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Ew, is that what I really sound like?

or... How To Get The Most Out of Recording Yourself, Part I

Do you ever feel like you're just spinning your wheels in the practice room, without making noticeable progress? Ask anyone who has practiced diligently for years or even decades and they'll probably tell you that practicing every day doesn't always equate to progress. We play scales, arpeggios, etudes, over and over again and fight the same issues year after year. What is going wrong? And more importantly, how can we streamline our practicing so we can get the gratification of clear improvement?

On the other hand, many players will talk about breakthroughs in their playing that come from nowhere and disappear just as fast. Where do they come from?

Don't worry - this is all normal! It takes a tremendous amount of practice to become a great musician, and it's often painstakingly slow. All the diligent practice accumulates in your muscles, your fingers, your elbows and your mind until one day your subconscious pops up and coordinates it all for you, and voila - a breakthrough!

When we're learning to play an instrument the earliest habits that develop stay with us for a long time. One of those habits is a fixation on the physicality of the instrument and technique. Learning just where to place your fingers, how much air to use, or how to hold a bow, are all crucial and ongoing parts of practice, but there is another element that is equally important: listening to yourself play on a recording. Listening and watching yourself play in a more objective way via recording might just be the single fastest way to improve.

Why record yourself?

Separating the "performance" of recording yourself and the critical listening portion of your practice gives you the opportunity to both be in the moment while you play without getting too distracted by your mind's criticism.

It is so easy to get stuck in one mode or the other when we practice: either playing in the moment with passion (but maybe not paying attention to details) or concentrating too hard on details and losing the larger picture of what we want to sound like. Listening back to a recording allows us to separate the act of playing our instrument and the critical listening that is necessary for improvement.

Recording yourself mimics a performance in that you might get a little bit nervous.

Nervousness can be distracting, and it can be scary. Your heart beats faster and you worry about every little detail. This is a longer discussion, but a colleague of mine, trombonist Joel Vaisse, once suggested to me that the rush from adrenaline could instead be felt as a turbo charge for your mind. You've entered fight or flight mode, and can learn to choose to fight. You mind is working faster, your nervous system is on high alert, and that includes your fingers, eyes and ears. With practice that can work to your benefit. Including some practice that is more "under pressure" is a great way to train for the actual performance.

We all hear things that surprise us when we record ourselves.

Some things might be better or worse than we thought, and this is good to know. Have you ever heard a recording of yourself talking and been shocked by how your voice actually sounds? If you're happy with your playing, allow that to be a brick in your foundation of confidence. And believe it or not, if you discover a mistake in your playing that you're not happy with, that is also a win. This is what listening is all about, and it means your playing is catching up to the model of musicianship that you have in your mind.

Increased focus.

There’s something about seeing the red light go on that forces us to play with more intent. Even if no one is going to hear the recording other than ourselves, I think we can all admit that we'd rather pleasantly surprise ourselves rather than be horribly disappointed when we listen back! And, after listening back to a recording, I find my focus is much improved as I continue practicing; the process really seems to sharpen the way I hear myself.

Hear yourself the way the audience hears you.

This might be the biggest reason to bite the bullet and press "record." Although you might be faced with some bitter truths about your own playing when you listen back, I think most of us would agree that is preferable than performing in front of an audience with all of our flaws out in full view! Recording ourselves gives us the gift of being able to work through issues in our playing privately. I would argue that facing (and working on) the issues in our playing can also give us true confidence in our playing - by working through the process of listening, analyzing, and correcting ourselves, we can feel sure of ourselves when we step in front of an audience.

Why It's Hard

It's not always fun to take the time to listen to ourselves, so we have to play the long game. Do the hard work to develop your skills and you will open yourself up to new and better opportunities. You'll earn the respect of musicians around you, and will develop the discipline needed to confront unflattering truths about your playing. This discipline is an incredibly valuable asset to any musician and what sets apart the best from everyone else. Use the recordings of your playing to objectively listen to yourself and become your own best coach.

One way I have found to take away some of the heartache (haha, partially kidding) of hearing what I really sound like is to take notes on what I hear on each playback. This keeps me in a more objective and problem-solving frame of mind, rather than feeling defeated by things that don't sound as good as I had hoped. It is important to remember that we can develop our abilities through discipline and hard work; no performance is determines how good we could sound with the right kind of mindset and practice.

A Quick Start To Recording Yourself

Our next post is going to dive into the myriad of options available for recording, but for now here are the fastest ways to get started with recording yourself.

Recording Audio

There are a huge variety of apps for recording yourself out there. One that you may have heard of, but not thought to use for recording yourself is everyone's favorite Swiss Army knife - Tonal Energy Tuner. This app blows me away every time I use it, and discovering the recording function recently cemented it in my mind as the best $3.99 you can spend on your music education.

Not only will Total Energy Tuner record you it has the ability to play back your recording at a wide variety of speeds, both slower and faster. Playing your audio back at half speed is a massively powerful tool that can expose warbles in your tone or inconsistencies between your note placement and the metronome. This is, of course, especially true for fast passages where we might be surprised to hear the reality of the evenness of our notes.

New to me is the option to play a recording of ourselves back at a faster speed. If the music recorded was at a very slow tempo and the app speeds it up, to say 1.5x, we would get a very different picture of the phrasing we are playing. Our quarter notes might push in the second half of every bar, or the ritardando might sound less than satisfying.

Recording Video

Recording a video of yourself playing opens up a whole other world for improvement. Are you moving side to side when you play? Do you go up on your tip toes for a high note? There is no one right way to play, and that's not the goal of of recording yourself, but you might discover some physical habits that are holding your playing back.

When recording ourselves, we want to let our minds and bodies focus completely on the performance while we play, and then have a chance to focus completely on listening when we play back the recording. Over time the objectivity will become a habit and you'll hear yourself in a whole new light!

Good luck, and have fun.


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