As another school year got underway and I began two new college teaching jobs I found myself thinking back on my time as an undergrad at Northwestern University. I learned an amazing amount in my four years there while studying with Rex Martin. He was the right teacher at the right time for me and I still rely on the musical foundation he built for me some 15 years ago on a daily basis.
However, as with all aspects of life, the older I get the more I realize that there are some things I would do differently if I were to experience my undergraduate studies again. I have decided to compile a list of the five things that I would do differently if I went back to Northwestern and did it all over again.
That being said, time has also shown me a number of things which I did during my studies which prepared me quite well for the career that I have had thus far in the music business. These are naturally things that I would be sure to do again. We can of course learn from our mistakes but also from our successes, both as musicians and in life.
I will post the five things I would do differently each day this week and then follow that up with the five things I would keep just as they were next week. I hope you enjoy this topic as much as I’ve enjoyed brainstorming about it!
Five Things I Would Do Differently as a College Student: Record Myself Playing Significantly More
If there was only one thing that I could go back and “do over” from my undergraduate studies at Northwestern it would be to record myself playing a lot more frequently. I did it from time to time but not nearly as often as I should have. My tuba teacher, Rex Martin, told me to record myself all the time but I took his advice only a fraction of the time. Turns out, he knew what he was talking about!
The greatest teachers in the world can’t teach you some of the things that you can teach yourself by simply listening to your own recording. There is a lot of data coming out of your bell that no human being, no matter how talented, can pick up while in the process of playing the instrument. As the saying goes: “the tape doesn’t lie”.
Many students listen to recordings of themselves in concerts and public events but this alone is not enough. Practice sessions should regularly be recorded and listened to in addition to lessons, master classes, and rehearsals. Any opportunity to get feedback, both positive and negative, should not be wasted.
I was once giving a master class with Joe Alessi in which he was asked his advice on how to prepare for an audition. One of the things that stood out to me from his answer was that a candidate should spend equal amount of time listening to themselves on tape as they do practicing while getting ready for an audition. To drive home that point, he reiterated that if you practice your excerpts for two hours you should listen to a recording of yourself playing the material for a full two hours the same day.
With recent advances in technology, it has never been easier to both record yourself and to play it back. Many students have smart phones (like the iPhone or Droid) which have free programs (such as Blue FIRe) which utilize the microphone already included on the phone. It is quite easy to convert any file to mp3 format which can then be played on a portable music device (such as an iPod) which any college music major must own. I promise you, your teacher did not have the ability to listen to their practice session on the walk back to their dorm from a phone in their pocket!
It is important to note that you do not need an expensive microphone or any fancy equipment to learn a lot from your recording. Keep in mind that it will not sound as good as a heavily edited and remastered professional recording. But it doesn’t need be professional quality to learn a lot from it. I promise you…..if you hear yourself chop off a note early in order to take a breath one time on tape you won’t do it again. You don’t need a great sounding recording to hear something like that.
Finally, if you have never heard a recording of yourself be prepared to not like what you hear the first time. But don’t be discouraged! I don’t know a single musician who loved the first recording they ever heard of themselves. In addition to hearing your mistakes be sure to also do what Arnold Jacobs always used to preach: catch yourself doing something right. We need to quantify the good things in our playing so that we are sure to do them again.
Tomorrow: Take Piano More Seriously