Saturday, September 5, 2009

Recording to Learn

Because of it's ease of use, I've been using the little Sony PCM to record all the performances of the Kenwood Players. Then I run the audio into the Tascam 2488, tweak if needed, master and then make CDs for everyone. I've learned a tremendous amount by listening back, and several members of the group have spontaneously said how much listening back to performances has helped them.

The thing that's so interesting is that they've all mentioned things they need to improve that I hadn't really noticed. And when I talk about what I hear in my playing and singing and don't like, they seem a little surprised.

I think that if you are fairly familiar with how your instrument works and have a pretty good notion of the kind of music you want to make, recording yourself and listening back, while not the same as having a good teacher, is at least as helpful overall. It's that old saw about how we're all our own worst critic. The thing of it is, when I hear something deep in the substance of the music I want to improve, that work seems to improve other aspects of the music as well. 

Another way of putting it is that when you hear a recording of your music making and notice something that needs improvement, you know exactly what the problem is in a gestalt kind of way, with both the left and right brain in on the awareness. No teacher talking to you about your playing can get something like that across so completely.

(The header photo just to please the eye and our Vermont readership. It's about the last bloom on a volunteer sunflower just out the back door. Just wish I could catch the moments when I've seen the goldfinches perched on one eating seeds)


  1. I've just received some of the concert recordings from the series of Edinburgh Fringe concerts I played in last month.

    And yes, I cringe at every cracked note, every bit of uneven tone, all the iffy intonation and all points at which I feel the horn is overbearing in its sound compared to the other instruments.

    Admittedly, I was underprepared for the concerts - I had had a stinking cold for about 10 days before which only just cleared in time, so I had had little opportunity to practice the pieces beforehand and my lips weren't in as good nick as they should ave been. So to some extent I was expecting what I heard in the recordings. But it didn't change my opinion that I hadn't given my best in those concerts.

    I think however that we do sometimes have unrealistic expectations of ourselves and our playing - we compare ourselves with what we hear on commercially-produced CDs.

    I have taken part in a few recording sessions, and so I know how unrealistic most recordings are in terms of how the piece would sound in a live performance by the same players. There are always several "takes" and all the clams and other problems get edited out.

    A live concert recording or a recording of a rehearsal is a much more honest depiction of one's playing - sometimes cruelly so! And there are things to learn from hearing it back. But no matter how good you are, don't expect ever that such recordings can ever sound as good as commercially produced and edited CDs.

  2. Jonathan - Thanks for that comment. Lots to think about. Your use of the word "cringe" is perfect. There's something so visceral about our reactions to hearing our mistakes. It's the exact opposite of the reaction we're hoping for when we set out to play.

    And your point about how we tend to automatically compare ourselves to the playing of the virtuosi on commercial CDs is part of the whole issue of trying to encourage home made music. I think people don't really realize how recorded music has transformed, and is still transforming, the nature of music and music making in our culture. I can't clearly and succinctly formulate it yet, but there's a value to live music that's not an "immaculate recitation" that music that is an "immaculate recitation" can lack.

    What I'm trying to do in my small community and with my group is pretty much on the bottom of the food chain musically for high level performers such as yourself, but for the folks we're playing for the responses can be significant, and the connection between players and the audience can be very gratifying indeed.

  3. Hi Lyle
    In my student days I often played in the Rehearsal Orchestra under Harry Legge, who was one of the viola players in the Royal Philharmonic in the days of Sir Thomas Beecham.

    Harry used to say that one of the great benefits of listening to live concerts was that they don't sound like recordings. There is an excitement about listening to a live concert, because you don't quite know what is going to happen next! In the case of a live performance by an amateur group, that is in part because they don't quite know what is going to happen next either!

    Music teaches humility. You don't ever get it perfect, and you know that perfection is going forever to be beyond you, but you do your best in order to provide enjoyment and entertainment for the audience and your fellow players. And if you clam, you just have to forget about it and get on with the next note. But when listening back, you aren't busy thinking of how to play the next note, so the mistake hits you square between the eyes with all the force of a punch from Muhammed Ali.

    Even knowing your imperfections, if you can end a concert honestly saying you did the best you could, that is a justifiable reason for satisfaction. You can them aim and hope to do something even better next time.

    If you want a marvellous and absolutely hilarious read about the pitfalls of being an amateur horn player, then I can very strongly recommend "I Found my Horn" by Jasper Rees (published in the US under the title "A Devil to Play"). By his own description he was a thoroughly mediocre student of the horn at high school, gave it up for 18 years on leaving school and returned to it in his 30s. He very accurately and movingly describes his feelings during car-crashes of performances, his complete bafflement on having to transpose for the first time, and the exhilaration of achieving some long-held goal.

    Any amateur musician will recognise the sorts of problems Rees describes, but it has a particular resonance for horn players because of the extreme ease with which it is possible to hit entirely the wrong note.

  4. Jonathan - Again, thanks for the comment. Another reason live music is better than recorded is that patients in hospital being played live music tend to need less medication and get out earlier. It was a study in a London(?) hospital that's way down the "medicine" tag posts. Recorded doesn't do the same thing.

    I did read the Rees book when it came out, and also followed John Ericsoson's handling his discovery that Rees had used some of his work without credit. The Rees book was a great read and very helpful in all sorts of ways.

  5. By the way, you asked some time ago if I might write something on musicality. I finally worked out something I could say about it and have put it up on my blog. Enjoy!