Quite a bit of research shows that musicians are pretty bad at detecting errors while playing (e.g., 1, 2, 3). We can certainly detect obvious errors like wrong notes, but many “small” errors like tone quality, dynamic shape, and tempo consistency often go unnoticed. Fortunately, there is a solution!
In addition to identifying and correcting obvious errors while practicing, we can effectively detect and correct unnoticeable errors by also recording ourselves while practicing performance and watching that recording to identify what we missed during our practice (4).
Of course, for many of us, the idea of recording ourselves might not sound too exciting. Before I started using recordings as part of my regular practice, I often found myself saying things like this:
I’m not ready to record yet; my piece still needs a lot of work.
I just started working on this [exercise, piece, etc.] so it’s too soon to record.
This is only an exercise. I’ll record myself when I work on an actual piece of music.
Recording & analyzing will take too long. I’d rather use my time to practice more.
I don’t have good recording equipment so what’s the point?
Do I really want to watch myself make a ton of mistakes? (I don’t think so!)
(Can you relate to any of these?)
It took me a while to address each of those objections and I finally did so because of frustration. I could only get my pieces to about 95% performance-ready and just couldn’t figure out how to put the final polish on my music. Using recordings for practice might seem overwhelming at first but if you plan properly, it’s actually a very simple process. Here’s how I do it:
The first, and most obvious thing, is to have some kind of recording equipment. When starting out, and for most of your recording sessions, keep it simple.
To begin with, I recommend recording audio first -- no video — so that we can focus exclusively on the sound of our playing. The “simplest” tool that most of us can use for this is a smartphone with an audio recording app. If your phone doesn’t have an audio recording app, you can take a video of yourself and turn the phone over when you play it back so that you don't see the screen.
The downside to most phone microphones is that they cut off some frequencies at both ends of the spectrum, so some of the nuances in your playing may not be audible. To improve this, you can increase the audio quality of your recording app. On an iPhone, you can set your audio quality from Compressed to Lossless in the settings. You can also purchase an external phone microphone like the Shure MV88 which is the one I use and which sounds surprisingly amazing! In any case, your smartphone recorder should be your go-to recording device most of the time.
Another option is to use your computer. I find that my computer’s microphone is a little bit better than my iPhone's microphone. That said, I prefer using my Blue Yeti USB Microphone for even better quality. Similar to using the phone, recording on the computer is a pretty quick process. If you have an audio recording app, just hit record, and then when you're done hit play to listen back. For video, I like using Zoom or QuickTime. In Zoom, open a blank meeting and record yourself playing. When you close the app, Zoom will generate a file that you can watch or listen to later.
The next step up would be a compact, digital audio recorder like the Tascam recorders. These handheld recorders have surprisingly high quality. The downside is that they require a little extra work. After recording, you have to connect the device to your computer (USB) and transfer the audio file in order to listen to it properly. There is an extra step with these recording devices but the quality you gain makes it worth the effort.
Finally, if you want professional sound quality, you need a DAW (Digital Audio Workspace), an audio interface, and a good microphone. I use Logic Pro (DAW), the Apogee Duet 3 (Interface), and a Neumann KM184 (Microphone). Another interface that is quite good and about half as much as the Apogee is the Focusrite. You certainly don’t need a professional set-up unless you’re serious about performing or recording. Personally, I only use this option when I’m about 2 weeks away from performing or recording something that I want to publish.
In terms of our actual music, the first thing to keep in mind is that we don't have to wait until we have an entire piece memorized to start recording. An exercise, étude, or even a measure or two of a piece are good places to start. What is important is that we have our music memorized with the correct rhythm & fingerings before we record ourselves.
Whether or not, you are new to the recording process, keep your first few recordings very short. Here are the steps:
Select a small phrase of memorized music that has a clear beginning and a resolve. This could be as short as half a measure or up to 4 measures of music. If you don’t have sheet music, this would be a phrase of music of about 5-20 seconds long.
Set up your recording device (audio only).
Take a deep breath, scan for tension, and release tension.
Play your music without stopping even if you make a mistake. In fact, do your best to ignore mistakes. It’s important to allow them to occur.
When you're done playing, stop the recording.
Decide on the type of error (below) you want to correct in the recording and pick only ONE (1). Ask your teacher if you’re unsure what any of the following error types are: • Wrong notes • Rhythmic errors • Tempo error • Tone errors or changes • Dynamic Shape • Shifting errors • Buzzed or muted notes • Articulation errors
Press play on your recording device to listen back for the first error type you picked above.
Press pause as soon as you hear an error.
Have a piece of paper next to you and write down 4 things about your error: • The time the error occurred (e.g.,0:09). • The error type (e.g., wrong note). • Why the error occured (e.g., my finger landed one fret too high because I shifted my arm too much). • Your correction (e.g., shift arm a little less and spot one fret lower).
Practice your correction and aim for 3 correct repetitions in a row.
Once successful, press play and look for error number 2 in your current error type (e.g., wrong notes).
Follow the same steps for the entire recording.
When finished, repeat your corrections one more time for each error in your first error type.
When you’re finished with your first error type (e.g., wrong notes), follow the same steps for another error type (e.g., rhythmic error). Remember that your initial recording should only be about 5 to 20 seconds long so you'll actually go through this process pretty quickly.
When you’re finished, take a break and move to a different task in your practice session.
As you begin feeling more confident about your corrections, start adding more notes to your musical phrase until you eventually complete your exercise, étude, or piece. Here’s an example of one of my recording practice schedules:
Session 1 LMC (Learn, memorize, & correct) measures 1-4 (mm1-4).
Session 2 Record & correct mm1-4 (A) LMC mm5-8 (B).
Session 3 Record & correct mm5-8 (B) Review mm1-8 (AB)
Session 4 Record & correct mm1-8 (AB) LMC mm9-12 (C).
Session 5 Record & correct mm9-12 (C) Review mm1-12 (ABC).
Session 6 Record & correct mm5-12 (BC) LMC mm13-16 (D).
Session 7 Record & correct mm13-16 (D). Review 1-16 (ABCD)
Session 8 Record & correct mm5-16 (BCD) LMC mm16-19 (E)
Session 9 Record & correct mm16-19 (E) Review 1-19 (ABCDE)
Session 10 Record & correct mm5-16 (CDE) LMC mm20-23 (F).
Session 11 Record and correct mm20-23 (F) Review 1-23 (ABCDEF).
Session 12 Record & correct mm1-23 (ABCDEF).
I usually switch to video recording after one of the following: 1) I've successfully addressed my errors & corrections in the audio recordings and/or 2) there are persistent errors in the audio that I can't seem to correct. At this point, video can provide clues that audio cannot. Sometimes, in my video recordings, I find that my right shoulder is tense which affects the precision in my right hand. Or I see that I'm a bit too hunched over, or that I'm not leaning into my left hand enough to make a shift.
Video is also a great tool to use as we near a performance date. It's a great way to gauge our stage presence and make sure we don't look like we're watching a horror movie! Video recordings are an excellent way to apply the final polish to our pieces.
Recording your performance practice is essential for progress. You don't have to do this daily, but I recommend doing it often. If you're new at this, start with one day a week. As you get more comfortable and efficient with the process, bump it up to two days a week. At this point, I record almost every day and find it extremely helpful.
Try recording this week and let me know how it goes for you in the comments section.
For guitar lessons, lectures, workshops, and educational performances please contact me below as well or at firstname.lastname@example.org.