Recording Yourself

Some time ago on a ringing email list there was a discussion about recordings. People generally found that when they listened to a recording of themselves, it sounded far better than they anticipated. The converse was also true – that when actually ringing people tended to be far more critical of themselves than when listening.

Interestingly I spotted this effect the other day recording some music. For Remembrance Sunday my voluntary before the service (Praeludium in g – Buxtehude) had to be quite tightly controlled timewise in order that I stopped in time for the 2 minutes’ silence. I achieved this by recording my voluntary and writing time checkpoints into the score at various bars. I had a giant clock to compare the time with, and hoped that I’d be able to tell whether I was too slow or fast, giving me room to adjust and finish at the right time. Unfortunately this didn’t quite work – the brass band refused to shut up and so I started a minute late, and the choir came in a few seconds early.

While listening to the recording I was slightly surprised at how good it sounded. At the first pedal entry in the Fugue I fluffed a little and made a few mistakes. While I was playing this I was really quite cross – what was played bore little resemblance to what was printed on the page and also sounded quite bad. In the recording, however, it wasn’t particularly noticeable. It occurred to me that I was far better at recognising mistakes when playing than when listening. Part of this must be the fact that I had the score in front of me and knew when I was making the mistakes!

On Tuesday night I was grateful to be invited to join the Society of Cambridge Youths in a 12-bell practice at Towcester. [This link taken from Michael Wilby’s excellent Rings of Twelve website which unfortunately uses frames and makes linking difficult.] I was quite disappointed by my ringing during the practice, making lots of striking errors and managing to go wrong during a simple touch (worrying about the striking you see). A recording of the practice has been made available online (I’ll link to this if I get permission) and so I’ve been listening to this. A quick listening earlier this morning seemed to indicate the same effect – the ringing sounded far better than I remembered it. Without following too carefully it all sounded quite good.

This afternoon I listened again, this time following my bell through. Interestingly I noticed lots more mistakes this time – I was listening far more critically. Having the line in front of me meant that I knew what should be happening. If it didn’t happen then it was immediately obvious. In the same way if I listen to the recording of the Buxtehude with the score in front of me then the mistakes leap out again.

I think there’s two important factors working together here:

  • When listening critically it really helps to know exactly what’s going on. Without a copy of the score or line in front of you it’s harder to pick out mistakes. In music somebody could make a mistake changing one chord in a piece – you might not notice unless you had a copy on paper or in your head already. Listening to ringing it’s difficult to listen very carefully to the striking of one particular bell unless you can follow it through the changes.
  • While performing one tends to listen far more carefully than when listening. There’s a lot more concentration goes into a performance.

When I first started to learn the organ my teacher suggested that I should record some of my playing and then listen to it. He said I’d be amazed at how clear some of the mistakes were. Unfortunately I never did, but I’m fairly sure I would have noticed more mistakes. This is the opposite situation to the one I’m in now. I still feel one of my biggest steps forward as a musician was when I started to listen to what I was playing. It sounds like an obvious and simple skill, but it really isn’t. This is especially true for the organ – while playing a particularly complicated passage it’s difficult to find the brainpower to listen as well! After I started listening to what I was playing I found that I started to notice the mistakes – and began to correct them myself rather than waiting for my teacher to tell me.

I wonder if learner ringers see the same effect. I’m sure that most ringers could pick out which changes in a recording were struck poorly, but then they grab a rope and don’t notice when they crunch and clip others. In the same way they must learn to listen to the sound they’re making.

Comments always welcome – please add your thoughts.

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