Recording practice

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In my current practice schedule, I record myself playing at least one mock audition six days a week. Recording myself is an important element of my practice methodology for two major reasons.

Most obviously, listening back to a recording allows me to objectively critique my own playing. By completely separating the processes of performance and evaluation, I can hear the results of my work without the distraction of having to produce it at the same time. Similarly, I can hear what comes out the end of my bell without the interference of everything happening on the mouthpiece side of the instrument. I can listen to my own performance the way I’d listen to anyone else’s and evaluate it accordingly. I am more likely to notice important elements that might get overlooked in the heat of the moment, and less likely to focus on minutiae that are less important to the overall impression.

The other benefit of recording applies to the performance itself. It is very tempting when something goes badly in practice to just do it again, fix it, and move on. The problem is that we get used to this freedom, and often barely notice that we’re doing it. Then, when we lose the ability for a do-over in an audition or performance environment, we realize just how uncertain the first attempt can sometimes be. By turning on a microphone, we force ourselves to play the music down once, with no opportunity to try anything a second time. Even if the recording is never heard, the honesty it brings to a situation is invaluable.

Some people advocate for recording entire practice sessions, and that to me seems like overkill. If you record an hour long practice session, then to get any value out of it, you have to find an hour to listen to the recording. Judiciously recording only portions of a practice dramatically reduces the time required without substantially decreasing the benefit of the exercise.

I also like to record lessons that I take. Often, I get more out of the teacher’s comments on subsequent hearings, after I’ve processed what I learned the first time. Also, it’s very helpful to listen to the teacher’s demonstrations side by side with my own playing, as it helps me better understand what s/he was trying to explain. I always ask the teacher’s permission, of course, but no one has ever objected.

I use a Tascam DR-40 handheld digital recorder. It has reasonable quality built-in microphones for quick and portable recording in my practice room or anywhere else. It also has two XLR jacks with phantom power for professional grade microphones. When I’m recording a concert or something more than just a practice session, it’s trivial to plug in my pair of Shure SM-94 mics to get an extremely clean, high fidelity recording on the same portable device. It can run on USB power, AC/DC adaptor, or AA batteries. Best of all, it has automatic level calibration and a whole host of extra software features to make the process of recording very simple for those of us who have no real training in the field.

For those who do not want to deal with a separate device, I strongly recommend downloading Audacity. The software is free for Windows, Mac, and Linux. Install it on a laptop with a built-in microphone, and you have a portable recording setup for your practice room. It may not produce the best quality recording ever, but it will be more than sufficient for a practice session.