Your artistic agency

For a long time I have been aware that my students do not have a sense of what they sound like. When I suggest that they record themselves, I frequently get a dismissive reply such as “Yeah, that’s a good idea.” But then there is no follow through. With my adult students I get the reply “I can’t stand to hear myself play” or “the sound quality is terrible.” In this day and age of cell phones with a variety of recording apps available, there really is no excuse for not recording oneself on a regular basis.

One could ask the question “What did musicians do before the advent of sound recording?” Even when I was a child in the 70’s, the ability to record oneself was still not very easy. Musicians relied on feedback from listeners such as other musicians, teachers, friends and family members. It placed a lot of trust in these individuals and emotional boundaries were challenging to navigate. As an antidote, we learned how to read the room. We learned how to aurally evaluate the acoustics of a room. As we musicians tend to be a very sensitive population, we also learned to evaluate the bias of the listener, be it audition committee, teacher, critical family member, or fan.

Musicians today are incredibly lucky. You have the ability to self reference in terms of evaluating your own sound. You can cut out the middle man and make accurate decisions about your music based on what you hear in your own playing. It is still helpful to understand acoustics and it is important to be open to both positive and critical feedback. It is profound to be able to own your sound. From this vantage point, you can orient yourself in terms of your overall tone quality, intonation, and volume of sound. You can determine how effective you are communicating style, emotional content, and technique. You now have artistic agency.

With my teenage students, I find that they do not always have a sense of how little dynamic contrast they are producing. I relate this to stage actors’ makeup. I ask “Have you ever seen an actor in stage makeup perhaps wandering in the hallway during intermission?” Students are usually proud to inform me that they have seen this at school. I ask “Doesn’t that makeup look really extreme but just normal on stage?” I make the analogy of having to be really extreme with dynamic changes. When it is clear to me that the student is not going to record him or herself, I have demonstrated by having the student move 10 feet away from me. I play a passage with and without noticeable dynamics. I have even recorded a student in a lesson and listened back with the student to prove not only that the dynamics changes were not audible but also to point out the value of recording oneself.

Making audio recordings is valuable for the most part but video recording has its value as well. Especially during the beginning of the pandemic, producing video recordings and streaming were used to replace live music. In this case, video recording for practice was essential. However, video recording also has its place in preparing for public concerts. Recitals these days must have an education component. Audiences expect classical musicians to talk about the music they are performing. Video recordings can help you feel more comfortable about the non-musical part of your performance. Notice how often you make eye contact with the audience. Notice whether you feel comfortable with the information you are sharing. Notice whether you look natural in the wording of your verbal content. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to work so hard on your music to then feel stressed about the public speaking portion of your program. I have been caught in this situation myself. Speaking definitely needs to be part of the rehearsal process and included in the dress rehearsal. Be sure to make it part of your rehearsal schedule.

Video recording can also dispel myths about what you look like when you play the violin. Friends and family may inadvertently say something disturbing about the way you look when you play. I’ve heard colleagues comment to each other about how they look when they play the violin and in so doing, make references to a particular ethnic group even when meant as a compliment. This kind of over generalization can be very confusing and cause one to become self conscious about appearance in addition to one’s sound. Conservatory teachers from an older generation may not be familiar with appropriate language concerning gender and/or ethnicity. They may actually feel it is their duty to inform you about what audiences may think of your physical appearance. Video recording has the capacity to clear up these misconceptions. I sincerely hope that conservatories and the classical music industry have become more open minded.

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