Jan Capinski: A video demo is like a Mozart aria.
We have noticed many applications to our Audition Oracle Singers Preparation Award ask for help with video recordings. Severall have nominated Capinski Recordings as their chosen provider. Jan is in the unique position of being both a professional singer and sound engineer and so we invited him to share his best video recording tips for our latest blog.
A video demo is like a Mozart aria
A video demo is like a Mozart aria - everyone should have one in their portfolio*. I’ll come back to that thought... It does indeed seem as though you can’t even get an audition these days without sending a link to your (by now painfully out-of-date) video demo. I don’t say ‘audition tape’ because that single-take smartphone-recorded ‘Your tiny hand is frozen’ video you did for that one company that asked for some Rodolfo in English was never going to stay ‘on the line’ for long, was it? And I don’t say ‘showreel’, because that’s an actor thing. No, we opera singers do demos of whole arias, and because we’re always on a budget, they’re never perfect. They’re the best we can do on the day. No reshoots the following week, and by audio-production standards - very little trickery.
So here’s my first tip - even though you’re spending a lot of money, be kind to yourself and don’t plan to get anything more than ‘your best on the day’. If you haven’t done video demos before, chances are that once you’re over the initial excitement of having something to show your parents and colleagues, you’ll be itching to ‘do it so much better’. That’ll be because no one has ever taught you how to do recordings. Performances, sure! Auditions, to some extent... But no one teaches ‘being recorded’ (to my knowledge, in the UK, in opera).
Which brings me to tip number 2 - It’s a learning experience! You get better at it every time you do it, especially if you record the same arias. I have a recurring client who did the same three pieces every 6 months until we couldn’t tell if the last session was any better than the previous. Since then, they bring a new aria or two every time they record with me and always nail it in a take or two. They walk in, know the room, know me, know themselves in this context, and they just deliver. Yes, they have spent a fair amount of money to acquire this ease. It’s a learning experience... so apply for funding! It’s a lot less nebulous than asking for money for lessons - your benefactor gets to see results! And you will learn a lot, regardless of whether you end up using the demos or not.
Ok, cynical rant over (until I circle back to the Mozart thing), here are my tips from a while back:
Control your hair
Wardrobe malfunctions aside, hair is the most obvious source of continuity problems when stitching together multiple takes (over multiple camera angles, of course).
Use make-up... guys!
Just have some foundation and powder with you, you might not need it, but you’ll hate it if you do need it and don’t have it.
Think carefully before you invite your teacher to be part of the recording session!
I’ve seen this been very useful, but I’ve also seen it turn a session into a lesson, basically killing any aspect of ‘performance’. My personal feeling as a singer is - I don’t have my teacher holding my hand in an audition, I should be able to deliver without them. Also, I can’t afford my teacher’s rate for 2-3 hours on top of venue hire, recording producer, etc.
Think about spending that money on a director instead
Your singing should be representative of what you can do, on muscle memory alone. It’s your main focus in terms of training, so it probably needs the least amount of extra care in the slightly foreign context of recording. How you perform in front of cameras, however, may or may not need some extra help. Singing like a dream isn’t enough to be engaging on screen*, and doing your finest audition-acting might not quite work in the context of fairly close up shots where we want to see your face. You don’t need to do much, but you should always be looking at something, mean every word you sing, and have purpose in every rest. Your engineer is probably busy doing the job of 3-5 people anyway, so hiring someone to look at you throughout, perhaps being the other character in the scene - I’d call that a worthwhile investment.
Manage the note-givers
Everyone with you in the recording room is there to give you their opinion. The pianist will treat it like something between a rehearsal, a coaching, and a performance, so they’ll give you tempo/tuning/ensemble notes. If you invite a teacher/director/best mate, they’ll give you notes as well. The producer will be on headphones, and hear things differently than anyone else in the room, so from time to time they’ll chime in to give you the microphone’s perspective. You may listen back and give yourself notes! If it gets too much (think stage-and-orchestra on an under-rehearsed show ;) ), be assertive and manage the room - ask for a break and to come back with more of a performance attitude, say it’s all getting a bit nit-picky and you feel a more relaxed approach might give better results.
Hire the right pianist
They need to realise it’s not about them. If they’re brilliant - that’s a bonus; but if they screw up - nobody cares. Leave their name off rather than re-do a take just for their benefit. I’ll take ‘consistent but approximate’ (playing the same take after take for easy splicing) over ‘inventive and ambitious’ any day. Unless it’s lieder! But for arias - your piano part is an approximation anyway, don’t get too precious about it.
Time and stamina allowing - always record a ‘F*** it’ version
Once you’ve worked your way through a piece, nailed every cadenza, sung all the chromatic passages with impeccable tuning, etc; do one last full take, knowing you already have all the material anyway. Chances are it’ll have a lot of the stuff you worked so hard to nail in isolation, but it’ll be more relaxed, more ‘performed’, and sometimes just more adventurous in general.
Less is more
* Coming full circle to ‘have you brought any Mozart?’
Yes, singing Mozart is valuable to any singer, just like singing Schubert, or bel canto. Doesn’t mean you absolutely need to audition with it. If it’s not the best thing you sing, why would you? Same goes for video demos. Yes, people ask for them. Yes, you should probably try to get some done, then try to get better ones sometime down the road... But if you don’t think they’re a fair representation of what you bring to the table in the REAL JOB - rehearsing and performing, then don’t let yourself be bullied into showing something you don’t feel is you. It’s not your fault companies are cutting corners by asking for demos in lieu of first-round auditions, and you shouldn’t be expected to shell out a fortune just to get one audition. You deserve to be heard, so tell them that. A recording is something you should do when you can afford it, or get funding for it, and it should be something you want to do for yourself. Don’t ever feel bullied into it. When someone walks into one of my sessions saying ‘I’m only doing this because I feel I have to’... well... I just cross my fingers I can prove to them that recording can also be fun, and that music is great, and thet their take on it is worth sharing and... but it can be an uphill struggle ;)
To read more about Jan's work, please visit www.capinskirecordings.com.
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