No Pain, No Gain
by Howard Morgen
(Taken from the book, Howard Morgen's Solo Guitar.)
Listening critically and objectively to oneself while singing or playing is difficult, if not impossible, for most musicians. Singers have a particularly hard time because the sound heard in the head is not the sound heard by the listener. It's somewhat easier for instrumentalists because the sound is produced outside the body, but the concentration it takes to play can easily distract attention from important aspects of a performance. This is certainly true for guitarists who deal with multi-voiced music. How easy it is to deceive oneself into clearly "hearing" notes that are not being articulated cleanly, or not sounded at all!
And so, hour after hour of well-intentioned practicing is often wasted with aimless, unfocused repetition of error and correction in the hope that everything will eventually come together. But until a player can, through a process of careful, attentive listening, take conscious and deliberate control of each element that goes into the making of a good performance, real command of the material is unlikely. More simply put, if you can't hear where the problem is, you can't fix it!
One way out of this dilemma is to have a good teacher who can act as that necessary extra set of ears, but that teacher usually can't be there as you practice. The most simple, practical, and rewarding answer is to consistently record your playing. While most of us regularly use recorders for transferring music from other sources, taping concerts, and copping licks, few incorporate it as an integral part of the daily practice routine. For many, once that recorder is activated, the stress factor takes over and the mistakes begin to multiply. It's a very unpleasant, disquieting feeling when you hear a piece you think you've "nailed" start to unravel. Listening can be downright painful to the ego! That's the bad news. The good news is that if you can accept or even welcome those nerves and negative feelings as dues you must pay for real and permanent progress, they can be used to your advantage.
First of all, it's normal to feel increased stress and weakened concentration during a live performance, so it's beneficial to train yourself to function under this kind of pressure. Second, you should uncover as many potential trouble spots as possible during the practice session and before a performance. In a very real sense, the more "clams" you make due to nerves, the better.
You'll be surprised how quickly your performances will start to shape up if you focus first on the parts that displease you the most and then find ways to make the necessary corrections. Just be patient with yourself and don't try to record "perfect takes" at first. Remember, you're the only one who is going to hear those early efforts. Be prepared to record many times. You need to systematically attend to as many aspects of your performance as possible (tone, dynamics, phrasing, interpretation, technique, tempo, etc.), and you can't possibly hear them all on one playback.
It's also a good idea to use a metronome or drum machine while recording to avoid rushing or dragging the beat and to help you find the tempos that feel "in the pocket." Remember, as Duke Ellington said a long time ago, "It Don't Mean A Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing."
It won't take long for you to convince yourself of the value of consistent self-appraisal - you'll probably accomplish more in one day of this kind of intense workout with a tape recorder than in weeks or even months of second-guessing and wishful thinking.