Legendary violin instructor Ivan Galamian, teacher of virtuoso Itzhak Perlman, when asked about using tape recorders for practice, replied, “Put the recorder in your ear.” He meant that the ability to hear oneself is an important skill to learn.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t benefits to recording your practice sessions. In fact, Galamian also said listening to oneself too subjectively, or not critically enough, can hinder progress. Ultimately, the place a tape recorder should occupy in your practice regimen lies somewhere between Galamian’s two statements: while going to the tape should not be relied on too heavily, it does have its advantages.
Sometimes, when you are singing or playing a difficult passage, you can be so involved that it is difficult to listen objectively. Recording yourself, at least occasionally, gives you a chance to sit back and hear your sound. Don’t be hypercritical, just learn to recognize what sounds good and what needs work.
Just as most people are surprised by how their voice sounds when they hear a recording of it, you may be surprised when you hear your tone, phrasing, dynamics, and rhythm. But with greater awareness of what you sound like, you’re better equipped to decide what aspects of your playing need work and to plan your practice time in order to reach your goals.
A word about equipment. Recording yourself on a tinny tape recorder (assuming you can find one these days) may not allow you to hear the full dynamics of your playing, especially on an instrument with a large frequency range, such as a flute or saxophone.
A better quality recording device is needed, although that doesn’t mean you have to break the bank. Recording equipment manufacturers still produce basic four-track tape recorders, such as the Fostex X-12 or Tascam MF-P01 recorders. These days, four track recorders are inexpensive, easy to use, and produce high quality recordings (after all, this is the technology The Beatles used to record the Sgt. Pepper album). If you are in a combo, four tracks can easily accommodate guitar, bass, drums, and vocals. If you are a solo artist, a four track will also let you play a duet with yourself!
Analysis—Taping can be a great way to learn how to listen objectively, a way to understand and differentiate different techniques so that you can eventually hear yourself critically while playing without tape or a teacher.
Technique—Taping a practice session can help you analyze individual technical aspects of your playing, such as whether you keep a steady tempo, play with the right expression or dynamics, or play with accurate intonation and clean articulation.
Honesty—A tape recorder gives you immediate and honest feedback. Be careful though: a tape recorder won’t necessarily capture the true sound and feel of playing in a concert hall or other live situation.
Progress—Recording lets you archive your progress. One technique is to record a piece you’re preparing for performance; you can listen to the recordings regularly to check your improvement.
Comparison—Another technique is record yourself playing a short passage, then compare it with a professional recording of the same passage to analyze differences in structure and technique between you and the professional.