In the Studio – Setting Goals

Have you ever been frustrated during a recording session?  Did you feel like you had prepped well ahead of time, but things still didn’t quite feel right?  Or maybe recording is a new thing for you and you weren’t ready for the intensity and focus you need over far more hours than a typical live performance?

Whether you are a seasoned recording pro or you are new to the studio, it’s worth mentioning how very different performing for microphones and a producer are from performing in front of your fans or a live audience.  When a visual component is present in a live performance, audiences are far more willing to forgive or simply overlook small inconsistencies.  Many of their senses are being engaged and they came to the concert to have a good time.  But when it comes to listening to recorded music, only the ears are engaged in the process.  Little inconsistencies (not even mistakes) all of a sudden become glaring problems, and sometimes the stress of trying to correct those tiny things in the studio wears you down and you start making bigger and even more noticeable mistakes.  It can be a vicious cycle that all of us have probably been through at one point or another.

I was producing a session just the other week where this started to happen to the artist.  They had prepped well and also had plenty of prior recording experience.  But from the producer’s chair, it seemed as though they had gotten too used to playing live and had forgotten just how pristine your performance needs to be on a recording.  As the first 30 minutes of the session progressed, I could see the artist begin to get frustrated as they realized they didn’t have the necessary focus that day.

Questions to Ask Before You Book Your Session

1. What kind of budget am I on, and does my budget fit my expectations for the final product?

Let’s be honest, money nearly always plays a factor in how well a recording turns out.  But there are ways to make the money factor have a bit less impact.  Know how much time you can afford and know ahead of time what you are definitely able to accomplish during those hours (see #2 below).  So many musicians save their hard earned money up and dump it on a day or two of recording that they haven’t taken enough time to think about and prep for.  That’s a waste.  Underestimate what you will be able to accomplish during your studio time and overestimate the budget you will need.  It’s a relief to finish what you set out to record with 30 minutes left.  It’s torment to have only 30 minutes left to finish 30% or 40% of what you set out to do.

2. How do I know what I’m capable of accomplishing during a session?

With today’s technology, this is easier than ever to answer.  If you have a smartphone, pull it out, download a free recording app, and get started recording your practice.  Don’t just put the recorder on and let it go, but instead prep a small section of your music that you’d like to record and then give it a go, one take only.  Not only will you get a great idea of how efficient your practicing is, but you’ll also get a taste of how the stress of recording will affect you before you step into an expensive studio.  And if you record yourself and you think you played it perfectly, listen back again a few more times.  In my experience, the better the musician, the more of their own mistakes they can hear when listening back.  After you record yourself, track how much time it takes you, day to day, to compile a perfect pass of those bars or phrases from the takes you record.  That time will be a direct indication of what you can expect to accomplish when you go in to record for real.

3. How do I best prep for studio time?

Very few recordings today are made in complete passes.  Almost always, recordings are made a few bars or a few phrases at a time and edited together later.  Even classical music.  Even indie music.  Especially pop music.  Knowing that, pull your music apart into the bits and pieces you will record far ahead of your studio time.  Practice those bits and pieces as if you were recording them and only have one shot to get them right.  Take the focus you need to perform live and multiply it by 10… that’s the focus you will need on each take in the studio.  Get used to starting anywhere in any piece of music and being right on track not only with the notes, but also the emotional context you’ve already derived for your interpretation.  Be able to faithfully and organically recreate that emotion, over and over and over again.

4. I get nervous in front of microphones, how can I make the anxiety go away?

Good news, if you’ve done your best with 1, 2, and 3 above you are well prepared.  Think of the microphones as your allies.  Yes they are critical listeners, but the only material they hear that your audience will also hear is what you choose.  The most beautiful thing about recording is that you can perform anything as many times as you’d like and your listeners never need to know.  You can take risks you might not otherwise take on stage.  You can miss tons of notes in a bar or two, but still play a beautiful take and use the other great material around your mistakes.  Above all, don’t let your studio mishaps get into your head.  You are making a recording for your fans, your listeners, your audience, and not for yourself.  They only person who will ever care about how bad take 10 was, is you!  Just like you trust your preparation for a live performance trust it in the studio as well, and laugh off your mistakes just like you would need to if they happened on stage.

Let’s boil this down to the most important topics we discussed here:

  • Correct Preparation
  • Focus
  • Budget Correctly
  • Relax and Trust

Good luck on your next studio project, I look forward to hearing about your successes!


The Robot and The Wanderer – Time Management for Musicians, part 2

In part 1 of this article, we discovered that our first priority to ourselves should be balance.  As we are able to get away from the practice room, we can discover how interactions with others can seriously change our perspectives on the music we write and perform.  Now that we are comfortable with stepping away from our instrument for periods of time, we can explore how much more effective we can make the hours that we do still practice.

Efficient Practice – Step 2

There is so much that can be discussed about efficient practice that I am sure another post will be forthcoming down the road.  However, for today lets talk about 2 general groups of musicians and the practicing pitfalls that they encounter:

Practicer 1 – The Robot

You find yourself repeating difficult passagework in hopes that building muscle memory and new synapses will eventually lead to flawless performance.  Or perhaps you mindlessly repeat difficult spots for so long that you lose track of time and before you know it, 1 or 2 hours have gone by!  Or perhaps you are one of those people who watch the football or basketball game on your phone while the rest of your body goes through the ‘practicing motions’.  Two words for you: stop, PLEASE!

If you practice at home and live with others, the first things that you will fix when you stop are your relationships!  As we discovered in Part 1, those relationships are more important than we sometimes allow ourselves to recognize.

But beyond the social positivities, if you fall into this group you should seriously consider changing your practice habits so your music can also benefit.  Let’s say you are concerned that this really difficult spot isn’t going to be there for you when you are in front of people, on stage, maybe a little (or very) nervous, and/or during an audition or any one of a number of different but important occasions.  Well, I’ve got some hard news for you: Your constant repetition isn’t really making it any more likely for you to ‘nail it’ on stage.  You are only building one part of the performance equation, the muscle memory.  Because of that, you are just as likely to totally fall apart as you are to get it right.  When we are in front of an audience, feeling nervous, anxious, and stressed, our brain can trigger the ‘fight or flight’ status, sending the hormone cortisol everywhere.  Cortisol tells your brain that absolutely nothing is more important than your survival… literally.  Ever been in front of people feeling nervous and completely blanked out on something you’ve practiced for hours, maybe even performed before?  That’s cortisol functioning at it’s best.  It very literally stops your brain from accessing ‘unimportant’ information.  The good news is that it’s not your fault; it’s a human reflex.  What is your fault is a crash and burn in front of others because you didn’t take the time to program in anything more than muscle memory.

Stay mindful during your practice.  Every repetition needs a purpose.  And it needs a purpose much bigger than ‘just get it right’.  When you do want and need to repeat spots because they are difficult, be sure every repetition is musical, has emotional meaning, has varying tempos, has differing articulation, and more.  What I’m saying is, be human and not a robot.  You’ll see tremendous differences in your efficiency (and your musicality) if you stay fully engaged.

Practicer 2 – The Wanderer

You find it difficult to stop in the middle of songs and pieces, and perhaps even more difficult to start in the middle of a piece.  Quite the opposite of The Robot, you spend most of your practicing time performing full versions of whatever it is that you are working on, finding it hard to see the trees within the forest.  Your prescription is a bit different.

Because your tendency is to perform during your practicing time, consider ways in which you can discipline yourself to work on more details and less broad-picture.  Personally, I like to imagine my practicing progress on a mental graph.  The peaks on my graph are places where I feel confident and comfortable.  The valleys are places that, for any number of reasons, are not good yet.  Some of those reasons could be: technical execution, lack of emotion, lack of ‘proper’ emotion in context, tone color choices, phrasing, and more.  As I practice, I spend more effort in the valleys and less on the hills.  Over time, the valleys and hills even out and become a straight line.  When that happens, I can go back and practice performing larger sections again.

Like The Robot, stay mindful during your practice.  Your ‘valleys’ are never going to be as comfortable as your ‘hills’ unless you spend more time on them.  At some point, running through entire sections becomes a big waste of time because the effort needed to better the rough patches is far beyond the time being allocated, while the comfortable spots may already feel more than 95% there.  Stay focused and disciplined in your practice and use the emotional context that you’ve already so well developed to keep your practicing fresh.

Rounding It Out

As I mentioned, this is only the tip of a large iceberg when it comes to building more efficient practice techniques.  However, if you start to incorporate a different approach, maybe like one mentioned here, you will begin to accomplish things in half the time they used to take and maybe over time you’ll get even more efficient than that.  It’s always nice to get 4 hours of practicing done in just 2!

In part 3, we will finish up our discussion of time management for musicians talking about creating opportunity and other business ideas.  See you there!

Related Reading:

Time Management for Musicians, part 1

In the beginning, musicians practiced.  Their job was to perfect their craft and their live performances.  Managers took care of bookings, PR reps made sure the public knew they existed, and record labels had a vested interest in seeing their signed talent sell lots of product.

In today’s music market, only few have the resources necessary to delegate these tasks to people or teams.  That leaves the rest of us to fend for ourselves in what can, at times, seem like a pond of piranhas ready to eat you alive.

The Biggest Mistake I See Musicians Make

Your job is to entertain people.  It is not to practice, alone.  I see this especially true in the classical music world.  Granted, the standards for performance are extremely high, possibly even un-humanly high.  Classical performers are expected to be flawless beings, and missing just a note or two can cause a loss at a competition or bad press after a professional engagement.  However, at least 95% of the classical musicians I know make practicing hard enough to achieve perfection such a high priority that guess how many opportunities they have to show what they’ve been practicing?  About 0.  Or nearly 0.  If you are practicing 6+ hours a day and you have no performances booked, you’re doing something wrong.  If you are practicing 6+ hours a day and expecting someone to telepathically hear you and how wonderful you are, you’re doing something wrong and perhaps need to see a doctor.  If you need to practice 6+ hours a day to get your music right, you’re also doing something wrong.

Classical musician or not, I get it – prepping for a concert is tough business, both mentally and physically!  And don’t get me wrong, practicing is definitely important for us.  The opposite problem is also true in some cases: too little practicing leading to lots of poor public performances.  What we need to get down to is balance, higher efficiency during our practice time, and better time management.

Balance – Step 1

As musicians, we feed on the stuff of life to inspire us.  Take a break from practicing and get out into the world for some fun and enjoyment.  Go sit at your local coffee shop with a latte and do some people watching.  Take a walk through the park to clear your mind.  Go to another artist’s concert.  Ask someone out on a date, or if you’re married/in a serious relationship please take your significant other out!  Take this very short list, and add your own fun ideas to it.  You are all individuals and you’ll have your own ideas.  Do a little brainstorming, I guarantee you can come up with at least 5 more things to do in less than 5 minutes.  Please share them below if you’d like!

When you come back to your music after being out in the world, feeling the presence of other people, building relationships, and creating memories, your music will instinctively feel different.  If you’re playing music that someone else wrote, you’ll have a new and fresh perspective on what they are trying to tell you and your audience.  And if you’re writing new music yourself, you’ll have fresh ideas and feelings to springboard from.  In the meantime while you’re enjoying some of what life has to offer, your brain is still subconsciously working on the music you were practicing and/or writing.

Ironic, isn’t it, that in a big way making your music better is just as much about being away from it, as it is about working on it.  The best part is that as you get used to stepping away from spending so much time practicing, you are also unlocking new time you can devote to pursuing other parts of the music business.  Check back in for part 2, where we will begin to cover some other things you can work on in your new found time!