We all know it: musicians who record themselves in practice have the fastest ears, quickly noticing details of text, vowel color, phrasing, and dramatic intent. Recording allows us to become our own real-time coach. When we record ourselves, we hear things during replay we are not aware of in the actual moment—things that we cannot hear from within our own bodies. And yet, we all hate to do it.
The problem with recording is not that we don’t believe in it; we do. The problem is not that it’s technically difficult to do; smartphones and tablets have erased that friction point. The hurdle is purely psychological. We hate to be confronted with our own limitations—we simply can’t stomach it. Recording drains us of our empowerment, our willpower, our optimism. And, hearing ourselves from outside of our corporeal instruments can, let’s admit it, be shocking!
The trick to empowered recording is using a process that allows our progress to be visible and systematic. The way we use recording technology needs to empower us over time. Here are six tips for becoming a “regular recorder” in the practice dojo:
1 – Hamburger Recordings
Every time you record a phrase, do it at least twice. Record, listen back, record again. The second version will almost always be better than the first, and over time you will believe in the payoff and yourself. If you record only once and then fix a few things and move on, you will hear only your first (a.k.a. worst) takes and you will dread recording. Nothing is more motivating than a win, and “hamburger recording” sets you up to feel the wins.
2- Record Little Bits
Record yourself in small chunks, or phrases, as you are first learning a piece. Don’t wait until you are ready for a complete run-through—at that stage too many flaws have been embedded, and you are sure to feel the sting of disappointment. The best time to record yourself is during the acquisition stage of learning a new piece, when you are putting it together from scratch.
Recording yourself early, in little bits, allows you to learn more correctly. Also, you are doing it at a nonthreatening time in the learning cycle, when you still have lots of time. Early practice is highly analytical, where recording can be the most effective. As we move toward a performance date, we need to build confidence and get into our intuitive phase.
3 – Variety
Record different aspects of your practice and mix video and audio recording. Variety is the spice of life and it will help you stay light in your work. One day, record a bit of warm-up, another day the coda of a song, the next day only the spoken text for diction.
Aim for a mix of modalities as well. Video recording allows you to see what is happening in your body and face. Audio recording allows you to see informative wave forms (I thought I was making a crescendo?) and lets you remove the visual aspect from the listening activity. Both are good in different ways, and variety yields more interesting results. Predictability is the enemy of discovery.
4 – Microphones & Speakers
Recording on your phone is just fine but let’s face it, phones do not capture the beauty of your sound. In order to keep your mojo, make sure, at least every once in a while, to record yourself on better equipment. Listen back through speakers or headphones. I have a friend who always leaves her fabulous mics set up for recording. That’s what it took for her to become friends with the recording process.
5 – Record Yourself Every Day that You Practice
Sigh…I know. But think of all the things we do every day even though we often would rather not: answering emails, brushing our teeth, maybe even practicing itself. Skipping days makes habit building so much harder. Consistency, not volume, is the key. You can pick one eight-bar phrase and be done with your daily recording obligation. Exercise your recording muscles daily, and they will strengthen.
6 – Know When to Stop
Recording right before a concert can send some of us into a psychological tailspin. You have to find what’s right for you, but I often stop recording about a week before the concert or audition. Find out what is right for you through trial and error. Protect your preperformance zone by knowing when to stop recording.
The following are some app recommendations if you decide to take the plunge into regular recording and want to level up from the standard camera and voice memo apps:
Twisted Wave Recorder: a simple audio recording app that allows you to record in wave format, which has a higher audio quality than mp3. I love that you can erase with the touch of one finger, no double questions. It will not ask you “Are you sure you want to delete?” Boom! File gone.
Video Delay Pro: a video delay app that is constantly recording and rendering video to you in time delay. There is no sound. Think of it as a mirror on steroids, you get to observe what you are physically doing in practice. It’s a big hit with gymnasts.
Tunable: technically a tuner, metronome, and recording device in one. You can play back your recording while watching the tuner, so you can get a little bit of objectivity on your pitch. It also has a mini keyboard in its tuner, which is handy for singers.
Clipza: an instant replay and video capture app that allows you to play back the last 30 seconds of what you just did by swiping left. Full disclosure—I developed the app with a bass friend of mine after years of saying, “I wish there was an app that allowed me to….”
One last note about the process of technology-assisted practice: recording to hone our objective ears is different from recording for stage fright simulation. When I record to “practice my nerves,” I warm up but I don’t allow myself to practice the piece before the run-through. I treat the microphone like an audience. I get nervous for these takes quite naturally. My mantra is not to stop and treat it like a performance.
This type of recording is for developing nerves of steel, not listening acutely. It’s big picture work, not small picture analysis. Sometimes I listen the next day, sometimes I don’t. This is about understanding what happens under pressure. I have found that these recordings often sound better than I would have thought. That has been a wonderful surprise, but it only started happening after I started recording myself regularly in practice.
So, go forth and record yourself! And remember, it’s the process of music making that is the magic, not the end result. Enjoy the journey—the journey is what it’s all about!