As jazz musicians, we are constantly trying to improve and become better players. We do this of course by spending lots of time practicing, jamming with others, and hopefully playing gigs.
But one important aspect is often missing. We forget that we need to track our progress.
Now I want you to try to forget your identity as a musician for a second and put yourself in the shoes of a CEO. Let’s say a CEO from a big hat making company. You are selling hats and you have a lot of employees to pay, product to ship, and all the other expenses running a hat company requires.
Now of course the goal is that your hat company is going to make a profit, and you also want to see the company grow and improve, right? In order to do that you need to be tracking sales and asking the important questions.
How did we do this year compared to last year? How was this month compared to last month? How was this month compared to this same month last year?
You want to see if there is progress. You want to make sure the bills will be paid, and the company grows. But it’s not enough just to look at the information. You also want to be using the information so you can figure out how to improve.
For example, you notice that in the 3rd week of August you saw a huge jump in sales. Wow! Where did that come from? Well it happens to be you launched a new hat design to the public and it was a real hit! You then look back at the last hat design release and notice the launch sales were significantly less. Hmmm. Why would that be?
So you ask yourself, what was so good about this new hat design that caused it to do so well? And equally as important, what was it about the other hat that needed improvement?
You are constantly evaluating the performance of the company, seeing where things went well, and where things could improve. This self-evaluation is critical to the companies success. If you aren’t doing it, the company could very well under perform, and possibly collapse completely!
Now drift back to reality, away from your hat company fantasies, and become a musician again.
Let’s start asking some of those same questions:
How is your playing now compared to last year? How does the band sound during this rehearsal vs. the last rehearsal?
After working on this tune for a month, how does my improvisation sound on it now compared to when I first started?
What did I like about my playing on that gig?
What did I not like about my playing on that gig?
What was the difference between how my solo sounded compared to my favorite musicians?
What are you doing here? You are tracking your progress, and figuring out how you can improve.
The importance of recording yourself
When you are in the zone at a jam session, gig, or even in your practice room, you are unable to fully evaluate your playing in the moment. You may remember a line you fudged, or a really cool lick you played, but by the time it’s all over you can’t completely piece together how it went.
This is because we only remember moments. You know when people say stuff like, wow that year went by so fast! It’s not that the year actually went by quicker than others, it’s because we only remember moments of the year, and we don’t remember all of the time in between.
Therefore, as musicians it’s incredibly important that we are recording ourselves and listening back.
We need to evaluate ourselves. We need to listen back and ask: where did I miss the changes? Am I rushing? Am I dragging? Do I need to work on fast tempos? Do I need to work on jazz language?
At the same time it’s important to note the successes of what you played. Perhaps you played a rhythmic figure or melodic line that you really like. Well guess what? That is uniquely yours. No one played it exactly the way you did, or thought about it in the moment the way you did. Maybe you should latch on to that!
If we take the time to listen back to a gig, rehearsal, or jam session, we can get some really great insight on what we need to be practicing.
Questions to ask when listening back
I’ve already spit out a few in the last several paragraphs but let me explain a little bit deeper.
When you listen back, what part makes you cringe? What part makes you go, yikes, that didn’t turn out the way I would have hoped. If you didn’t like it, that means you are already taking the first step to improving it. Identify it, and come up with a plan to fix it.
When you listen back, what parts make you feel bored? Maybe you didn’t hate it, but you felt like it didn’t excite you. Why? For me, especially when I first started recording myself, I often found that my solos didn’t have a start, climax and a conclusion. They were too monotone. That’s because I wasn’t building my solo. I wasn’t always telling a good story. However by identifying this, I could then embarking on the path to correcting it.
In general, what aspects make you feel unsatisfied? Perhaps you feel like you don’t play the chord changes as well as you would like to. Maybe you feel like you repeat the same ideas too often. Maybe you feel like you wish you could play longer lines or need more space.
What parts did you really like? There have been times when I came home from a gig feeling like it went terrible. My playing felt off, I wasn’t focused. But when I listened back to the recording I was pleasantly surprised by what I heard. Maybe not everything, but parts of it exceeded my expectations. As I said earlier, pay close attention to those moments, because these are where your greatest potential lie in waiting.
2 warnings about recording yourself
- You might be the kind of person who is too hard on yourself. Recording yourself isn’t about showing you how much you suck. It’s about revealing how you can improve. The need for improvement is not a negative thing, it’s a positive thing. Some people just have a hard time seeing it that way though, and I can sympathize. I’ve been there at times too. Don’t let recording yourself cause you to hate your playing. This is also why it is important to observe your successes as well.
- Don’t get obsessed. Remember when you were the CEO of the successful hat company? Well you couldn’t be looking at the numbers every second or necessarily even every day. If you did you might go crazy and get stressed out! As a musician you can’t do that either. It’s not necessary to record yourself all of the time, every time. Remember we are tracking our progress, and progress in music doesn’t usually happen overnight.
Some product recommendations for recording yourself
Most certainly you can use an iPhone to record yourself, or even a video camera. But there are some great recording devices out there that are perfect for carrying around for rehearsals, gigs, and jam sessions. I personally have a Zoom that I put to good use. Here are just a few to consider:
In conclusion, we need to track our progress and ask the questions that will help us become better players. If you aren’t recording yourself from time to time, start now. This could play a huge role in your progress as a jazz musician.