Updated: Oct 9, 2020
Recording yourself is one of the most effective tools for growth and learning, but it can also be discouraging, or even counterproductive, if you go into it with an overly critical mindset. Luckily, there are ways to approach this practice that will help you improve musically AND build your personal resilience. In this post, I’ll explain why it’s a good idea to record yourself and how to go about it in a productive rather than destructive way.
“WHY should I record myself?”
Let me count the ways! Firstly, there are no more immediate ways to know how you sound. If you’ve ever gotten feedback and thought, “but I thought I was doing that!” recording can help you root out the truth. As my former teacher Jeanne Baxtresser once counseled, recording gives you the opportunity to pre-empt criticism or feedback from your teacher, or worse, an audition panel, before they have the chance to give it. It allows you to hear yourself the way others hear you, which in turn empowers you to make improvements on your own and have a true sense of your playing that doesn’t rely solely on others’ feedback.
Secondly, recording can help you figure out what you’re doing well vs. what elements of a piece might still need work, and this can make your future practice sessions more efficient. For example, if I spent my whole practice session honing my rhythm, I might record myself and discover that while my rhythm is now excellent, my intonation or phrasing has fallen by the wayside. The reality is that we’re so focused on so many things while we’re playing, it’s impossible to really listen to ourselves the way we’d listen to someone else’s performance. Recording can help us bypass this obstacle AND give us the freedom to perform without analysis while we practice, since we’ll have a recording we can go back to after-the-fact. It gives us an extremely accurate method for self-evaluation.
In sum, recording yourself can raise your overall level of preparation and performance standards. The standards for a “good” recording, especially in Classical music, are impossibly high. This means that when you are working on a piece with the intention of recording, you are likely also attending to minute details and demanding a level of performance that exceeds your normal level of preparation.
“WHEN Should I Record Myself?”
Personally, I don't find it terribly productive to record yourself when you’re still learning the nuts and bolts of a piece. You’ll just end up dwelling on things you already know you need to practice. So, I recommend recording a piece or an excerpt when you’re ready to give it a run-through and re-establish your practice goals. Maybe you spent your practice session working on intonation - now you can record your piece or the section you worked on, play it back with your tuner on, and see where you’ve hit the mark and what still needs work. Self-recording can also be used when you feel you've checked all the boxes like rhythm, intonation, articulation, and note accuracy. That’s a perfect time to do a mock performance for yourself and see where you want to take it from here. Personally, I find the pressure of recording something in a complete take helps me get out of the habit of stopping when I’ve made a mistake, and I play more musically than I usually would in a practice session. Try treating it like a performance even if you know it’s still a work in progress - Recording is an extremely telling way to know if you’re actually doing what you think you’re doing and if you can achieve your goals reliably in performance, or only sometimes.
“WHAT Should I Listen For?”
It’s tempting to dive right in and listen for everything at once. After all, we’re trained to listen for problems and be critical. However, it’s paramount to our satisfaction as artists and our mental health to acknowledge the hard work we’ve done and let ourselves enjoy our own playing once in a while. So before you do anything else, listen with the intention of appreciating what you’ve done well. If you had a concrete goal, identify the moments where you achieved it. If you had multiple goals, start with your overall phrasing and musicality. Do you hear anything you hadn’t planned on doing but you like anyway? Is there even just one measure or series of notes you find particularly compelling? If you’re struggling to give yourself positive affirmation, try starting with basic truths, like “I played all the right notes,” or “My rhythm was steady in this passage.” This can help guide you to more nuanced praise like, “My change in tone color accentuated the key change in a dramatic way.”
Next, focus on one element of your playing at a time and if you’re playing a longer piece, listen to it in smaller increments - even just one or two measures. If there’s something glaringly obvious to you, like your C#s are all sharp, go ahead and start with intonation. Put on a tuner, listen to the excerpt, and take notes on where you can improve. If you’re working on rhythmic accuracy, you can do the same thing with a metronome. Otherwise, I recommend making a list of criteria you'd like to meet and listening for them one-by-one. Identifying specific goals will help you stay focused and not get overwhelmed. And always remember: recording yourself is a gift you give yourself!