Recording your clarinet practice: How to do it, why to do it, and what to look/listen for after you do it.

If you are trying to get back into clarinet shape, I'm sure somebody has told you that you should record yourself. What they often forget to tell you is what to do with the recording after you make it. This post will give you some tips on what to look for.

How to record yourself

The first question is whether to record audio only or audio+video. In most cases video is the better choice. Video gives you much more information, and it's easy to do on your smart phone.  The question is where to put the phone. Usually you want a close-up of your body from top of head to bottom of clarinet:
Too much "dead space" around the picture makes it more difficult for you to see your body movements. You may need to choose a profile view or a front view depending on what problems you are looking for.

The biggest problem with recording with a phone is this -- to get the close-up picture the phone needs to be very close to you. When the phone is too close, the loud clarinet overloads the phone's mic and you get distortion of the audio. I did an informal survey of Etude of the Week posters asking what kind of equipment they used and where they placed the mic. Most used a cell phone about 3-4 feet away from the clarinet. Some used an external Zoom IQ6 mic on the iPhone. I usually don't record video on my phone. Instead, I use either my Zoom Q2N portable recorder or my desktop computer with a close-up camera and more distant external mic.

Strategies for recording

Record a recital piece as a dress rehearsal 
When I do this I try to play the piece from beginning to end, without stopping for mistakes. The video recorder serves as my audience. I am, in effect, practicing a performance.

Record a short section to check for a specific problem
There's a phrase, "deliberate practice" that Marc Gelfo of Modacity uses to describe this approach. First, pick one thing you want to improve. Second, pick a specific strategy you will use to make the improvement. Third, record yourself trying the strategy. Keep doing this until you find a strategy that works. Here is Marc's video describing his deliberate practice approach.

Record the entire practice session
I often do record the entire session in one long video, but I find it less useful than the other two approaches. I have the recording if I need to check something, but I rarely look at it.

Record a video to post online
This is one situation where I usually prefer to record audio only, because my audio recording equipment gives a much better quality recording.

What to to look for in the video

The figure above illustrates some bad habits to check for.

(1) Shows correct posture. Back straight, eyes forward, shoulders relaxed.
(2) Problem - Shoulder tension. I'm playing the really hard part, and I tense up.
(3) Problem - Head down, which constricts the throat. This often happens when your music stand is too low, and you have to look down to read the music. Raise your stand. You might also want to consider special music glasses that have a focal distance adjusted to about two feet in front of you.
(4) Problem - Fingers too far from the keys. Also, taking the teeth off the mouthpiece when breathing. This makes it difficult to reset the embouchure when playing fast passages.

Some other things not illustrated:

(5) Left wrist should not rotate when crossing the break.
(6) Embouchure
(7) Should be no movement in the throat when tonguing or moving across registers.
(8) When evaluating a performance video, any mannerism that would irritate you if you were in the audience watching the performance. For example, I tend to flap my arms like a chicken trying to fly.

What to listen for in the audio

Clap the tempo while listening to the recording. Is the beat steady? Most of us have a tendency to speed up on the easy parts and slow down on the hard ones. There are also certain rhythm patterns that often cause problems.

Here are a couple of my personal bad habits:

I get too eager to get to the moving eighth notes, and don't give the first note it's full amount of time.
I tend to play dotted-eight/sixteenth like triplets.

Are you playing the right notes?

Tone Quality
including intonation and consistent sound across registers

Flow (particularly if it's a performance piece)
You want it to sound like everything is easy and relaxed -- even if it isn't easy. Don't panic on the hard bits.

Phrasing and Musicality
Are you breathing in awkward places? Where could you do more with dynamic contrast? Is your articulation choppy when it should be smooth, or vice versa?

I will frequently play a performance recording in a loop for hours. I learn to recognize the places I make particular mistakes, which (hopefully) helps me avoid those mistakes the next time around.