This Autumn is an odd one for me. For the first time in my life I turned down employment singing, in order to devote time to something else - producing recordings. Don't get me wrong, the singing (lessons, auditions, practice) is all going on as well, but for over the few weeks I've held about a dozen recording sessions, and there are more in the diary, which means I'm now focussing on this branch of my career more than I ever have before. What follows are some observations and thoughts that come from this newfound focus.
One of the first things that a lot of young singers don't quite appreciate is that recording, much like auditioning, is a skill that improves every time you do it. It may all be singing at its core, but we all know that singing in a room on our own, or with our teacher, is different than singing on stage, or in a rehearsal room, or in front of an audition panel. The appearance of a microphone (or 3) and cameras is a set of circumstances that I don't think many (if any) of us have been prepared for over the course of our singing studies. They can be intimidating for a whole host of reasons, but the first and foremost for a lot of us starting out in the profession, is the sheer novelty. Plus there's a guy in headphones operating all this high-tech gear! It takes some getting used to, and you have to trust me - that's ok. If you find it hard, you're not alone, and it gets easier each time you do it. It also helps if you have a clear idea as to why you're putting yourself through the financial and mental burden of putting yourself down on tape (or at least digital file).
Why are you recording? On the surface - because it has become expected of singers to have a demo reel, or at least some audio tracks that show what they sound like. Agents will insist on their singers getting professional-quality recordings made so that they can refer companies to them. Singers without agents may find that to apply for certain programmes, or even to get auditions for agents/companies, they will be asked to send in a recording. That's the prosaic reason we singers spend money we don't have on recordings which will be out of date within a year. A good recording will work for you. I got signed to an agent off the strength of my simple demo reel, I know people who have gotten work straight out of a simple video of them singing an aria. It is now the norm, everyone's doing them.
However, if your only reply to 'why are you recording' is the above, then depending on your experience, you may be setting yourself up for a disappointment. Peer pressure isn't the best motivator, and I often hear 'I hate doing this, but everyone seems to want recordings'. Yikes! Whatever happened to all that oh-so-healthy narcissism that all singers are supposed to have? It evaporates just when it might come in handy...
Being relatively inexperienced at something and feeling bullied into doing it - it's not ideal, is it? Allow me to offer some tips.
So you haven't recorded before? OK. It can be scary, but rationally it shouldn't be. Remind yourself that, unlike in an audition, you get to go again. You can sing until you deliver the best that you can (on that particular day :P ). You can cheat, splice, rest in between sections to keep the voice fresh. Everyone does it, because the fact is that listening to recordings is a harsher way of judging singers, because the baseline for that judgement is set by commercial CDs, where the great singers did in fact cheat (certainly from the 80s onwards). So do yourself a favour and don't be harsh on yourself for not being perfect. No one ever has been, so why should you?
Get used to recordings. If it's your first time, get some mates together and record one or two arias each, the one(s) you know best, the one(s) you can sing the socks off if woken up in the middle of the night. The things you enjoy singing, because joy translates to tape in a way that technique doesn't. Your pieces don't have to be difficult, they just need to show your voice. If the powers that be want to hear you sing difficult stuff, they'll ask you for it when they offer you that audition. For now, your recording only needs to say 'hi, this is what I sound like', not 'look at what I can do'. Fireworks are better live, and that goes for the vocal kind as well.
Record stuff you love singing, find a reason to record it. Believe that you're recording something in a way that it's never been sung before. After all, it's true - no one has heard a recording of your voice singing it! But also, put as much of a stamp on it as you dare. Annoyed that everyone breathes in a place that makes no musical sense? Show the world the way. Do you feel a phrase needs more time or stretch than anyone ever gives it? Or the opposite, you just wish it was simple and respectful of the composer's wishes, rather than self-indulgent? Get it on record and put it online! Be the change you want to hear ;) That's a great reason to want to record.
Or, stripped of the higher purpose, if it's just about doing what's expected, then make it easy for yourself. Forget it's a recording, just audition. Say you don't want the fancy cheating mumbo-jumbo, just to show what you are like without the bells and whistles, but with good quality. Sing each thing twice and leave it at that, pick the better take (it's what I ended up doing myself last time). It'll be imperfect - but in a good way. You'll tick the box and not go crazy doing so.
Always remember, the only thing you can ever achieve in a recording session is your best on the day. It may be 60% of your full best, and that's fine. Let it be fine. Then do it again when you can afford to, it'll be better. You'll be more used to the process, you'll have had some lessons in the meantime. Re-record the same repertoire, why not? And harness some of that narcissism that you pretend isn't there, but that actually got you where you are. Enjoy the fact that you sound better than last time, enjoy the time you get to spend on an aria to nail it as best you can... on the day ;) Joy of singing looks good on video, and it sounds good too. So don't deny the guy in headphones (or the internet) your joy and everything else you have to offer. And don't beat yourself up if it's not the best you've ever sung. Better a joyous 70% than a technique-fest of self-doubt that'll only get you up to 72% if you're lucky.
And just to end on a downer (not really, I hope) - the fact that you've recorded something doesn't mean you have to share it with others. I've made some demos myself that I never ended up using, but they were worth it as part of the learning curve. Pricey, sure, but not a waste.
Never believe that anything you do is a waste, it all feeds into the next great thing.