A couple days ago I released my ‘Jazz Practice Studio Set Up Guide’ where I share some of my favorite practice studio tools and resources. If you never saw that you can download it here.
Over the next few posts in this series we’re gonna dig in a bit deeper to each tool in particular and to the underlying strategies and best practices. This is all in the name of you becoming good at practicing. And using the best tools available, to help you get better faster.
Have you ever had one of those light bulb moments when something really important just clicks for you?
Maybe you read an article or watched a video by some heavy cat like Dave Liebman or Kenny Werner. Maybe it just comes to you in the shower or on your way to work.
Or maybe it’s something your teacher says to you in passing. But the timing is perfect and it just clicks and you’re like ‘ah ha’, that’s how that works!
Yeah, that’s pretty much the best thing when that happens. Because sometimes one little ‘ah ha moment’ can change your music. And your life.
I remember one of my biggest light bulb moments back at a lesson with my teacher Hal Crook.
I had been struggling for awhile with the concept of playing what you hear. You know what I mean. I used to hear cats say things like ‘if you don’t hear it, don’t play it’ or ‘just let go and let your ear guide your playing’ or ‘you gotta have big ears to play jazz’.
I really wanted to play by ear. I wanted to play what I heard. I knew I liked that concept, but I didn’t quite know what it meant. I wasn’t really sure if I had ever actually experienced it or how to make it happen.
What I did know is that I often struggled at gigs to let go, and just let my ears guide my playing. I would often feel like I didn’t know what to play, I didn’t know how to respond to the other cats in the band and none of the stuff I had being working on in the shed ever seemed to flow out through my instrument.
I struggled like that for literally years. Until I did something about it. I asked my teacher Hal.
Hal dropped a simple but profound truth on me: The best players are the best listeners. And then he went on to explain that the most effective way to become a good listener is to record yourself playing jazz and LISTEN to it.
This is such an important and powerful method that Hal mentions it MANY times throughout his books and even more often in his ensembles and private lessons.
In fact it was always assumed that you would bring 2 tapes to your lesson. One to record the whole lesson so you could take it home and listen back, gleaning the many jazz wisdom bombs he would sprinkle throughout a single session.
And the second one was used to record & critique yourself playing during your actual lesson, with Hal’s guidance.
For Hal, Recording & Critiquing wasn’t just a practice strategy or technique.
It was HOW you practiced. It was the WAY to practice. Everyday, all day.
I’ve written many times about recording yourself practicing. About why it’s important and exactly how to do it. If you haven’t seen those articles and lessons just reply to this email and I’ll send you a link or two.
Suffice it to say, recording yourself regularly will change your playing profoundly. Don’t believe me? Fine, try it yourself for a week.
- It will Teach you things about your own playing you never knew were there.
- It will make you into a ‘listener’.
- It will familiarize you with your own vocabulary, your habits and your musical tendencies.
- It will help you develop ‘big ears’ so you can hear the details in your playing AND the whole band at the same time.
- It will help you develop a macro view of the music so you can actually develop a cohesive solo that tells a story. While still keeping the audience engaged.
- It will help you surrender to your ear when playing so the music flows from you rather than feeling like you’re forcing it out of you.
- It will teach you to play by ear.
- It will help you get into the zone when you play.
- It will make you a better player, learner and practicer.
It will truly make a profound difference in your playing if you do it consistently.
So, If you ever struggle to let your ears guide your playing…
If you ever struggle to play what you hear…
If you ever feel like you’re not listening, like your totally self-absorbed in your own playing to the detriment of the band…
Make recording your playing a regular habit. Record something you’re working on or a solo you took with a band and listen back to it 5X in a row. Do that everyday for a week and see for yourself.
Become a good listener.
The best players are the best listeners.
Okay, so you got that point. Record yourself. Dig it.
But how? I mean technically speaking. What software, mics or gear do you use?
Well, that’s exactly what we’re gonna dig into in this lesson.
I want to emphasize one point here. This doesn’t have to be complicated, fancy or expensive.
You’re goal here is not to produce a studio quality record. You’re trying to learn and grow as a player. In fact the last time I took a lesson with the great Hal Crook he was still using a tape cassette player from the early 90’s to record his own practice. So don’t get hung up on that aspect of things. In fact you almost certainly have a piece of gear sitting in your pocket right now that you could start recording your sessions with.
Cool, let’s get started.
Let’s talk software. There are many options out there from free to expensive & world-class. If you happen to have Pro Tools by all means use it. But you do not need a world-class recording rig to reap the benefits of this practice.
Personally, I use Sound Forge. Why? Because I had to buy it for a class 7 years ago and that’s what I have. So that’s what I use. I’ve used it to record practice sessions, band rehearsals, practice groups, interviews, courses, YouTube videos, you name it. It’s a a wave file editor that you can record to. There are no multi-track recording options or anything fancy like that.
I simply use a USB mic and record straight into Sound Forge. And that’s more than good enough to record my practice. I also use it to transcribe and learn vocabulary.
Of course there are many, many options for software.
But you can get everything you need from free or affordable software like Audacity or even Garage Band. If you’re an iPad user you probably already have garage band installed and are ready to record using the built in mic.
Ah, Let’s Talk MICS:
Okay, full disclosure: I am not a sound engineer and I don’t play one on the interweb. I don’t know much about the world of mics but I do know what works for me.
I like to keep things simple so I just use a USB mic these days. I plug it straight into my computer and I’m good to go. The mic I use is the Snowball by Blue Microphones. It does the job and makes a solid, clear recording that I can learn from. Last I checked it cost around 69 bucks.
Again, you might be able to just use the mic on your computer or device. If you play a louder instrument like drums you probably want to invest in a mic that handle the volume a little better.
Blue makes a whole spectrum of mics. One of their better ones is The Yeti. I’ve recorded rehearsals and gigs with just that one mic that sounded absolutely fantastic. Again more than you need for just recording your practice sessions. But they do sound great.
ALL IN ONE SOLUTIONS:
There are also several all-in-one solutions. Field recorders I believe is the right term. One of the most popular ones and most recommended ones is the zoom H4N. You can carry this little guy around in your case or back pack and easily record any practice session, rehearsal, lesson or gig. The sound is high quality and you can dump it on to your computer to save it, listen back, or share it with your band.
Another obvious solution is your iPhone or smart phone. You can record sessions with that as is depending on how much space you have on your device. The built in mic sounds good enough for most practice situations. Probably not great for a band or a drummer. But good enough to get started and obviously you can take it with you anywhere.
You can also upgrade and get a standalone mic for your phone that will turn it into a high quality, travelling recording studio. I’ve never personally used one of these but I will be picking up the Mickey – again by Blue – for my own phone.
These mics just plug right into the main input on your phone.
I’ve also heard and read great things about the APOGEE MIC 96K. Again, I’ve never actually used one of these. But it’s something to consider and check out.
The thing to remember is this:
Don’t worry about getting perfect gear. Start with what you have today, even if that’s 1987 cassette deck that you bought for 50 cents at a yard sale. You can always upgrade later. But get started now.
Like I said, nothing will impact your playing more dramatically than recording and critiquing yourself playing music.