Pierre Liscia-Beaurenaut has one foot in violin playing and the other in music journalism. Every month, Pierre invites you to the other side of the curtain, to discover the daily life of a young professional musician doing the rounds of rehearsal rooms and auditions as well as meeting the great musicians of our time..

Pierre Liscia-Beaurenaut
© Julien Hanck

5th August 2020 : Disaster strikes! The news falls into my mailbox like a hand grenade: the competition for which I’ve been preparing, intended to be live in early September, has been cancelled and replaced by a video selection process. To the untrained eye, video might seem to have plenty of advantages: infinite number of takes, none of the stresses and other travails of live, the possibility of tidying up the video at the editing stage. But for me, it’s a rising tide of panic as the realisation dawns that I am now expected to produce a video worthy of the name from my meagre hardware, and – worst of all – that I will have to confront one of my worst phobias: editing software. Because let’s be honest: when we’re told, a month before the deadline, that we have to produce half an hour of video with nothing but a mobile phone and a pocket recorder, I’m going to need to be a MacGyver as much as a Menuhin.

So much for the overview: it's time to be specific. I am preparing for an assessment for entrance to a school in Germany, which changes everything. For sure, as with all video auditions, the jury is expecting a fixed camera, a clear and smooth view of the artist in front of a clear background, with the hands properly visible. But you have to understand that French and German schools have very different recruitment methods. In France, the set of works played is often prescribed and will be listened to in totality. In Germany, on the other hand, the candidate is given a great deal of freedom and must present a wide variety of repertoire. But the time in front of the jury is notoriously short: the Lübeck Hochschule, for example, requires the candidate to prepare a 60 minute recital but is only expecting to listen to 10 minutes of it. I remember a friend who had prepared the whole of the Franck sonata for entrance to the Berlin Hochschule. When I asked him, after the event, what he had played, he explained that they had cut him off after... the first eight notes of the first movement! Whence the interest, for the candidate, to be focused on the first few pages of the works to be played to the jury – the ones they’re actually likely to listen to – a short cut on which I had been deviously relying since the start of my preparation. Trouble is, trial by video reverses this paradigm: the works must be played from beginning to end; if I was to avoid a conviction for flagrant procrastination, I was going to have to rethink my whole method of working.

Recording studio 1.0: don't try this at home
© Pierre Liscia / Bachtrack

I wouldn’t be telling the whole truth without the following confession: video cameras scare me rigid. Nothing cools my interpretive ardour as much as the cold stare of the lens, and since mistakes are tolerated far less than in live performance, I tend to consider each one of my takes to be more horrible than the previous one. More clearly, the need to record a concerto “naked” (i.e. without a piano accompaniment) gives me the heebie-jeebies. Everything was ready for this month of holiday to turn into a nightmare.

15th August: in the space of ten days, I believe that I have worked through the panoply of errors that plague the videographic novice and which can ruin a perfectly adequate musical performance. First the video: having sorted the problems of lighting and composition, I’ve finally recorded a more or less decently performed Hindemith sonata, which I have sent to my family for their opinion. The replies were rhapsodic – until, that is, my mum pointed out the appearance, bang in the middle of the sonata, of a certain feline that I had failed to lock up, which decided to come into shot for a whole minute. Uncertain that the jury would be enthused by the animal antics, I am forced to reshoot everything. 

Things are hardly better on the audio side. Having spent a non-trivial number of hours syncing the recorded sound from my pocket recorder with the video from the phone, I realise that for all my musical investment in the Prokofiev concerto movement, my violin sound is inexorably bland, all the attacks identical and contrasting nuances utterly erased. A quick investigation reveals the culprit: a small button on the back of my recorder which, with a wave of a magic wand, flattens out the recorded sound, with the effect of making any musical expression irremediably dull. And don’t let me start on the dogs barking in the middle of a take, the “Pierre! I’m home!” slap on one of climaxes and that whole bundle of joys well known to any of us who don’t have our own soundproofed studio...

20th August: The heatwave and the profound hatred that my editing software obviously holds for me (synchronising the sound and the video turns out to be a Herculean task, since the professionals will consider that a tenth of a second of slippage makes the video invalid) have led me to reduce my videographic expectations and to sneakily reuse old recordings. This presents a sure fire advantage: they were made live, and although they’re over a year old, I’m more present, more involved than in any of my “studio” takes. Also, they were filmed in a large hall, accompanied by orchestra, and the audience rewards me with generous applause. I’m hoping to take advantage of unbreachable cognitive bias, whether for amateurs or professionals: if I’ve had the opportunity to play in such an environment, logic dictates that I must have proved myself. An other advantage is that at some moments, the orchestral wash obliterates the sound of my violin, most frequently in the course of the more gymnastic passages where my instrumental uncertainties could be exposed. Just one concern: the sound quality is anything but perfect, displaying that flattening of nuance that I have experienced earlier. What to do? I have only a few days left to decide what I’m going to send across the Rhine to the jury.

28th August: Finally, a few hours before the deadline, the video has been uploaded onto the school’s website. It’s an artful mixture of old footage and solo recordings in my home, and I’m not proud of it: the work displays little professionalism, the quality of the video is dubious, the backgrounds are awful (even a violin competition hasn’t managed to make me tidy my room). Browsing YouTube, I discover that it’s perfectly possible, with an iPhone, a microphone and a modicum of skill, to create results that are quite poetic – lockdown has given us many examples. There’s nothing left but to await the results: I restore my pocket recorder to its cupboard, emitting a sigh of anxious relief.

Three weeks later...

The verdict is in: I have been admitted! In the judges’ comments, not a word on my disastrous production... but when the school’s director thanks the candidates for “having thrown themselves, clearly not without difficulty, into this unique contest”, I was in no doubt that I was being targeted. Sadly, the victory isn’t complete, because I don’t know the violinist to whose class I’ve been admitted. But considering how essential it is to have a good teacher-pupil relationship (as mentioned  last month), I resolve that before taking any decision, I shall brave quarantine and any other restrictions to go and meet her in Berlin. After the month I’ve just had, that’s an adventure that should be childsplay.

Translated from French by David Karlin