on pre-screenings

Photo by Will Fisher.

It’s that wonderful time of year again: the air chills into a November crisp, bakeries and cafés are flooded with the scent of pumpkin everything, students with book-laden bags shuffle across campus through flurries of gold and crimson leaves–and graduating music students hole themselves up in dank practice rooms till ungodly hours, start losing copious amounts of hair, and consume indecent amounts of caffeine.


One of the most important parts of your application as a music student is your pre-screening recording, which is a requirement for most reputable music schools across the United States. Now, recording is a very different creature from live performance. The good thing about recording is that you can start over if you mess up during a piece. The bad thing about it? You can start over if you mess up during a piece. “Maybe I should just re-do it” can be a hideously distracting thought that nags you for the whole piece after even the tiniest slip, and giving in to that thought too often will lead to frustration and a dozen unusable takes. So, here are some of the things I like to keep in mind when recording:

1. Book much more time than you need.

“But I only have 45 minutes of music!” you say. Book at least 4 hours, my friend, over 2 separate sessions. Recording for 2 hours is much more tiring than practicing or performing for 2 hours, because you’re playing the same thing over and over again with performance-level energy. You’ll need to take breaks. And if the first session doesn’t go well for whatever reason, you’ll have some time before your second one, so that you can re-record with a fresh mind, focused battle plan, and refined awareness of how to prepare and maintain a good mental state while recording. If the first session goes well? Great! The second session is a no-pressure chance for you to play around and see if you can get an even better take.

Side note: do be aware that recording sessions can be quite pricey, and at some studios your session time includes sitting down to listen through and choose your best take (in other words, you’ll have less time to actually record). Do your research so that you know your options and what you can afford! If you have the opportunity to book a school hall and record yourself with your own high-quality recording device, bring a buddy to check your sound levels, especially for loud sections. You will also have to transfer the files to your computer, sync video and audio, edit your best takes together, and export the file to MP4, so be sure to figure out this whole complicated process in advance! In my experience, there’s always something that can go wrong with technology, and you don’t want to be googling “audio video sync troubleshooting” at 11:00 PM the night before your application is due.

2. Get one take of everything at the very beginning.

Your energy level will be highest at the beginning of the recording session. What makes me feel best is to run everything right at the beginning, ignoring any mistakes and trying to think of it as a live performance as much as possible. Starting over is not an option unless I have a complete stop and can’t continue. This way, I know I have at least one complete take of everything, even if it’s not perfect, and I have more freedom to try to get a better take–rather than being stuck with 20 minutes on the clock, tired and frustrated, without a single complete recording of that stupid scherzo.

Side note: for clarification’s sake, yes, when playing a multi-movement work it’s definitely okay to choose different movements from different takes! Your Allegro con brio might be its most brio-filled the first time around, while your Largo might be its most beautiful at the very end of your recording session. You never know what will happen!

3. Perform.

There are two big dangers when recording. One is that your pieces can start to sound stale and lackluster after the second or third take, and another is that aforementioned nagging thought of “maybe I should just start over.” So as much as possible, pretend you’re performing live. So much of the excitement and energy and beauty of music comes from the spontaneity of a live performance, and one of the keys of performing well is forgetting your mistakes as soon as they happen. Don’t dwell. You can’t stop the thought of “I should start over” from popping into your head, but you don’t have to listen to it. The key is discernment: of course, if you have a huge blunder during a later take (not during your first run-through take at the beginning), calmly start over so that you don’t waste your time and energy finishing a bad take. If it helps you, you can have a friend, teacher, or family member sit in during the recording session to get you more into a performance mindset.

4. Start editing and uploading early.

For those of you editing/syncing your own recordings, get started on those as early as possible! Don’t put too much faith in technology. Something’s always going to come up. As Lauren says: “You better not plan to start uploading your huge video files the night before Dec. 1. You are destined to get one of those ‘time remaining: 234 hours’ notifications, and question how many naps, snacks, and errands you could fit in while this works. DecisionDesk is notoriously slow at this process. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!”

5. Do your best and don’t stress.

Applying for schools is one of the most stressful things you will do in your young adult life. But don’t be too hard on yourself, and don’t waste energy chasing perfection. When I submitted pre-screening recordings for masters, I didn’t think any of them were “good enough,” but they were what I had, so I sent them in anyway, and I think they took me to the school that was right for me. Be comforted in the fact that most schools do allow many people to audition, even if their pre-screenings aren’t ideal–teachers just use the pre-screenings as a preliminary way to cull those who they feel wouldn’t be ready for the audition anyway. And if you’re one of those culled–and I have been too–don’t worry about it. Focus on being your best self for the auditions that you do get, and life will take you where you’re meant to go. Have faith, stay calm, and hustle hard. Good luck!

Any other tips for recording? I’d love to hear them in the comments below!

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