In a large suitcase, I’m carrying most of the 400 prescreening CDs submitted by prospective students to New England Conservatory’s piano department this year. These recordings come from applicants to the school’s bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degree programs, and from applicants to the joint degree program the conservatory has with Harvard University.

When I started teaching at NEC five years ago there was no “prescreening” in advance of the spring auditions at the school. Any pianist could apply and be heard by the faculty committee. Things have changed fast!

GradusAJ.jpgSeveral of the most selective schools now have prescreenings by recording. When we started the process I intended to use the recordings to eliminate the weakest ten or twenty per cent of applicants, reducing our total days of live auditions and giving more consistency to what we heard.

By now, the total number of applicants has grown so much, that in order to fit into the seven days of live auditions we have scheduled in 2010, I will need to eliminate fifty per cent of the total pianists applying. It’s not so easy to do.

Doctoral applicants are scrutinized most intensely. Their recordings will be heard by me and two other faculty pianists. In the end, we will eliminate many, many of them, inviting only four or five players to come to Boston for a live audition in February. Generally, we accept one pianist into the school’s doctoral program each year, possibly two.

The quality of the world’s piano playing is getting better fast. The scope of our applicant pool is also widening. This year, at my request, I have very little information about each student as I listen to their recordings. I do not know with whom they studied, or what teachers they are requesting. I don’t know if they won competitions or played major concerts. I don’t know where they live.

On each CD from bachelor’s and master’s degree applicants, there’s one movement from a Classical sonata and one “Romantic” work. I’m hearing dozens of recorded performances of Beethoven’s Opus 81a, this year’s most frequently chosen sonata. There are many, performances of Beethoven’s “Waldstein” Sonata, and Opus 109, and dozens of accounts of Chopin’s Third and First Ballades. (Each year brings slight shifts in the popularity of what must be the most classic of the classics.) Some of the CDs include recordings of extra unrequested pieces.

These piles of CDs are a “sample” — a cross-section of a tree trunk, a core sample, an air quality reading. My suitcase of recordings is a snapshot of the world’s piano playing aspiration. A lot of young people are studying and learning to play the piano well. This annual collection of CDs is itself an art work — an artifact of a large multilayered performance. By establishing our procedure and specifying repertory, we set up a frame for global action. All over the world, mostly during November (the prescreening recordings are due at New England Conservatory on December 1, as with most American conservatories that require them), aspiring pianists are playing for the microphone. Striving. Listening. Burning the CDs and labeling boxes and sleeves.

There’s monetary investment too. The stacks of discs represent a lot of resources. And the recordings are colored by money. Pianos are expensive, and the sound of poorly-regulated, poorly-voiced, inferior instruments is notable in some of the submissions. In contrast, a few recordings are finely crafted sonically and elegantly packaged (with photos).

This big suitcase of CDs is heavy. After the listening is finished, the discs will go to a recycling center. Next year, we’ll be accepting MP3s via the internet.

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