How to listen to yourself

I’ve recently created some exercises for my upcoming book on alto trombone that are built to improve intonation when playing trombone. Among other things, I’ve recorded Bach choral #50, a four-part harmony of In the Wee Small Hours and Rochut #1 with a harmony part. I’ve recorded versions of each whereby one part is missing for play-along. I’ve provided the music for each of the parts so that you can play, for example, the second voice of the Choral with the recording of parts one, three and four. You can do the same with any of the parts to any of the pieces.

Simple enough, right? Well, it is if you simply play through them to the best of your ability and call it a day. But that misses pretty much the entire point of the exercise. The exercises are not under the category of sight reading, they are under “Improving Your Intonation”.

To a trombone player friend of mine, I gave the Bach Choral play-along exercise with the corresponding audio file omitting the third part in order to get his input. He later reported back to me that he played it through and thought it was pretty easy. Knowing the answer before asking the question, I asked him if he recorded himself playing it. He said he hadn’t so I suggested that he record himself playing it along with the recording of the other three parts and send it to me so I could hear the result.

A week later, he wrote to say that after hearing the recording of himself, he realized that it was much harder than he initially thought. He had recorded seven takes and still didn’t have one worthy of sending me to evaluate. He added, “I think the exercise will be thought of as easy – but they MUST record.”

The ear and mind play tricks on us. Maybe not tricks exactly, but we tend to filter out certain shortcomings when we play. We think we sound better than we actually do. I speak from experience. As someone who records almost daily, I never cease to be surprised by the things I hear in the recording that I didn’t pick up while I was playing. Often it is a slight tempo drag. Sometimes I swear it’s the digital conversion latency in the equipment, and sometimes it is. But often it’s not. It’s the latency between my brain, ear and chops!

The same can be said for pitch. I almost never hear the recorded intonation as true as I thought I played. To be fair, there are a lot of things on our mind as we play trombone. Reading, breathing, slide movement, mic proximity, room acoustics, the environment and the others with whom we are playing, etc. So it’s not shocking that we don’t hear as accurately as when we simply sit and listen to the recording. Listening to the recording provides us the luxury of focusing on just one thing.

Due to my friend’s recent input, I’ve since added some additional emphasis in the book on recording and critical listening. It’s encouraged elsewhere in the book, but my friend reminded me that without it, the value of many of the exercises in the book are greatly diminished. I recently added the following:

  • Resist the temptation to simply run through the next three pieces of music then move on.
  • These intonation exercises are deceptively hard. The notes are not difficult but playing them in tune is.
  • We all possess a capacity to believe we’re playing better than we actually are, so listening back to recordings is the only objective way to accurately evaluate your playing.
  • The quality of the recording doesn’t matter so use your iPhone or small digital recorder. Position it so that you hear a balance between the recording and your part.
  • Listen back to the recording and be honest about what you can improve.

The answer to the title of this post, “How to listen to yourself” is: record and listen.There’s too much going on live to accurately and critically hear many of the nuances within your playing. Resist the temptation to avoid recording because you won’t like the result. The fact that you don’t like the result is exactly why you much record and listen.


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