felt so connected. To myself. To an audience. To a piece.
  
The audience demonstrated that I had moved them. Some were actually crying. For me. Because of me. They applauded excitedly when I finished, and Amy Porter let out a "WOOOHOOO!!" (I cried for 3 days after this.)
  
A recently certified Andover Educator was in attendance, and she offered me a wonderful observation: "After he removed the music stand, you moved more. It was really beautiful."
   
According to Mr. Clarke, before, during and after my initial performance, I gave the impression that I was apologizing for myself: "It looked like you were saying, 'I'm about to play Sunstreams, I'm really sorry. You don't have to like it. You don't even have to listen. I'm just going to hide until it's over.'"
  
The thing that I thought was giving me confidence (my music stand), was actually crippling me. Mr. Clarke taught me that I have nothing if I don't believe in myself.
   
Stop apologizing. You are capable. You have something to say. Be in control, and believe that you deserve to create something amazing.
  
Lesson: You have everything when you believe in yourself. Show them who you are and what you have to say, and never apologize.