Recording Yourself, Part Two – What to Listen For
Found in: Coaching
In the first instalment of this series, we talked about the value and benefits of recording yourself. It’s amazing what you’ll notice about your playing when you listen back to it without the distraction of having to actually play. But there can be more to listening than meets the ear.
I’m lucky enough to have a nice piano and decent recording gear. I’ll sometimes give my students the project of preparing a piece for a good-quality recording that they can keep as a record of their development. They want it to be the very best they can make it. They prepare in a similar way to how they might prepare for a concert, although it usually feels a bit more relaxed because they know that in a recording they have more than one shot.
We can also record the student’s ongoing work on a piece. You can dig down to ever deeper levels of quality in your playing – the more you learn, the more you discover there is to know. That means that, especially with more advanced pieces, the last 10 or 20 percent in the quality of your playing can take 80 or 90 percent of your time, and you won’t necessarily notice some of those finer points unless you can hear the details. Listening to a good quality recording of yourself can reveal subtleties you may not otherwise notice. So sometimes I record a student as they progress on a piece, for a little reality check.
I recently went through a student’s recording in class. It was great, but we identified room for improvement. All of the faults were small – sometimes things most other listeners wouldn’t have noticed – but there were a lot of pointers Tim was able to take away and work with. He’s given me permission to share his work in progress, to see how many of these finer points you notice.
Here’s Tim’s recording:
Here are just a few of the details you can listen for:
Are you overusing the pedal? Does it sound muddy or grating? Are there specific ways you can use the pedal within the piece, such as using it to create volume changes or alternating between staccato (short, detached notes) and legato (smooth, connected notes)?
Loud and soft
Are you playing at the level of loudness or softness you would choose for the piece? Are there parts of the piece that you might play more loudly or softly than others?
Are you playing at the speed you feel is appropriate for the piece? Is your rhythm consistent? It’s very common to gradually get faster as you rush to the finish line before you make a mistake! Are there sections of the piece that you might choose to deliberately play a little faster or slower?
It’s very easy to leave little gaps as you take a moment to find the next chord or position. You may not notice, but a listener probably will, even if not consciously – the music will occur to them as not flowing the way it should. That flow is what draws us into the music, and gaps can jolt us out of our reverie, like a pothole in a road. If you notice a gap, isolate the problem moment and see how you can iron it out.
Unevenness between hands
Is one hand louder than the other? When they are playing together, are they precisely together? As you concentrate on one hand, does the other go a little astray?
Unevenness of chords
When you play a chord, do all the notes fall at the same moment, or are they a little ragged? Are all the notes the same volume? On the other hand, you might deliberately want to emphasise one note in a chord, perhaps to help clarify the journey of the melody.
Our posts from Laurie Richards on Developing Your Musical Expression might give you some more ideas on just what expressive ingredients might be worth your attention.
All of this might feel a bit disheartening. After all your work, now we’re digging up a whole range of possible failings you might have been happily unaware of! The important thing is to maintain some perspective and be kind to yourself. For one thing, this is stuff that many people wouldn’t pick up at all. You should be happy that you’ve reached a level of competence where you can even think about these finer points. And you’ll be developing skills that will give you the power to really choose how you want to play a piece, including expressive nuances that take your music to a whole new level – the kind of qualities that will make a listener think “that was awesome!”, even if they can’t put their finger on what makes it so special.
So let’s get to the next level with some critical (but kind) listening!
In the next instalment we’ll give you some tips for making good recordings.