One take wonder...

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For part two of my blog mini-series on recording I thought I’d go behind the scenes and offer you some helpful hints and tips based on what I’ve learned from the recordings I’ve done so far - both with Linn and the BBC.

Recordings can be just as nerve-racking as live performances. Although there is no live audience, the presence of the microphone actually makes you more aware of yourself and your playing. You can feel even more under the spotlight. Susan Tomes, in her brilliant book Beyond the Notes, points out that in chamber music, this can cause you to be so absorbed in your own playing that you don’t listen as diligently to your fellow musicians.

The fact that you can have several attempts at a particular portion of the music doesn’t make it any easier. When the red light comes on you still feel just as much pressure to get it right…you WANT to do a perfect take each time. Actually, one of the reasons why I think it’s good to do a couple of full takes first is so you have everything covered and can then relax in the knowledge that you at least have something in the can. Usually you go on to do your best takes straight after this.

Immaculate preparation is vital

Aside from combating recording nerves, one of the reasons you need to prepare so meticulously for professional recordings is that the microphone picks up every little tonal detail. So if on the piano you play a scale in which one note is even the smallest amount too loud or if, as a singer, you leap slightly too enthusiastically to a high note, it will sound like a giant clang on the recording. It sounds obvious, but it is sometimes easy to forget that although you can edit a recording considerably, at some point you have to be able to play the entire programme accurately. Even if not in one take.

Occasionally it’s possible to get stuck on one particular bar and be unable to get a good take. Perhaps it’s a leap on the piano that you just can’t seem to get right, and the more you do it, the more it seems to go wrong. There’s a temptation to make the decision to come back to it on another day, or at the end of the sessions. Personally, I’ve rarely found this to produce a better result. I prefer to keep trying the section, and fix anything in the moment of recording that particular piece. You build up a certain momentum with recording each work and having just done some complete takes and worked on other musical factors in that specific piece, it’s a lot easier to be in the correct emotional zone. It’s extremely difficult to leave a piece unfinished and come back to it having recorded other works in between. It becomes hard to jump straight to the specific bar that needs fixing, at the right tempo, and still produce the desired feel.

Play with confidence

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For problems with accuracy, I love the advice pianist Shura Cherkassky gave to my teacher Philip Fowke, after he asked him how he practices. Cherkassky replied “Well, I play each key right in the centre”. This perhaps sounds like a flippant reply, but there is a lot of sense in it. When practicing for accuracy, especially in leaps, I always practice hitting the bullseye of the key. It gives you a lot of technical security.

When recording, any musical idea that you don’t fully commit to won’t come across with the clarity that you had hoped for. This doesn’t necessarily mean playing or singing louder or quieter, but just performing with complete and unreserved confidence and conviction. Making sure that you have absolute clarity of musical ideas by the time you walk into the studio. I’ve regularly put what I thought was a huge rubato (a relaxation in strict timing) into a performance, only to find that when I listened back to it that it was only a fraction of the effect that I was aiming for. Although it’s a bad idea to be working on technical issues during a recording, one thing that is possible is to develop and modify your interpretation. Recording at high quality gives you an insight into your playing that’s impossible to get elsewhere. In fact, it’s probably the closest you’ll get to hearing yourself play as an audience member.

Studio time is expensive and usually limited by time constraints, so it’s worth doing whatever you can to record yourself at the highest quality before actually going in to the studio, to check you are really doing what you think you are doing. If you can get hold of an Edirol or Zoom MP3 recorder it can provide you with lots of feedback as to whether your interpretation is what you’re intending it to be. I know a number of high-profile classical recording artists who even record their albums complete as a test-run at a private (and less costly) recording studio before making a professional commercial recording of the same repertoire.

Warm up - physically and mentally

For pianists, when you turn up at a recording studio or venue there is often no facility except the studio or hall itself to warm up in, which again can eat into your recording time. Besides a few continuous octave exercises, I usually find sticking my hands under a hot tap for a few minutes saves me about 15 mins of warming up and allows me to jump in to even the trickiest finger-breaking passages almost straight away (give me a few takes to get it right though, ok!).

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Physically speaking, recording is extremely demanding. It’s a good idea to make sure that you are in the best physical shape possible. I don’t mean you have to be like Usain Bolt and eat 10 omelettes for breakfast or anything, but recording sessions involve long periods of repetitive endurance playing. It is also often the case that the most difficult technical hurdles to overcome and get in the can are also the most physically demanding (think double octaves or long passages of dense chords in Rachmaninov). Not only do you have to get through an 8 hour day of playing this stuff, but some of it is likely to go pear-shaped, and you may have to record it many times in a row. So I think it is wise to crank up your technical stamina in the weeks preceding (there is more information on this in my blog post on practising). As a pianist, I tend to do continuous scales and octaves, gradually increasing the duration of these exercises each day. Actually, my physio recommends doing 30 mins of cardio on the day of a concert or recording. Research has shown that 30 mins of daily cardio can massively boost alertness and powers of concentration. There is an excellent book on this called Spark! by Dr. John J. Ratey and Eric Hagerman if anyone wants to read further.

Get feedback from someone you trust

Finally, I think it’s useful to have someone else whom you trust musically at the session, whether an actual producer, or a friend (or both!), so that they can give you feedback. Even if you listen to a take yourself straight after you’ve done it, you are still somehow embroiled in the recording process at a deeper psychological level. It’s almost as if you are too close to the mechanics of how you are playing and it’s much harder to engage your critical faculties. I’m always surprised by how different the first edit of a CD sounds, compared to how I remember it sounding when listening in the booth straight after the take.

To get the best out of it, it’s vital to consider recording as a process and an art in itself. Although the result should be like live performance, the process isn’t and you have to approach it from a different angle.

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