I’ve been practicing a lot to get my new solo act together, and that means recording and listening a lot, too. I’ve realized that every breakthrough I’ve ever had in my playing, all the way back to the early days of my rock harmonica work with Sweatband in 1974-75, and including the prep for recording my CD The Act of Being Free in One Act, was the result of a daily cycle of recording myself and listening to the recordings.
Dennis Gruenling said in his workshop at the Virgina Harmonicafest in March 2011 that he thinks every practice session should include some serious listening too. He meant listening to other artists and to styles that you want to learn, but I find that listening to my own recent playing every day is a powerful way to separate the crap from the cream. I hear myself in a completely different way when I’m listening live versus listening to a recording. To put it bluntly, when I’m playing live, my opinion is less reliable than when I’m studying a recording. Stuff that seems to work maybe doesn’t; stuff that seems simple and stupid maybe isn’t.
Nobody gets better unless they play lots, and I’ve benefited plenty from the words of geniuses like Kenny Werner, whose book Effortless Mastery describes an essential practice regimen that is guaranteed to teach you how to get to the zone and stay there. But playing isn’t enough for me. I have to hear myself to know whether the practice is paying off. And so my Zoom H4 is waiting, fresh batteries loaded and plenty of room on the SD card, at every practice session now, and I make time afterwards to listen.
If you’re not recording your own practice sessions, start. Handheld cassette recorders are available for cheap at Radio Shack, and for $100 you can get a Zoom H1 that’ll make live digital recordings that are more than good enough to share with other people too. But whatever you’ve got, it’s good enough to let you hear yourself in a different and powerfully productive way. So whatever you’ve got, turn it on when you start playing, and listen closely afterwards. You’ll get a lot farther a lot faster than you would otherwise.