Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Screening CD

Took a couple of days last week to visit a friend's house in the Blue Ridge mountains. It wasn't long enough to qualify as a vacation, but it allowed me to screen the first 300 applications with the view at left.

Back home now, and just finished listening to the first 120 demo CDs. Our audition process doesn’t require audio samples, but singers who don’t clearly meet or exceed our suggested profile are encouraged to considering submitting a demo containing 2 arias.

How Important is the CD?

We treat the recordings in one of three ways.

  • 1) If someone easily qualifies based on the paperwork profile, I must admit that I don’t even listen to the recording. Why? There’s a danger that I would decide not to accept him or her for a live audition, and that would effectively penalize that singer for sending a CD. (Someone else with a similar qualifying profile who didn’t send a recording would get automatically passed through. Make sense?)
  • 2) If a singer clearly doesn’t have a high level of experience or training, but s/he has sent an unusually good CD, there’s a chance that s/he will get an audition on the strength of the audio sample.
  • 3) If there are very few spots left for an audition site (we average about 30 singers/day), and there’s a group of applicants on the borderline, a good CD will make the difference. A bad one will have the opposite effect.

What Do We Listen For?

Objective things: intonation, mastery of languages, the right notes at the right time. If a recording has a negative impact, it’s usually because the singing is not on pitch, the delivery of the languages is badly executed, or the rhythms and pitches are poorly or incompletely learned. On a more subjective level, if the previous criteria are met, then I'm listening for phrasing, musicianship, and general artistry.

One thing that’s really not discernable is vocal timbre or size. Some recordings seem to have been made in stairwells or large bathrooms (not really, but their very forgiving 5-second reverb makes it seem so), and some appear to have been made with a cheap microphone in a practice room. This variation in acoustic makes it ill-advised to do much speculation about the weight and color of a voice and whether or not the chosen repertoire is a satisfying fit.

Acoustic

This might seem odd, but I prefer CDs that contain two different selections recorded on separate occasions. Somehow it's easier to triangulate (well... I guess you can't triangulate without three points, but you get my drift...) and get a real feel for the voice when you can hear it in a couple of different guises. If there's a single very flattering acoustical environment (or a single raw, dry acoustic) on the CD, I tend to mistrust it. Don't know if this makes any sense...

Engineering?

This is becoming a bigger and bigger issue with the availability of more affordable digital equipment. I've received a few professionally issued and mastered CDs this year, and I can honestly say that it makes absolutely no difference for our purposes. It makes for a pleasant listening experience, but to be honest, the roughly 20 hours I spend with these recordings are not a predominantly aesthetic experience. I'm doing fact-finding, and I don't need extremely sophisticated sound reproduction in order to do that.

Now, having said that, please don't send recordings that carry obvious distortion. I've heard 5 so far this year that break apart entirely in the upper half of the decibel and frequency range.

Practical Guidelines

  • List your selections AND YOUR NAME on both the CD and the case. (Any kind of case is fine. I’m not that compulsive.) When the listener is swapping many CDs in and out of the player, it's easy for one to get separated from the other.
  • Check your CD – make sure it works! I always try a disc in at least 2 players to be sure. So far this year I've only come across one that won't play.
  • Listen to your recording as if you were an audition committee. Have someone else listen to it. Don't send it if you don't feel it does you justice. Make a test CD well in advance of the actual due date and listen to it critically. Don't beat yourself up about every little imperfection, but make sure the singing is in tune!
  • Read the requirements. We ask for two arias, one in Italian. It's amazing how many times we get a copy of a recital without an Italian song to be had...
  • And finally, a new phenomenon... I'm increasingly given a website URL in place of the demo CD. I think it's great that singers have audio samples on their websites, but our screening process has to stay somewhat standardized in order for us to get through it every fall. It might seem fussy and rigid for me to balk at visiting websites in order to hear screening audio, but for now, that's the way it has to stay. Fairly reviewing 600 applications in 3 weeks is a tremendous amount of work, and the process can't absorb any more steps than it already contains.

Enough. The second deadline (for Houston/San Francisco/Cincinnati) just passed, and the flurry of online submissions has slowed down. Time to get some sleep and get ready for the next wave. I'll summarize the screening process next time... my absolute least favorite part of the whole autumn. I'm such a bleeding heart that I have trouble turning anyone down - I think every year that it'll get easier, but it never does...

1 comment:

Campbell Vertesi said...

It's nice to know that you don't listen for tone or quality of instrument on the CD... so often I feel like the recording doesn't capture the right sound!

Actually, that's why I didn't end up sending in a recording with MY Wolf Trap app... Here's hoping that Cincy isn't as popular a region as Chicago!