As I was getting ready for my piano jury at the end of the semester, it became apparent to me that my Chopin nocturne was at its peak.  The problem?  Juries were still two weeks away.  I know myself too well, and I know that when I get to a certain point, the more I practice, the worse my pieces will become.  So I decided that if I ever wanted to have a recording of my nocturne, I had to do it fast.  So one night, I packed up all my gear (a feat in itself) and headed to my university’s music building, hoping to somehow find an open grand piano.

After searching around the building for twenty minutes or so, I finally found an open classroom with a grand piano.  The room had great acoustics—not a single parallel wall in it.  It was more reverberant than the room I record my piano in at home, but with close miking, it wasn’t as much of a problem.

The room I recorded in.  Rooms with non-parallel walls help prevent unwanted resonances which can negatively color recordings.

This is the room I recorded in.  Spaces with non-parallel walls prevent room resonances which negatively color recordings.

When I began to play, I soon discovered that there were several notes that were severely out-of-tune.  Unfortunately, I had forgotten to bring my tuning hammer and mutes.  But even if I had remembered the hammer, I didn’t know if I could risk using it and accidentally damaging something.  Yet it was so out-of-tune.  I had to do something…

At home, there is one string on my piano that will not stay in tune for more than ten minutes.  On a piano, the keys on the high end all have three strings per note, so I usually just mute the one string that won’t stay in tune.  Although that note, since only two strings will sound, becomes slightly softer compared to the surrounding notes, it is a simple fix for the problem.  And if I know ahead of time that it will be softer, I can make up for this by attempting to play it louder than I would normally.

However, I didn’t have my rubber mutes that night, so I dug through my backpack and found some erasers.  I managed to rub them down thin enough to fit between the strings, and they worked beautifully.

In a pinch, a rubber eraser can function as a tuning mute

In a pinch, a rubber eraser can function as a tuning mute

For me, the real problem is that I have a form of perfect pitch, so I notice even the slightest tuning problem.  It’s great when I’m working with singers, but otherwise, it can be a nuisance.  I’m never sure if I’m the only one who can hear something being out-of-tune, or if it’s actually something most people would notice.  Although I muted the worst notes on the piano that night, and I knew that the rest of the piano was at least a little problematic, I’m still not sure if anyone else notices or not…

Once I had muted the worst strings and set my equipment up, the session went smoothly.  As I listened back to what I was recording, I greatly improved how I played the piece.  When I’m just practicing something, it’s easy to get focussed on the technique and memorization and not even “listen” for phrasing and expression.  But listening to a recording of yourself allows you to listen for the feeling without having to concentrate so hard on remembering the notes.

At midnight, I heard a knock on the door, and as usual, it was campus security kicking me out so they could close down.  But I had what I needed.  And after only a few hours of editing and minor EQ adjustments the next day, this is what I got:

Two weeks later, just as I suspected, despite continuing to practice every day and spending the minimum amount of time on the nocturne that prevented me from forgetting it, the piece had declined.  I could remember it, but the expression was gone.  But because I had the recording from two weeks before, I pulled the piece back together in time to get an A on my jury.  Lesson learned: always record yourself so you don’t forget what you’re capable of, and always be sure to bring rubber mutes with you when you record… or some erasers.

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About Shelby Rawlings Blalock

I'm a 22-year-old composer, pianist, audio engineer, student, and GRAMMY Camp 2012 alum––a Charlottesville native making my way in Nashville! I write music for orchestra and small ensembles, but my debut solo piano album Airborne is available now on iTunes.

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