How to Prepare for Recorded Music Exams and Auditions

February 20, 2021, 10:43 PM · A new season is coming - and that means recorded performance exams and youth orchestra auditions. While the pandemic persists, most organizations are keeping things online this spring. Based on my experiences preparing my students for auditions and American String Teachers Association Certificate Advancement Program (ASTACAP) exams, and as an online examiner for ASTACAP, I've compiled a short list of tips to help you create the best recording possible for your exams and/or auditions.

playing recorded audition

1. Be prepared.

Like any musical experience, adequate preparation will pave the way to success. Know your music inside and out. Ideally, aim to have your pieces polished and at performance tempo at least two weeks in advance of recording.

You also need to know what you sound like, and know what the video will look and sound like - make several test recordings in advance of your "official" recording to help you prepare. If having the camera on makes you nervous, practice in front of your phone or computer to get accustomed to it.

If you’re trying to learn your notes or figure out how the technology works in the middle of your recording session, that’s going to lead to a lot more frustration. You also don’t have unlimited energy. At most, you have 2 - 3 takes of each element of your audition or exam before you will run out of energy.

2. The Setting

You need a clean, uncluttered background that allows the adjudicator to see your entire upper body, including both of your hands. Your hands need to be in frame regardless of where you are in the bow, or what position you’re in. Stand in front of something like a blank wall, to allow the adjudicator to see your hands clearly, without distraction or without having to distinguish your hands from the background.

3. The Camera & Microphone

Whether you are recording with a phone or camera or other device, it needs to be stationary. If you have a tripod, use it. If not, set the camera or phone on a bookshelf, a pile of books, a windowsill, a spare music stand, or something so it will not move while you are playing. Do not have a friend or family member hold the camera for your video. No matter how steady they try to hold it, the resulting video will still be shaky and a little jarring for the viewer.

In one exam I assessed over the summer, the camera was held by a person who then walked around the violinist in a complete circle while they were playing - I guess to demonstrate that they weren’t using sheet music - and I actually had to look away from the computer screen because I felt dizzy looking at it.

Never place the camera on your music stand looking at you - the judge’s vantage point will be too close to you. Especially for an exam like ASTACAP, where you will be receiving detailed feedback on your playing, the examiner needs to be able to see as much of your technique as possible to give you accurate and thorough comments.

It doesn’t need to look like a music video, and you don’t need fancy equipment. Adjudicators need to be able to see you clearly and hear you clearly. We’ve been refining our online assessment skills, and by this point, we know if what we’re hearing is because of your playing or because of the technology.

(Please note: those preparing for college auditions or pre-professional programs may wish to invest in higher-quality equipment. For most student exams, a cell phone video is fine.)

4. Memorization

If you’re playing from music, make sure the stand doesn’t block any part of you or your instrument from view. If you’re playing from memory, set the camera angle far enough away from you that the judge can clearly tell whether or not you’re playing with the music. Placing the music stand right at the edge of the frame, but turned around, will be a good indication.

(Did I spend a lot of time this summer watching violinist’s eyes in their exam videos trying to tell if they were reading music off camera or not? Yes. Can I tell if you are? Also, yes.)

5. Submission

Carefully read all submission instructions before you submit an exam. Different programs will ask for different formats, and it's important to familiarize yourself with the process well before the deadline. Make sure you have access to any submission websites such as Acceptd, that there is room in your Google Drive for uploads, or that your YouTube account can process videos of your piece's length. Note any particular directions for naming the file or putting repertoire information in the description of a video.

Check and doublecheck the audition requirements and instructions for submission - this ensures peace of mind for you and a smooth process for the adjudicators and organizers on the other end!

Best of luck to all who will be preparing exams and auditions this spring!

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