On Nerves, Nakedness, and Narcissism

Cameron Welke University of Aberdeen, Scotland


December 5, 2017

Every year a fresh batch of starry-eyed young scholars refine their resumes, perfect their personal statement prowess, and hurry to get an interview haircut as they apply to be thrown into that maelstrom of prestigious degrees and profound debt that is graduate school. Several applications, two recording sessions, and a few hundred dollars in fees later, I can now claim myself as one of those hopeful fools! The application process has been a major priority for me over the past couple months, and preparations for pre-screening recordings in particular have demanded a significant amount of my time. For those unfamiliar with the music graduate school application process, the application itself is not the final step; I must perform a live audition for the faculty at each school I’ve applied to, and for one of my programs I’ve had to submit recordings that will be reviewed to determine whether I will be invited for an audition at all.

Time in the studio has not always been enjoyable for me. It’s an exposing experience, and I can easily find myself in a headspace where each subsequent take is not an opportunity to hear something new in a piece, but rather a chance to relive missed notes and to reflect on how inadequate my own musicianship is. When I practice or even perform live, there is an extent to which I can project how I want the piece to sound onto my own perception of my playing. Inherent to this is a potential for narcissism – that projection can easily shift from a healthy place of self-affirmation to one of self-aggrandizement in which I completely ignore my areas of needed growth rather than acknowledging and internalizing them in a way that I can address in later practice. With a recording, however, I’m naked before the microphone and have no choice but to confront my playing with all its strengths and flaws, creating an opposite danger of self-abasement in which I completely ignore any aspect of the take that may have been good.

Approaching my pre-screening recordings, then, elicited a great deal of nerves in me. How would this session go? I’d put in a ton of practice, but would it hold up once the mics were on? I’d never recorded this much material before – would I have the stamina to get all the way through the last piece? Would the sheer fact that I was asking myself all these questions keep me from getting a decent set of recordings? Had my practice been a consistent conscious self-evaluation of my own playing that internalized every physical and mental movement I needed to make for an effective communication of the notes, or had it just been a rote mechanization of my hands that would completely break down once I placed myself in a situation that demanded self-consciousness? Even if I do get takes that I’m happy with, what if my graduate school still doesn’t think they’re good enough?

Thankfully, though, even questions as distracting as these didn’t keep me from practicing and certainly couldn’t keep the recording day from finally arriving. I got to the studio, warmed up for a minute, hesitantly signaled to the recording engineer to start the first take – and you know what? I played the music, and it didn’t sound half bad. I didn’t focus on my mistakes, and was able to find things in each take that I was proud of. I listened to myself openly and honestly, and found that the practice had paid off – my playing wasn’t perfect and I certainly still have a great deal to learn, but the recording was an accurate representation of how well I could really play, and that’s truly all I can ask for. I left the studio tired but satisfied, and submitted my last application knowing that I had given an authentic representation of myself. Now I can rest, and wait.

Here’s my final take of a piece I particularly like – the atmospheric 2nd movement, “Largo,” from Roland Dyens’ Libra Sonatine. Many thanks to the students at Aberdeen College who assisted in the recording process. Enjoy!