Use audio and video to train yourself to hear what you actually played and not what you think you played

By Louise Lee

Listening to yourself can be a hard thing to do while you’re playing and your mind and body are all tied up, figuratively speaking. But by making audio recordings of yourself during practice sessions and lessons, you can learn to listen to your playing with a focused ear and undivided attention. Video recordings can also be helpful.

Here are a few tips on what to do after you hit the “record” button.

Make Yourself a ‘Third-Person’ Listener

It’s perfectly understandable if you initially feel awkward listening to yourself. “It’s like looking in the mirror at yourself,” says Lewis Kaplan, a member of the Juilliard School’s violin faculty. “You see a blemish on your skin that no one else notices, but to you it’s the biggest thing. It’s hard to be objective.”

Your task is to train yourself to hear what you actually played and not what you think you played. “One of the major challenges for a musician is to develop a ‘third-person view’ of the musical performance,” says Catherine Cho, another Juilliard violin faculty member. “Very often, a musician will have an impression of the projection of musical ideas based on the way it ‘felt’ and sounded under the ear, and yet when listening to a recording is surprised by the discrepancy between the ‘first-person view’ and the ‘third-person view’ of this same performance.”


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So step outside yourself and make yourself think as someone else, or as a “third person,” when you play back your recording. Cho suggests recording small sections of music during practice. Then, think with a discerning “third-person” ear when you’re listening for intonation, tone, phrasing, or other issues you want to improve. Assume the role of the self-teacher and practice, then re-record.

Try recording your lessons, too, says Cho. During a lesson, it can be hard to process and retain all the material you cover. But when you listen to a recording of the lesson later, you can take the time to absorb and digest small segments of the lesson, make notes in your score, and listen to changes in your playing. Again, this is another way to develop the “third-person viewpoint,” Cho says. (Hearing your teacher on the recording, you might also feel his or her support and get a mental boost during practice.)

Video Can Capture Your Physical Approach to Playing

Video recordings are also highly useful, says Judy Bossuat-Gallic, a skilled trainer and teacher of the Suzuki Method , who keeps a tripod in her studio that students or parents can use to position a video recorder. Video gives students a clear view of their posture and position. “You can notice what you like, and see what you did to get that sound,” says Bossuat-Gallic. “Where were you in your bow? Or maybe you were pulling down on the instrument so your bow was down and you couldn’t keep it where it should be. If it’s on video, you can see exactly what’s going on and get highly analytical.”

Video recordings can work even with very young beginners, who might record just three or four notes.  “Kids are wired for visuals,” says Bossuat-Gallic.

If you do use video recordings, however, be aware of the potential for the visual element to distract you from what you’re hearing. “We’ve all seen performers whose body and facial expressions change what you hear,” says Bossuat-Gallic. “It can cloud what you’re hearing.”

Once you get accustomed to viewing and listening to your playing, don’t fall into the trap of hearing only what’s wrong and not what’s working well. “We can’t be too critical and lose the joy,” says Bossuat-Gallic. “Allow yourself to look at the positive and not just the negative. Look at what works and figure out why. Use recordings in a positive manner.”

A version of this article originally appeared in the May 2012 issue of Strings.

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