Your recording device is like an honest friend. Here’s how to use it to your benefit.
Even the simplest audio setup—perhaps an iPhone audio recorder app—can be a powerful tool for self assessment in music. Here’s how to make the best use of it.
First, a story.
The perils of self-assessment
Imagine that you are having lunch with a good friend named Sam. You’ve known Sam a long time, and you know that she shares your values and wants you to succeed. You know that she’s in a romantic relationship with Theo, and it’s not going well. She wants to talk about it. You are hoping that the conversation will unfold organically and you’ll have a chance to help her without forcing your opinion.
If only it were that easy. Instead, you talk in platitudes for 45 minutes, growing ever more uncomfortable. Finally, Sam asks you a blunt question without segue: “What do you think of Theo?”
You blurt out your response. You think he’s an a**hole and that Sam is headed for deep trouble if she stays with him.
Ouch. Do you suppose Sam was prepared to hear that? Did she really want the honest answer, or was she looking for a sugar-coated response to rationalize a bad situation?
This is one of the basic problems of the human experience. The more off track you get, the less likely you are to listen to feedback. The more you need it, the less receptive you become. Do you feel like seeing your most honest and trusted friend every day of your life? I’m guessing not, especially when you’re struggling.
The recording device as an honest friend
At the Eastman School of Music, each year of my studies began with a “rules binge” conveyed in a lengthy document. This document included a number of rubrics—in the most literal sense possible. A series of simple revelations is peppered throughout, printed in boldface red. Do you know which one I remember the most?
“Your recording device is your most honest and trusted friend.”
Simple, yet profound.
Why would an institution such as Eastman, with some of the best teachers in the world, adopt a mindset that elevates something so simple to such a high level of importance? It’s because the professors know how much time they waste addressing problems that we could have fixed on our own, had we only listed to our own playing. You don’t get a very good return on your time as a student when your teacher is constantly telling you the same things about the same two measures of the same piece.
It should come as no surprise to you that I, a professional musician, will tell you that there is no substitute for an ongoing relationship with a good teacher or coach. No matter how much you may think you know about your own technical and musical issues, there will always be someone else who knows more than you do.
Nonetheless, I stand by the above rubric and I want to give you a basic toolkit for how to use cheap, readily available technology (some or all of which you might already have available on your phone) to improve your playing and your conducting to best of your abilities. I think you will be surprised how effective this can be. I think you will also come to appreciate the sense of focus that arises from careful analysis of what you see and hear in your recordings.
Debunking a bad attitude
I want to dispel a myth that will hold you back. It goes something like this: “My skills are fine where they are, because if I do the hard work of improving those skills, most people won’t know or appreciate the difference.”
What a miserable attitude. If you don’t sincerely believe that improvement is worth the effort, then you’ve chosen mediocrity, even if you’ve spent thousands of hours developing what you already have. Also, if this myth were true, then why do so many congregations hear and feel the difference a good musician makes in their worship life? I know it’s tacky to use myself as an example, but I’m going to take that liberty here because it illustrates the point. I once served a congregation for a mere eleven weeks as a summer interim. Countless congregants told me what a difference my playing had made in the vitality of their worship services. That is, they both heard and felt a difference from having a different person at the console. They didn’t have the vocabulary to tell me in precise musical terms what they meant, but they most definitely knew that something was different.
Incremental Progress is Good!
Perhaps I contradict myself, but this is precisely why your congregation will not notice or appreciate your improvement. With the benefit of a side-by-side comparison, almost anyone can tell the difference between good and bad, and one week elapsed is a short enough time to compare the quality of two different organists. The trouble is that your improvement is incremental, not instantaneous. It simply isn’t possible to reinvent your pedal technique or your approach to organ registration in one week. What is possible is to commit yourself to improvement over time, proceeding in good faith that your church family will feel the difference. In a year, you will be a different musician, whether you practice or not. The only question is whether you’ll be better or worse. Wouldn’t you rather tilt the odds in your favor by getting the best possible return on limited practice time?
So much of our work in church has everything to do with attitude, which is why I’ve written an e-book on success and fulfillment in church work. Perhaps you’ll find it useful.
Putting your recording device to its best use
With all that out of the way, I’m going to provide you an outline for self-assessment. You will hear me say this many times: unrelenting (but compassionate) self-assessment that continually tests your assumptions is one of the most powerful habits you can develop as a leader. Here’s how to start.
If you are a conductor in any capacity whatsoever, even if you only conduct while playing, start a camcorder or video app at the beginning of your rehearsal. The point is not to commit yourself to watching every minute of it, but to ensure that you have enough material to evaluate. As soon as possible after the rehearsal, preferably the same day, “scrub” through the video footage and ask yourself the following questions.
- If I were to mute the audio, would I still be able to tell where the downbeat of each measure is? (There’s only one way to find out!) Remember that amateur musicians often rely on visual cues because they cannot rely on their instincts to lead them back to safety when things go awry. This means that you must be clear.
- How much time do I spend giving instructions? Aim for seven words or fewer. Most folks tune out after that, so you might as well stop talking.
- How many miles per hour do my hands travel? Most conductors (including myself) tend to move our hands and our bodies way more than necessary. This habit not only compromises gestural clarity, but it also erodes your ability to detect mistakes. The more you do, the less you hear. Which leads me to…
- Which errors did I not address during the rehearsal? Why didn’t I address them? Was it because I chose to spend the time otherwise, or was because I didn’t hear the mistake in the first place?
If you insist on quality answers, these four questions should be more than enough to get you started. Choose one and only one focus for the next four rehearsals. What is the one technical problem you can address without losing your mind? When you can no longer find productive answers to these questions, it’s time to consult a professional. This is true even when you, yourself, are a highly trained professional.
For Instrumentalists and Vocalists
If you are an instrumentalist or vocalist of any kind, record a five-minute excerpt during a practice session. Recording a private practice session has an important benefit: you can use a pair of headphones to listen to yourself immediately afterwards. In this case, the over-arching question is about the relationship between sound and feel. Are your “louds” truly loud, your “softs” soft? Is your tempo appropriately steady? Is your articulation true to your intent? Applying what you’ve learned, make another recording of the same passage, but again no more than five minutes. Did you move closer to your intent? Remember that the chief value in this exercise is to link your senses to what your audience will actually hear, not to fix every little mistake. Plus, the short length of each recording removes your excuse for not doing it!
If you are an organist, you can modify the questions to suit your specific needs:
- If I didn’t know this piece, would I still be able to tell which beats are strong and which are weak? One of our greatest challenges as organists is to clarify meter, since we can’t rely on the natural dynamic contrasts afforded by a downbow on a violin or a fast attack on a piano. One of the problems I observe most often among OPPs (Organists, Primarily Pianists) is ineffective use of accents (conveyed through subtle variations in articulation and timing) to clarify meter.
- Can I march in tempo while listening to the recording, without taking any errant steps? Can I conduct myself without resorting to strange pauses or accelerations? The key here is NOT metronomic rigidity, which is boring. Aim for “steady” rather than “inflexible.”
- How does my perception of articulation at the console compare with how it projects into the room? What sounds clear and crisp at the console sometimes becomes a mushy legato out in the room. Make changes until the effect is conveyed properly.
If you are a pianist, you might add the following as well:
- Does my pedaling add or detract? One of the problems I observe most often among PPOs (Pianists, Primarily Organists) is ineffective use of the damper pedal. PPOs tend to mash the damper pedal all the way to the floor when a simple half- or quarter-pedal would do. Others avoid the pedal altogether, out of the fear of making “note soup.”
- Does my phrasing make sense? Oftentimes, what we feel is convincing barely translates at all in the sound. Most PPOs fail to treat the piano as the dynamic instrument that it is.
So much of what we do as musicians relies on subjective self assessment. The habit of recording yourself and playing it back immediately is not so much about holding yourself to specific standards of musical taste (though of course I have strong opinions in that area). What I do hope this practice will provide for you is an effective way to compare your intent with your results. This information is profoundly useful, because you will never again have to ask yourself that paralyzing question:
“What should I practice today?”
I hope you found this article illuminating and inspiring. I find that few things are more satisfying than a great practice session. Remember that your recording device keeps you honest. It keeps you in line with your best standards of musicianship. Just remember that once you’ve reached the practical limits of self-assessment, it’s time for a lesson with an experienced teacher who can help you break through that next barrier.
What did you find most helpful about this article? What do you wish it had addressed further? Leave a comment below or get in touch with me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. Blessings upon your work in the church!
 I am deeply indebted to William Weinert of the Eastman School of Music for first enlightening me to this truth of conducting and rehearsing.
 This principle is one of many articulated by David Higgs, who often reminded us of the difference between playing by feel versus playing by sound.