This article was originally intended to help my students prepare for their first recorded recital in May 2020, two months after lessons went online due to Covid-19 confinement. I’m repurposing it to preparing for any recording because it’s a different preparation process from live playing. You might say, yeah, it’s actually easier because you can record yourself as much as you want, and then just choose the best take. However, that flexibility can actually make the recording process much more difficult!
There is no getting around the preparation and the memorization, if that’s required, no matter whether you are performing live or making a recording. A live performance means that you have one shot to make it count. Even if you don’t do your best, you’re done once the performance is over. If you don’t do your best in a recording, then you’re faced with take two. Take two leads to take three, and a seemingly endless spiral. There are some techniques to make sure that doesn’t happen!
Do a Trial Run
This should be at least several days in advance to your selected recording day. You’re going to find out things you didn’t imagine. Do you have the right batteries for your equipment, if you’re using peripherals requiring double-A or triple-A batteries? Have you tested out your equipment to make sure that you have the optimal camera angle and distance from the instrument? Have you experienced what it’s like to do a recording?
Just because you don’t have an audience to make you nervous, the camera can do that all by itself! Know what the process is like so the actual process is no surprise when it comes to recording day.
Learn from the Trial Run
Besides wanting to make sure the process goes correctly, you’ll want to actually hear what your recording sounds like. Are the levels correct? Does your playing come across as intended? Are there problem areas that you need to focus on that can be reasonably improved in a short amount of time? Do you know how to record your takes, so that the editing process goes smoother?
Now that you’ve practiced all that you can, and have made some sample recordings before recording day, you’re ready to make your final recording(s). Try to either set a time limit or a take limit. Two or three takes are normally best because your performance will likely get worse, not better, after that number. Use your instinct as to whether a recording was good or bad. Don’t give up on any performance unless it’s so below your normal playing that it doesn’t pay to keep going.
Make sure to reference each take with a note. On my equipment, each recording is incremented. I write the number of the recording with a note about what piece or movement recorded, and whether that take should be considered. Sometimes I’ll know right away that a recording is not worth considering.
On the flip side, I sometimes will know that a particular recording is my winner. Don’t waste time making additional takes or deciding later which one is better if you know on the spot the winning take. Only keep going if you haven’t made a worthy recording and think you have what it takes to make the next take work!
Adjust on the Fly
If you’re making lots of mistakes, either adjust the entire tempo to be a little bit slower or do a little emergency practice on the area that needs help. Be realistic as to what is possible at that moment. Your recording should reflect an approximation of what you would do in a live situation and isn’t going to be any more perfect than that.
Submit Your Recording
If you have to choose between takes, don’t agonize too much between what likely will be pretty similar performances. Use your instinct to choose what you think your best recording is, however you judge that for yourself. Remember that your audience, whether it’s a festival judge or the studio families, will enjoy your performance and appreciate the effort that you took to make it happen.
Once you’ve completed this process, you’ll get better and more efficient in the process. You may not grow to love it, but at least you’ll learn how to do it! Accept and embrace the process.
Don’t Forget to Enjoy the Process
Try to have some fun, too. If you enjoy your performance while it’s happening, it will likely translate to a better recording. If your recording is part of a recital or other student performances, make sure to listen and offer positive feedback to the other performers. Your peers will appreciate your attentive listening and your kind compliments. Don’t offer constructive feedback; let the teacher take care of that. Good luck!