Monday, January 11, 2010

The Humbling Effect of the Recording Studio

You think you know a piece. And then you're quickly disavowed of that notion when you sit down in the studio and press the "record" button. I attempted to record Fantasia #10 last night. More than anything I wanted to see what kind of sound I would get from my simple recording set-up; however, I'd hoped if the recording quality were ok that I'd get enough decent material to call this one recorded.

Number 10 has three movements (a tempo giusto, presto, and moderato). I think I got enough for complete takes of the first two, but not the third. It's easy when you're practicing to not even notice those little broken or flubbed notes--you play right on through them as if they never happened. But tape (or in this case, memory card) doesn't lie. And it's most unforgiving.

We ask a lot of our brains when we play music. Producing a recording while playing the music asks a whole lot more. If I've learned a piece well, much of it goes on auto-pilot when I play. That doesn't mean it plays itself; that just means I don't have to focus too much mental energy on certain functions like fingerings or the shape of my mouth, so that I can refocus that energy on more subtle things like how big a breath will I need to take two measure from now so that I have enough support to play that crescendo that's coming up on the next line. That kind of thing.

Think of your drive to work. The first time you drive there, you're looking at the directions, focusing mainly on getting from point A to point B. After you know the route your brain starts focusing on more nuanced decisions like: ok, I'd better get in the left lane soon because the right lane is about to slow down because everyone's trying to merge to get the exit ramp. That's much more subtle than just getting from A to B.

When you're alone in the practice room you don't necessarily do a good job preparing your brain for the barrage of other thoughts that will go through your head while playing in a different context. When I play with others, I'm thinking of my playing in the context of the other musicians and incorporating the music coming out of my horn into the whole. And when I'm recording something, I'm keeping track of errors and starting and stopping points and whether or not something is going to require additional takes. Not sure if that sounds like much, but it's very distracting, and it's a distinctly non-musical distraction. Music is kind of a linear activity--you play the note and you move on to the next. If you spend too much time dwelling on the note you just played, it's hard to focus on the one you're about to play. When you're engineering a recording, you need to pay special attention to the thing that just happened--i.e., was that ok?--and you don't care so much about what's about to happen. Two distinct and competing brain functions.

Think of this old brain teaser: Name the color of each word below. If you're able to read English, it's a little hard to force yourself to see the color while ignoring the word itself, particularly if you do it quickly.


Again, two distinct and competing brain functions.

Suffice it to say, playing with a recorder going is very different from playing without.

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