By Caeli Smith

Here’s an unpleasant scenario that every musician is familiar with: You sit down to listen to a recording of a recent concert, expecting the tape to recreate your performance as you remember it. But while listening, you find yourself distracted by stuff you don’t remember. “Why are my runs so uneven?” “Why does that sound so uninspired?” “What happened to the enormous, exciting climax?”

Why are we musicians often surprised, and disappointed, by how we sound? While playing, it can be hard to be aware of exactly what sounds you’re making. Maybe you’re distracted by the complicated mechanics of your fingers, or maybe the music sounds different under your ears. In the moment, while you’re playing, it’s hard to hear objectively.

Although it can be painful, recording is an important and necessary part of any musician’s life. We make tapes to send to festivals, competitions, and schools. Choosing which recording to use can be a grueling task—none that you make will be perfect, and the more you listen to them, the more flaws you will discover. What a demoralizing process. Coming to terms with how you really sound is never easy.

I used to be hesitant to record myself during practice sessions. Not only was I afraid of the outcome, I was also worried that by recording myself I was somehow cheating. What about the great musicians of the past? David Oistrakh and Nathan Milstein didn’t have the luxury of popping in their earbuds and listening to snippets of the Bach lesson they recorded on their iPhones.

But eventually, I decided that the more information I had about my playing, the better. I began to record large chunks of my practice sessions, even my scales. At first I would wince during playback, as I realized how many details I’d allowed to slip by. But these hours of discomfort paid off surprisingly quickly. After a few days of recording, I began to hear these problems as I was playing. I would notice uneven string crossings and indelicate phrase endings before I had even played back the recording. I realized that the act of recording myself was actually improving my listening in general.

To be a good musician, you must be a good listener. We need to be sensitive to every small detail of our playing and know exactly what it is we want to do with our music. In my experience, nothing else, not even advice from a trusted teacher, is as revealing as listening to myself play. Recording enlightens me to sounds that I don’t want to make, and helps me realize when what I want to express isn’t coming across. These days, I continue to record much of my practice—making me a better listener, and a better musician.