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Listening to Recordings of Your Own Playing

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Have you ever met musicians who refuse to listen to their own recordings? I have... many times. They literally don't know what they are missing. On the other hand I have met players who are a little too enthralled with their own recordings. They also don't know what they are missing! Do you fit in either of those camps? Either one is actually understandable, but there are more useful ways to listen to your own recordings.

Let me set some conditions before discussing this further. First, you can learn something from almost any recording, but the better the quality of the recording and environment the more you can learn.
  • Try to record yourself at least some of the time in a nice recital hall, concert hall, church sanctuary, or other large room with good acoustics. This type of room is best for judging your tone and dynamic range. (A small room will be fine if you are working on evenness of rhythm, intonation, etc., where a realistic "sound stage" is not required.)
  • If at all possible, avoid recording with any device that sets the volume automatically ("automatic level control" or "ALC"). This will make you sound bad no matter what you do. ALC machines will turn their volume way up during rests because they don't know what a rest is - they just hear that the sound is quiet. Then when you attack the next note, it will often distort badly for a split second because the recorder's volume is much too loud.
    Some camcorders have level controls you can set (it is usually a choice to use automatic or not), an some even allow you to plug in an external microphone.
  • Try to use a decent microphone. Some recorders have good mics built in, so you may be able to find an all-in-one unit for convenience. Better still is to use external mics of high quality. This will allow you more choices in microphones. It will also allow you to get the mics out into the "hall" for better sound, while still having the recorder controls near you.
  • Experiment a bit with recorder/mic placement. In the audience area is best, but don't go too far away. A human might enjoy the sound from fairly far back, because the brain is very good at focusing the listening toward the sound source. But a recording doesn't capture that perspective, so you hear more of the reverberation of the hall without being able to focus as well.
  • Playback device: be careful of your playback device. Many portable music devices (iPod, Walkman, phones) do some volume leveling as they play music. Look for a control to disable that or you will get discouraged unnecessarily.
  • Speakers/headphones: this is a tough nut to crack. Euphonium is difficult to reproduce because of its very strong mid-low content. I've tried dozens on headphones and ear buds. My two best choices are some studio Sennheiser around-the-ear phones and a pair of Grado on-the-ear phones. Neither is perfect; each is good in its own way. My home speakers are quite good (Paradigm) and I can usually be sure I'm hearing a good representation when I use them. But as with many others, I suspect, my most frequent listening opportunities require using headphones. So just be sure you use the best sound reproducers you have, and also be sure you know what other euphonium players sound like on the same phones/speakers.

You may also get a recording from a concert where you played a solo or had featured parts. While you don't have much choice in the equipment or mic placement in that case, usually the quality points above are reasonably addressed. In this case, many people find it useful to wait a couple weeks or longer before listening. When you memory is fresher, you probably will recall each and every little glitch and hear them out of proportion to their actual effect. But later you may listen with a bit more objectivity.

When it comes time to actually evaluate the recording, there is a critical balance you must strike to avoid the two most common mistakes some players make:

  1. They hear only their mistakes, notes that aren't quite in tune, etc. While that can be educational, it is also demoralizing! And more importantly, it is not at all the same perspective the audience had during the performance.
  2. They hear only their good points. This is fine for building one's ego, I guess, but it is also not realistic. Even a really fine performance probably has some elements that could have been done better (maybe by you after another five years of experience!).

When I listen to my own recordings, the first run-through is usually to hear the overall performance. I'm not focused on glitches or on any neat little things I might have achieved. I am trying to hear the piece as a performance, from top to bottom. Other than any enemies or family you might have in the audience, in general the audience members are judging your performance the way I just mentioned - not listening for every little defect, not drooling over ever note - they are simply listening to music and enjoying it.

But in subsequent listening, try to pick up more details. Here are some suggestions of what you might listen for:

  • Fluff/clams. These happen and if they aren't excessive you should not put too much value in them. Still, a little analysis might be helpful. Do you miss some notes more often? If so, you may have some work to do on embouchure. Or you may simply be working against yourself (I confess - this sounds very familiar!). Sometimes I notice that I have missed the same note several times in practice, even though it is not a difficult note. Once I notice it, more times than not the reason has been that I am simply aiming too high or too low consistently. The context might influence this, like the notes before and after, or the dynamic (especially if it is changing at the time). But if the notes that seem commonly-fluffed don't sound secure when you play them in a simple context, that may indicate you need to pay more attention during practice, or it could even point to an issue with the horn or mouthpiece.
  • Vibrato (assuming you use vibrato).
    Weaknesses: Did vibrato sound controlled and natural? Or did it simply "happen" all the time, regardless of the context? Did it vary in speed and width as the music changed? Did you have nice vibrato in the middle range that doesn't sound as good in the high or low range?
    Strengths: Did your vibrato help you "make the point" as part of the musical flow? Did you control it so that some notes may have started with a straight sound, and then the vibrato was added to build excitement? Were there short notes that were important and which had a short, quick burst of vibrato?
  • Tone. We can probably always improve tone. Even if the core tone is good, pay attention to whether is remains as good over the whole range of the music. And you may hear that some passages might benefit from a tone that is more gentle or bright or mellow or sweet or...
  • Dynamics. Many players remain in the "mezzo" volume area much of the time, somewhere between mp and mf. Look at the written dynamics in the music and compare that to your performance. Can you hear a difference in volume between piano and mezzo forte? And combine this factor with the "tone" factor above. You want to be able to keep tone consistent at different volumes (you may not always choose to do so, but your tone should not change outside your desire/control).
  • Articulations. Many of these listening factors are tricky, and this one may be among the trickiest. Unfortunately, it can also be dependent on mic placement (or audience seating position!). Listen to see if you are getting the degree of attack and separation you intended. Do notes run together when you intended to make them smooth but separated? Does your attack sound softer or harder than you intended? As with other factors, your intentions may not be what gets out in the audience area.
  • Rhythm. When you are disconnected from the rigors of actually playing passages, notice whether your rhythms come out the way they should. If you had dotted-eighth-sixteenth rhythms, do they sound snappy or do they drift toward the triplet side? If you have a dotted-eighth/sixteenth figure at a slow tempo, do you play the sixteenth too quickly (like a double-dotted-eighth/thirty-second-note figure)?
  • Evenness. Within any phrase, notes that have a different weight should be that way because you wanted a musical effect, not because your horn (or embouchure) is less anxious to product some notes than others. The same principle is true during fast passages. Even in something as simple as a fast major scale that is slurred, it will sound much better if all the notes are even. If you hear notes that aren't even, you may not be correcting a reluctant note on the horn or you may be aiming slightly off-center with your embouchure/air. And if you hear scales that really "pop" out and sound almost faster than they were, then you are probably doing a good job of using your air/enbouchure.

As you do all this listening, be sure to appreciate the good things that you do as you also learn about things you could be doing better. That's the key to improving without driving yourself crazy!

Grado Headphones
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Zoom Digital Recorder (the one I use)
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Audio-Technica stereo microphone
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