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.

WARNING!

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.