For the Record: The Blame Game

I have  two practices: music and writing. In a lot of ways they’re related: they both take focused practice if there is to be improvement. They both arise from the sea of words or sounds in which we’re immersed from birth and from which we drink and somehow make our own. But there is a fundamental way in which each medium of expression is different. A concert, and music in general, especially if it’s live and improvised (the highest form of the art in my opinion) is as ephemeral as art can get. Dance comes close, but there is something about sound that sight and movement cannot match for abstraction. And once the sounds are out there, the moment in its passing sweeps them into the was. Music is the most vanishing of arts, and yet it is nevertheless timeless and eternal.

Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.

Writing, on the other hand, is more permanent. What you put down on the page, or on the screen, stays there and its essence can be pored over at a later date and weighed, assessed, critiqued, changed. It’s this semi-permanence and ability to revisit and review that is an important part of improvement in any endeavor and that is a little tricky where music is concerned. With writing you have a thought and write it out, then look at it again, sometimes much later and judge whether you captured the essence of the thought. Music is more slippery than this, and like a tide-pool eel it will slip through your grasping fingers and wriggle back under a rock you can’t lift. There is a solution, however. You can record yourself.

Do you remember the first few times you heard a recording of your voice? It sounded vaguely familiar, but also very different from what you hear in your head. If you passed your own voice on the street you might look twice, but probably you wouldn’t recognize it. This is also true for you as an instrumentalist or vocalist, especially if you’re a wind player. When you create sound, the bones of your head vibrate as does the rest of your body and this profoundly alters the way you hear yourself. If you play piano or guitar this is less pronounced and perhaps less noticeable. The sound you create will be different from the sound you hear. There is an even better reason than this for recording your practice.

The act of creating sound, no matter the instrument or voice, is complex. The mind must attend to a vast array of tasks, from posture to embouchure to the scattered path of moving from one note to the next, like stepping on flagstones to avoid the muck. Even if the skill is automatic, it still takes a good deal of your cognitive processing power to do it. If you record yourself, when you return to the recording you can listen with your full attention. You will hear yourself with new ears. You will hear tone qualities and rhythms and aspects of technique that were inaudible to you when your attention was divided between the many tasks necessary to produce the sound. Depending on your focus when you listen to the recording (for even when listening w/o other interruption we can focus on particular aspects and lose the perception of others), you might smile in wonder at the fact that you’re creating this amazing sound. You’ll also hear things of which you’re more critical. Things you’ll perceive as flaws of tone, rhythm, and emotion (especially the lack of it). This is great!

These flaws are exactly what you’re searching for when you record your practice. The recording tells no lies. Can you listen critically to yourself and identify your flaws without taking it personally, without perceiving the flaws as some sort of indication of a fundamental, unalterable lack of ability? That’s the trick. It’s another step to hear such criticism from somebody else and not take it personally, but it’s a small step. Nobody is perfect and the only way to get closer to perfection is to identify and work on the flaws. Identifying them is the hardest part, and that’s where recording is so valuable. So let’s say that you hear flaws (and if you don’t you’re not listening hard enough), or maybe you have a crappy performance. Who’s to blame?

Data taken from interviews and surveys of master musicians have shown researchers that these people put the blame for any imperfection squarely on their own shoulders. This makes so much sense, because then the damage control is entirely up to you! Less accomplished musicians cite other causes outside themselves, causes they believe to be out of their control. As you see the world, so it is. If you think the cause is outside your control, how are you ever going to change anything? Answer: you won’t! If however, you search your soul for ways you can address whatever flaws you may perceive (especially if their origin really is outside yourself) then you will be able to address these issues and, most importantly, move beyond them. This is what empowerment is all about. This is the essence of improvement.

So. Record yourself at least once a week. Vary what it is you record. Record practice with the metronome; record the “performance” of an entire piece or etude, or a tune you like; record a song you don’t like and try to “sell” it anyway. Can you? Record long tones throughout your range and check out your tone quality and intonation; play a really slow scale and use a tuner to see if you nail the pitches or if you’re consistently off on some notes (this is difficult, especially for brass players). Experiment with changes of sound and timbre. How many sounds can you get out of your instrument? Do they sound different on the recording from when you play them? Can you make your instrument talk? What are you saying? Do some free improvisation either on a particular scale you’re working on or a group of notes chosen totally at random. Does the recording sound better or worse that how it felt to play it? Put on headphones and play along with a recording so that what you actually record is just you. How did that sound? Record again but with the background audible on the recording you make this time. How’s the balance? Are you in tune?

Whenever you assess your playing, you should first find things you like about what you did. Give yourself some positive reinforcement. Most of the time we focus so much on improvement that we tend to only focus on that which isn’t working. Take some valuable time to focus on what is working and give yourself a little pat on the back. Then go back over the recording and listen more critically. What can be changed? All of these questions are easily put into words, but the answers might be difficult to express with words. Let the music do the talking.

Good luck and keep at it! Persistence is more important than talent! Research proves it.

Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.

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