Why Is It So Important to Record Yourself?

How often do you record yourself? Weekly? Daily? Never in a million years?

Like eating our veggies, we all know on some level that it’s a good thing to do.

But to quote my 4-yr old, “Why Daddy, why?”

Why is it so important to record ourselves?

Our ears lie…especially under pressure

For one, we don’t hear ourselves as objectively as we think we do.

Record yourself, and you’ll notice things on the recording that you never noticed under your ear.

Don’t worry, it’s not all bad! Yes, there will be notes out of tune, glitches in your sound, and many sections where you thought you were making the phrasing clear, but it just sounds blah.

On the flip side, you may very well surprise yourself and find that a lot of your playing sounds pretty darn good. I can remember plenty of performances that I thought went horribly, but when listening back to the tape a couple weeks later, was surprised to discover that things weren’t half as bad as I thought they were.

Where are your hidden weak spots?

We can end up with a misleading sense of how we sound if we avoid taped run-throughs.

How so?

Have you ever studied for a test, and then discovered as you open the test booklet that you didn’t study nearly enough?

That was far too common an experience for me in college, where studying just meant reading the textbook a few times. That got me through high school, but when I needed to be able to do more than just recall facts and figures, the holes in my understanding and knowledge were completely exposed.

Play for the tape (especially in the morning before warming up too much), and you’ll be more likely to expose the real weaknesses and problem areas. The places that tend to fall apart when you’re fatigued, or when you have to play it sandwiched between other tricky sections.

This might not be a very fun experience in the moment, but I promise you that it’s a good thing. Far better to discover your “accidents waiting to happen” in the practice room than on stage.

Two modes of listening

Legendary Chicago Symphony tuba player Arnold Jacobs once said “The important thing is not what you sound like. It’s what you want to sound like. I have people who come to me and only listen to themselves-they are not conceiving.”

On stage, we have a tricky balancing act to perform. On one hand, we have to put our motor movements on autopilot. Think too much about the mechanics and the technical details, and the fluidity and automaticity are interrupted (for more, check out this post).

On the other hand, we are in for an uninspired, dull performance if we put our mind on autopilot. We must remain fully engaged in what we are doing from the first note to the last. We must remain completely immersed in the moment, listening, and hearing what we want.

Our tendency, however, is to get stuck in evaluating mode, rather than conceiving mode.

Evaluating mode vs. conceiving mode

The majority of our time in the practice room is spent listening, evaluating, and looking for the next problem we need to fix. Great for making steady improvements, but not so helpful on stage. Let’s call this evaluating mode.

Conversely, our best performances happen when we have a clear idea of what we want to sound like, connect deeply with this in our mind’s ear, and keep this going in our head as we trust our body to bring it to life. If you ever had a teacher ask you to sing a phrase before playing it, this is what they were getting at. Let’s call this conceiving mode.

Both are critically important – but we can’t really be in both modes at the same time. Like trying to sit and stand at the same time, it’s tough to be conceiving and creating music from our imagination while simultaneously evaluating, judging, and criticizing what comes out of our instrument.

Of course we spend so much time in evaluating mode, that this way of listening becomes a deeply ingrained habit. It’s difficult to simply flip the switch and go into conceiving mode when we walk on stage.

Practice switching modes

If we want to be able to switch from evaluating mode to conceiving mode on command, we have to practice making this switch. This is where recording can be a huge help.

Click record, and you can instantly offload all of your evaluation needs and concerns to the recording device. Just play, create, and practice being in the moment, trusting yourself, and turning off the critic. After all, everything is being captured on the recording – you can listen back to your performance later and nitpick to your heart’s content.

Give this a try. Turn on your trusty recording device, and perform away. Don’t just go through the motions – treat this like a real performance where you are trying to play at 100%. See if you can spend more time in conceiving mode than evaluating mode. You’ll find that with practice, it’ll become easier to do so – and a joy as well.


You might find yourself being strangely resistant to taping yourself, and/or afraid of listening back to the recording. Do your best to push past this. It’s natural. I think most of us are afraid to listen to ourselves.

Just remind the voice within that it’s better you hear yourself first, warts and all, than your audience.

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

For most of my life, I assumed that it was because I wasn’t practicing enough. And that eventually, if I performed enough, the nerves would just go away and everything would take care of itself.

But in the same way that “practice, practice, practice” wasn’t the answer, “perform, perform, perform” wasn’t the answer either. In fact, simply performing more, without the tools to facilitate more positive performance experiences, just led to more negative performance experiences!

Eventually, I discovered that elite athletes are successful in shrinking this gap between practice and performance, because their training looks fundamentally different. In that it includes specialized mental and physical practice strategies that are oriented around the retrieval of skills under pressure.

It was a very different approach to practice, that not only made performing a more positive experience, but practicing a more enjoyable experience too (which I certainly didn’t expect!).

If you’ve been wanting to perform more consistently and get more out of your daily practice, I’d love to share these research-based skills and strategies that can help you beat nerves and play more like yourself when it counts.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing, and start enjoying more satisfying practice days that also transfer to the stage.

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14 Responses

  1. I’m an organist and therefore have to bring the recording device to the instrument. I’d be interested to know what equipment people use to record. Decades ago I had a small portable cassette, but the quality is very poor. I’ve tried using the Sound Recorder on my laptop, but given the distance the sound level was very low. Maybe there are some iPhone or Droid apps that people could recommend?

    1. I have a Zoom digital recorder that provides good sound quality. It allows for external microphones, if you like, and can record on 2 tracks. I play bagpipes & only use the built in mic on one track, but it has been a very good tool. I have used it to record band concerts and the sound is still decent when recorded from the middle of the audience. I got it on Amazon, but you can probably find it at anyplace that sells recording equipment.

  2. I remember testing my intonation like that with the viola. I was surprised to learn that it was pretty good, but it felt like going to couples therapy and sitting there while the therapist asked the other person, “So name one thing about her that annoys you.” >_<

    For piano, it's been a godsend for revealing timing issues. I know that I, like many people, tend to speed, but it's great for detecting WHEN. Okay, so by measure # whatever, I'm going too fast, but where do I first start to pick up speed?

    It's also good for learning to cope with stage fear, which feels a lot like red-light syndrome.

  3. Thanks for the article.

    I started practicing like this not so long ago and took it a bit further by recording videos as well. I’m not a classically trained musician, so I’ve always had a phobia of playing alone. I noticed that this type of practicing, going into conceive mode, works miracles when improvising on solo guitar. I also post some of it online from time to time

    Cheers and keep them posts coming!

  4. This is a great article! I’ve found as a vocal musician, that my perception of what I’m hearing on that recorded playback also changes depending on WHEN I listen to it. If I listen to it too close to the actual performance, I start hearing all the stuff that I thought fell short of my ideal or intent, and my attention misses much of the stuff that was good, very good, or even great. If I wait a couple days, then listen to it again, I have a much more compassionate ear; I hear all the things that went well, and the things that I wish to improve seem much less important, more like just another task to be done. I also hear my recording differently by myself than when I’m listening to it with someone else (i.e. teacher, friend, family).

    Re: Conceiving Mode: when working on a piece, I find it’s a lot easier when I listen to a wide swath of singers who’ve gone before, singing that piece; I can find an Ideal Sound to internalize and emulate. Then in performance, I can just relax and work towards that ideal. The trick is, how to get into Conceiving Mode for the pressurized chamber known as The Audition; I find myself sometimes ping-ponging back & forth between Evaluating and Conceiving, and man that’s tiring.

  5. I took a small video camcorder to an impromptu bar blues jam to record myself playing. The stage was tiny and my camera was eventually block by the horn players. But aside from the microphone getting blown out there was a short instance where I could see myself in that moment struggling to play especially during my solo break.

    Maybe “regular”, as in 2-3 times week, recording and playing back my practice sessions will help become more familiar with the idea that I’m a musician that performs for people. It’s the idea of seeing myself playing 3rd person. I think if I can learn to “perceive” myself as a professionally experienced musician then I’ll cut loose more and play from the heart and not the head.

  6. When I first started playing jazz on gigs I would record myself constantly. It helped a lot; I was able to hear where I was going wrong in a phrase or my rhythm was bad, etc. The funny thing was that a lot of time if I thought a particular section was weak when I was playing, when I listened back to the recording I could see I was right.
    Now, I use either the Soundcloud or ITalk app on my iphone to record gigs or my practice sessions. The quality is as good as my old minidisc recorder that I USED to use.
    Their is no better tool than recording yourself, listening critically and recognizing areas that need to be fixed and, as you said in the article, it also will help you get used to playing live and not being able to go back and fix any mistakes that you may have made.

  7. It sounds like “conceiving” is just another word for aiming. If you don’t know WHAT you’re aiming for, how do you know if you’ve hit it? While you’re pulling back the bowstring, you don’t look at the tip of the arrow. You look at the target.

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