Recordings…How, When, Why

Using audio recordings during practice is a commonly discussed and debated topic among musicians and music teachers throughout the world. “Suzuki method” teaching has been criticized for its over-reliance on recordings to teach students to learn by rote memory or imitation, thereby limiting the student’s motivation to learn to read musical notation. It is also said that students who learn purely by imitation of sound never learn to form their own interpretation of the music. These have some basis in reality as I look at results of various teaching approaches.

HOWEVER, why is it that so many “traditionally” trained violin students have trouble playing in tune, or playing with good tone quality on their instruments? And if music is all about the sound, isn’t a good model of sound required for students during development?

When I am trying to get a student to discriminate the difference between their sound and the “goal sound”, a recording is often the only way to transmit what happened in my studio to the child’s practice sessions at home.

Recordings – how and when to use them, and why they are sometimes necessary and at other times contraindicated – have been a constant source of thought and challenge for me as a teacher. I’ve used them, I’ve recommended them, and I’ve also worked hard to discourage them at times throughout my teaching experience so far. Here are some random thoughts inspired by my students on the subject of recordings.

HOW and WHEN to use (and not to use) recordings:

  • Listen first, then practice. This always seems to help. I find that in our media-rich environment, it takes extra focus to listen to an audio-only recording. This is a good practice for all of us. Even listening to the audio portion of a video tape (without watching) can be beneficial for most students.
  • Don’t practice ONLY by playing along with a recording (especially a concert recording!). Meaning, it’s OK to play along with the recording to see “where you are” relative to the goal – like, the first and the last time of the practice session – but not as your ONLY way of practicing. In general, I have found that it’s hard for most children to listen to themselves and a reference recording at the same time. I’ve observed that children who practice only with recordings think less while they are playing, and become more reactive than proactive. Also, the children are often fooled into thinking that they are making the sound on the recording if they are moving their bow at approximately the same rate, when in fact their own sound is imprecise or even grossly inaccurate. It’s better to listen first, notice something about the recording that you are going to copy, then think about that when you play it yourself. Listen carefully to see how it compares. Follow along with your eyes looking at the music while you listen. Often, just hearing a good reference recording first will help set the child’s mind to play in tune, in rhythm, and with good tone.
  • Listen to sections, not the whole piece from beginning to end. Same rule as with practicing. If you are going to practice one line at a time, then listen to that line only. Then practice it. Repeat as necessary. This is the equivalent of highlighting the relevant parts of a book you plan to refer to later, instead of having to flip through the entire book to find what you need.
  • Recordings made at SLOW TEMPOS can help certain students practice. Especially with my beginning toddlers, I have found that making custom recordings at various practice tempos is essential as they develop their coordination. Like a metronome, the sound of the recording helps them keep time as they get valuable repetitions of and feel the muscle movements required to make their own sound.
  • Recordings of a GOOD reference player are essential for developing musicality, tone quality, and stylistic elements. These role models must be chosen carefully in the earliest stages of development. We are all influenced by our environment. I personally have found it difficult to access really outstanding classical music without digging around in the archives of my recordings, or chasing down the very best live performance artists… As students of classical music, we are studying a language and tradition that is now gone from our mainstream culture and has to be sought out proactively. To develop a beautiful violin sound, you have to listen to violin music.
  • Recordings can help note-reading skills… Once the “mathematics” of music is introduced – ie, with reading rhythms – the final application is to hear the rhythm played, and to be able to play it accurately on your instrument. Some level of ear training (and technical skill on the instrument) is actually necessary before attempting to read and play from a written score. It’s tricky to translate listening only plus mechanics – which is how we start off with every toddler in our program – to listening, reading, PLUS mechanics. But it is possible…and it’s necessary, to become a well-rounded player.
  • …But, it’s also easy to develop both lazy ears and lazy eyes when you can rely on a recording. With most students in my program, hearing our Saturday morning repertoire classes on a biweekly basis and my piano accompaniment during their weekly lesson is enough exposure to the “big sound” of the group and the concert tempo of each piece. Most practicing – if it is to be truly deliberate – can and should be done without recordings. Used sparingly, they can be very effective (see above). But the most challenging time when I find I must discourage the use of recordings is when I transition the children to note-reading. I try to do this relatively early on, so that enough technical skill is established but not too much reliance on the ear has been ingrained. But even at this early stage (usually after only 2 years of study), my greatest challenge with many students is that they prefer the “easy route” of listening to a recording and “figuring it out”. In these cases, I have to choose sight-reading pieces that are off our group repertoire list to supplement their learning and “force” them to make sense of what is written on the page. Once this breakthrough happens, even if it is after a seemingly long and harrowing process, it actually frees the child tremendously to be able to look at the written music AND use their ears as tools in their learning. So brace yourselves for that transition, parents!
  • A recording can also be a great motivator. If you keep in mind that a recording is a GOAL to work toward and NOT the whole process to get you there, it’s a great way to kick-start your practicing by giving you the motivation to model your own sound after what you hear. How you get there is about THINKING and performing enough GOAL-ORIENTED REPETITIONS on a consistent basis to develop as a player. I think the greatest evidence that hearing model sound influences player development is the fact that with each “generation” of students in my program, their collective pace of learning has increased and their motivation to sound “like the bigger kids” is ever stronger.

Happy practicing and listening!

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