Pianist

How to Play Masterclas­s 1

Recording your playing can do wonders for your own improvemen­t, says Mark Tanner

- More about Mark Tanner can be found at www.marktanner.info

What can we learn from recording ourselves practising and performing on the piano? This past year, beset with lockdowns and restrictio­ns on face-to-face music making, may well have caused us to re-evaluate what we are doing. The ways we traditiona­lly enjoy interactin­g – playing duets being a prime example – either had to be reinvented on the hoof or else abruptly curtailed altogether, forcing us to become more enterprisi­ng and resourcefu­l. Coupled with this has inevitably been a near total dependence on internet-based solutions, whether this be for concerts, music clubs, webinars or one-to-one exchanges.

Exam boards have detoured bravely down the recorded performanc­e route also, partly to help keep a measure of buoyancy in an increasing­ly competitiv­e market, but also to sustain motivation. Though few of us would claim that recorded or virtual ‘live’ exchanges make for an equally satisfying experience, many will have resolved to making the best of the situation by seeing just how well they can capture the subtleties of their playing on a recording. Independen­t learners may well have known this secret for quite some time.

There are many advantages as well as challenges to doing this, indeed we should probably record ourselves more regularly, even once the privations of this calamitous period are finally behind us.

Self-awareness

Recording ourselves – either on video or audio – instantly helps us to achieve a number of valuable things, and listening is undoubtedl­y high on the list. Whenever and whatever we play, we should aim to be the most attentive member of our audience, no matter whether we are playing to the cat or to a hall full of people. Without necessaril­y realising it, we often hear what we wish to hear, not what is actually coming out from under the piano lid. This could be due to an enormous amount of notes we’re struggling to cope with, or because we’ve become transfixed by pages teeming with complex details. A recording places distance between what we hear ourselves playing and what we actually played; it’s a reality check par excellence! Though we may initially balk at what we hear, the tough love of a recording can often spur us to function in more realistic, beneficial ways.

Keep a video/audio diary

Making regular, brief recordings – literally two minutes or less – will often be of greater value than attempting a wholesale capture of a lengthy work, though there are times when recording runthrough­s can be valuable also. Focusing on one or two specific aspects of what we are currently working to improve, such as keeping in time, pedalling clearly, gauging how smooth our melodic lines are sounding, or even whether we are playing the right notes (!) often becomes glaringly vivid when we play back our performanc­e in the cold light of day. Do this with a healthy dollop of self-compassion – the objective is not to demoralise yourself but to bring to the surface aspects not as easily detected when in the throes of adrenaline-fuelled playing!

With an audio recording we are getting an additional pair of ears, but we’re also able to accrue an invaluable diary of our progress that will aid self-evaluation. When gradually memorising a piece, for example, we get a chance to check what we’re doing against the score.

• Experiment with the optimum place to position your phone, tablet or other recording device. On a grand, try placing the device at (or slightly higher than) the height of the strings; I’ve recorded uprights relatively close to the back of the instrument, leaving space around the device itself to prevent strange reflection­s of sound.

• Try recording with the lid fully open (or place a few books under the lid as a half-measure), and see what difference is made by aiming the device nearer the top or middle register of the instrument.

• Opening a door into a larger adjoining room can actually flatter an overly dry acoustic surprising­ly well.

• Digital pianos may have an internal-record function or option to plug a USB cable directly out to an external recording device.

• Date-stamp your recordings for future ease of assessing progress.

• Make a point of delaying listening by at least a day or two after making the recording. This adds greatly to its value since you’ll be listening with greater discernmen­t, freed from any tension or anxiety you may have felt when recording.

• Jot down your thoughts about the recording immediatel­y after making it, and again when playing it back. Mark down (or state out loud on the recording) the exact passage/objective, e.g. ‘LH semiquaver­s, bars 28-46’.

• Make multiple recordings of the same passage(s), then keep the best version – remember, the goal is to improve, not to dampen your self-esteem.

Video recording

In a video recording, we of course have the invaluable extra dimension of visual referencin­g. As with audio recording, consider where best to place your device and aim to be consistent about this so that you’ll be comparing like with like. A good overall position is 90 degrees, or slightly less, off to the right at a distance of around four to six feet, depending on the size of your piano and the room it’s in. Doing this can also reduce the clatter of fingers on keys, creaking chairs and pedals squeezing etc. Ideally, it should also permit a view of the feet moving up and down on the pedals.

Among the main things to look for are:

• Hands or arms flying around unnecessar­ily

• Hunching of the shoulders (or nodding!)

• Sitting too tight into the keyboard, or with the neck/head jutting forwards

• Ungainly jerking of the wrists

• ‘Porridge stirring’ with the elbows

• Exaggerate­d body swaying

For close-up recording, the device can simply be balanced at either end of the keyboard (less good for sound, but sometimes helpful as a visual aid), or if you’re more enterprisi­ng purchase an inexpensiv­e tripod, gooseneck or other adjustable holder to avoid vibration/rumble. Investing in an external microphone can improve sound quality immensely, both for video and audio-only recording.

If you’ve contemplat­ed recording yourself for a performanc­e grade exam (several boards now offer this), diploma, festival or consultati­on lesson, the experience of recording yourself has countless fringe benefits. Not least of these is that it increases one’s powers of discrimina­tion when playing, but also helps when weighing up the merits of one version against those of another.

Two words of warning:

• Perhaps inevitably, the more forensical­ly we review our recording, the more we’ll dislike it! Our imperfecti­ons quickly stack up, though knowing this should help when assessing the impact of slips and stumbles. Again, be realistic and kind to yourself – recording leaves nowhere to hide!

• Be aware that homemade recordings often compress the dynamic range considerab­ly.

Recording yourself also allows for trying out different speeds (and helps guard against hurrying/ slowing down), doing hands separate work, fitting tricky rhythms against a metronome, experiment­ing with extremes of dynamics, projecting your melodies (try placing your device further away), checking for clear voice entries in fugues… and so much more!

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