Don’t Throw your Tart in the Bin – 10 Lessons on Competition Recordings

Greetings and welcome to a new Flute Friday. Apologies for my absence (thanks a lot, Mercury retrograde!).

Today’s blog will be a bit more reflective than instructive, but there are a number of important lessons to be learned for those of you in similar circumstances. My husband and I have recently been binge-watching The Great British Baking Championship (thanks to Netflix). In the first season of the show, contestants were required to make their own creative interpretations of a Baked Alaska, which is a dessert that features cake covered in a layer of ice cream. One contestant was struggling to keep the ice cream layer on his Baked Alaska from melting under the heat of the tent, so he placed his creation in the freezer and hoped for the best. Unbeknownst to him, another contestant accidentally removed his work-in-progress from the freezer and left it on the counter to melt. When it was discovered, the Baked Alaska had turned into soup. The contestant was understandably enraged. Rather than trying to salvage what he could of his cake to present to the judges, he tossed his entire dessert in the trash bin and stormed out of the tent. Needless to say, he was eliminated from the competition.

Wait a minute – this is a flute blog! Why am I talking about a baking show?

Well, I had a similar experience recently while preparing a competition recording. There were only two required pieces for this competition, one of which I had performed in a previous life, and the other was a new piece that I rather enjoyed practicing behind the scenes. I prepped both pieces over the course of about a month and was feeling quite confident about making the required videos. Unfortunately, my poor planning and overconfidence led me to procrastinate recording videos well in advance of the competition deadline. I only gave myself three days (which were also packed with a number of other responsibilities). The videos were not as easy as I thought they would be and my own perfectionism made it impossible to get through entire takes without stopping and scrapping them. I was frustrated with myself and discouraged by my playing.

I wanted to toss my Baked Alaska (aka competition videos) in the trash bin and give up just like the contestant did on The Great British Baking Competition. 

But I didn’t. I kept pushing onward. I kept recording my takes, no matter how disappointed I was with my not-so-perfect playing. I uploaded the best ones I could find, even though I knew they weren’t perfect and a far cry from the music I had been creating in the practice room in previous weeks. I put out what I could and entered the contest against the wishes of my inner critic. I did not advance to the next round, but learned a few very valuable lessons:

  1.  Give yourself a lot of time to record. Although you may not be performing these works for a live audience, your fight/flight instinct will be activated simply by pressing the “record” button. Make sure you have more than enough time to record as many takes as reasonably possible.
  2. Learn from each take (no matter how “good” or “bad”). Rather than stopping a take in the first few seconds because the beginning is not perfect (a cracked note here, an iffy articulation there, etc.), play the piece all the way through and reassess afterwards. What went well? Keep doing that! What could be improved? Mark it in your part!
  3. Be patient with mistakes. I am super guilty of angry practicing between takes when I make a mistake. What does it usually accomplish? Nothing. Just more frustration. Instead, try breaking down your mistake. Practice it slowly. Practice it in chunks. Change the way you think about note groupings. Transpose it to a number of different keys. Use your mistakes as opportunities to think about the music differently. With that being said, also…
  4. Take more time between takes. This will help you think calmly yet critically about what to change in the next take. I think one of my biggest mistakes was to immediately begin the next take after chucking the previous one over an attack I wasn’t quite happy with or other minor imperfection, restarting the video already frustrated with myself. Use the time between takes to reflect and refresh. Grab a glass of water and practice a few meditative breaths or meridian tapping sequences.
  5. Target tricky bits by listening carefully to others. YouTube is a great resource for videos and recordings of flute pieces by a number of performers. Listen very carefully to any technical bits you may be struggling with. How do other performers approach these parts? Do they take strategic breaths? Use rubato to help them over difficult fingerings? There may be an easier way to approach sections that are likely to throw you for a loop on recording days.
  6. Take a number of complete takes each day, but rank your top 3 from each session. More takes requires more review at the end of your recording project in order to select the right one to use for the competition. Be confident with your cuts. Second guessing your instincts will send you spiraling on the path of “what ifs.” Life is too short to live in “what ifs.”
  7. Location. Location. Location. Select a variety of locations to record in (if at all possible). Is there a recital hall at your school that you may use after hours? A church that remains quiet during the day? A studio space in your home with great acoustics. Experiment with any space available to you.
  8. Don’t forget about fundamentals. Remember to keep working on harmonics, long tones, scales, and articulation exercises while prepping your recordings. It is easy to become so focused on your recording project that you forget about the important fundamentals of flute playing. These fundamentals are often what separates the good flute players from the great ones.
  9. Give yourself a reasonable recording schedule and stick to your time blocks. Recording is intense! It is easy to keep saying “5 more minutes,” thinking that the perfect take is just around the corner, only to find yourself frustrated hours later with not much to show for it. Your sanity, health, and well-being are worth far more than the “perfect” recording.
  10. Finally, don’t throw your tart in the bin. No matter what, don’t give up. You may feel that your recordings aren’t perfect. You may also think that someone else out there will be “better” than you. These are misleading messages from your inner critic! Tune them out. So what if you do not win the competition? The work you have put in to creating your recordings, reviewing and thinking creatively about your playing, and trying (and trying again) is worth more than any prize or accolade. Remember that while submitting your application with pride! You did it (and nobody can take that away from you)! Think ahead to your next competition with all of the lessons you learned from this one.

Do you have your own tales from past recording projects? What have you learned through the recording process? Do any of the above lessons resonate with you? Share your stories below!

Keep performing. Keep recording. Keep competing. And above all keep fluting, no matter what!

Happy fluting!

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