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Practice Room Thoughts: Recording

"If you record the sound of bacon in a frying pan and play it back, it sounds like the pops and cracks on an old 33 1/3 recording. Almost exactly like that. You could substitute it for that sound."

I have a few recording sessions coming up with one of our finest accompanists, so I've been preparing extra hard so as to not waste her time. These recordings aren't for anything in particular, just recital pieces I've been working on that I'd like to have good recordings of to put on this website, etc. She is insanely talented and puts a lot of effort into preparing for recitals and recordings, and I'm fighting tooth and nail to try to get ready for these sessions, which brought me to one of my favorite topics. Something which, as I often say to my students, is something teachers always tell their students to do, yet the students never do it.

As you've probably figured out by now, I'm talking about recording our practice.

“Keen self-listening is central to musical excellence. Without it, performers heedlessly sing off pitch, play out of rhythm, or otherwise mangle their music. They sound good to no one but themselves. With high-quality recording devices, however, accurate self-assessment comes within the reach of all musicians.”

Have you ever listened to a recording of yourself talking and been very surprised by either how you sound or something you said that you don't remember at all? Turns out the same can be true about our playing. I myself have gotten back into the habit of recording my own practice sessions in my office (and in the hall when I get the opportunity) and sometimes I'm quite surprised at a silly mistake or how boring my interpretation may be. In a situation where I'm playing through an entire piece (look for a future post about the difference between PLAYING and PRACTICING), I can forget something that happened during the piece as I lose myself in the next section. There's really no better substitute for recording your practice. Just this week I had a student come in way more prepared than usual and I asked what was different this week - "It's simple, he said, I recorded myself a bunch this week. I couldn't believe some of the stuff I was doing!"

There are many, many benefits to recording your practice, and you can find A TON of articles online on this subject by experts. But for brevity, let's list a few of my favorites here:

  • You can track your progress!

  • Recordings don't lie!

  • Discover your strengths and newfound triumphs!

  • Helps you discover what you WANT to sound like!

  • It simulates the real-life pressure of performing or recording!

Like I said, there are many, many articles on this topic, but I highly recommend you check out The Bulletproof Musician. I've linked a related article here, but just check out that site in general.

One thing I always remind my students, however, is that when listening to recordings of ourselves, we have to remember to listen objectively. Depending on your personality, sometimes it's really easy to just LOVE what you're playing, especially if you've worked really hard and you love the music. And I get it - I really do - we all worked really hard as kids and Mommy always gave us a pat on the back and our trophy case is all the fuller for it, too... but sometimes the aluminum bat misses the ball, hits the tee, and the ball flies straight into the catcher's mitt. YOU'RE OUT! Wait, do they have outs in tee-ball? I don't have the slightest idea, but it brings me to the converse point as well, don't hate every. single. thing. you. hear. in. your. recording. You've worked hard and you've had some successes (I hope?). Use those things as motivation and positive reinforcement - it will help fix the negatives!

"But Dr. Rowland - how on earth can I record myself?"

Easy, silly - use your phone! Almost all of my students these days walk around with a fancy smartphone in their pockets and don't even realize its full potential! Now it's true, you won't get the best sound quality in the world, but with decent placement, and by listening with headphones, you can get a pretty good idea. I read in a book once that without awesome microphones, a good way to record tuba is to place the recording device somewhere up and behind you, opposite of where the bell is pointing. In my office, I have filing cabinets in the back corner, which is a perfect landing spot for my phone or Zoom h4n, and it works wonderfully.

Speaking of which, many students can afford the small cost of picking up a Zoom product, such as the h4n. They're up to H6 now, which is great if you can afford the (on average) $400, but the h4n works great in a pinch, and can be found as low as $100 used and $160 new (Google it!). The recording you'll hear below was using my Zoom h4n on my filing cabinet in my office (excuse the lights buzzing!).

To finish, here is a recording of me practicing the first half or so of Bach's Cello Prelude No. 1 in G Major in my office in the original key and octave (simulated reverb courtesy of Audacity editing software). There are definitely some things to work on, but I'm also happy with some of my progress. And if you're wondering if I have any advice for anyone wanting to work on the first Bach cello prelude in it's original key and octave, I do: DON'T DO IT.

Until next time - I'll be Bach!

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