Listening to your own playing is just about the best way I know to get a realistic idea of where you are and what you sound like. Often, just like hearing a recording of your own voice, you are amazed at the difference between the way that you think you sound and the way that you really do.
Funnily enough, the more we practise something, the more prone we are to to deceive ourselves into a false perception of how it sounds. This is because once we know how something should sound, it's very easy for our brain to take our approximation of that sound, and trick us into thinking it is actually an accurate reproduction of a sound we are familiar with.
Have a look at the first sentence of the last paragraph. Did you notice the repeated word?
Funnily enough, the more we practise something, the more prone we are to to deceive ourselves into a false perception of how it sounds
Top marks if you spotted it, but if you didn't it will serve as a good example of how easy it is for our brain to tweak things so that we perceive them not as they are, but as we may expect them to be.
You've probably come across the following text before as it has pretty much become an email meme by now, but it's another example of how our brains take information from the senses and then just basically lie to us about it!
Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe
Sometimes when we play or listen to music, a similar process can occur where we don't hear what is actually being played, but a memory of a sound which our brain has determined is close enough to what our ears took in.
This can work to our advantage sometimes and allows musicians to imply rather than play certain notes, grooves, basslines and so on. This is why it's so important to listen to music from the whole history of jazz - because familiarity with the roots of the music allows us to hear the notes that aren't being played in later forms. Without knowledge of the earlier idioms, the brain is unable to 'fill in the gaps' when a modern musician implies certain material instead of stating it explicitly.
However, this can also work against us in our own playing because if we're not conscious of this phenomenon then we can overlook deficiencies in our facility and execution which an audience, naturally less familiar with our material, would hear clearly.
This is why recording is so important, because it allows you to listen with the detachment of an audience rather than the involvement of the player. When you are trying to play something on your instrument, you conceive the way you want it to sound in your musical mind and then your body tries to turn that conception into sound. Often we think we're hearing what we're playing, but it's really that internal conception of the sound that is coming through.
This is why you can play something you're perfectly happy with only to discover there are issues you weren't aware of when you listen to it back. Things like rhythmic errors, speeding up and slowing down, weaknesses in articulation and so on are really easy for our brains to gloss over in the proverbial heat of battle.
Getting into the habit of recording yourself regularly will allow you to discover what you truly sound like and will show you exactly where you are as a player. Remember, the recording never lies and though it can be frustrating to hear that you really don't play something as well as you thought you did, it's much better to know your weaknesses and be able to do something about them if you want to improve as a player.
One final tip: The longer the interval between the actual playing and the listening back, the more accurately you will perceive your own playing. If you play something and then listen to it straight away, the fresh memory of performing that material can still distort your perception of how it sounds.
Again this can work in two ways - either we are still hearing our conception of the way we intended to play and don't notice any errors or (and in my experience this is more likely), we remember making mistakes in the performance so they are magnified in our minds and we hear them much more prominently than we would otherwise.
This is why it's possible to listen to your playing and think you were terrible, only to revisit the same recording a few days later and realise you were nowhere near as bad as you thought - the memory of the performance has faded and you're not remembering and magnifying mistakes in your mind.
This is also why you should never try and select takes or mix tracks on the day of a studio recording - your memory of the performance is too strong and you never get the right result. In fact, I wish someone had explained this to me years ago and I would have saved myself a tidy sum on studio time!
As always, I hope you've found this information useful. I'm off on holiday next week and will be attempting to have as little to do with computers and technology as possible so it'll be two weeks before my next post. If you're desperate for a PlayJazz fix, then it might be worth having a rummage through the surprisingly large amount of material in the archives which I was recently astonished to realise stretch all the way back to 2008.
Until next time...