Videotaping and Recording Your Own Playing
One of the best ways to improve your musical playing and to practice for recitals is to videotape/record it and watch/listen to it. You will be surprised at how good and how bad the different parts of your playing are. They are often very different from what you imagine yourself to be doing. Do you have a good touch? Do you have rhythm? What are you doing, that is breaking up the rhythm? Is your tempo accurate and constant? What are your strengths and weaknesses? Do you clearly bring out the melodic lines? Is one hand too loud/soft? Are the arm/hands/fingers in their optimum positions? Are you using the whole body -- i.e., is the body in synch with the hands or are they fighting each other? All these and much more become immediately obvious. The same music sounds quite different when you are playing it or listening to its recording. You hear much more when you are listening to a recording than when playing it. Video taping is the best way to prepare for recitals and can sometimes eliminate nervousness almost completely.
Until recently, most pianists tried mainly to make audio recordings, thinking that the musical output was the most important; in addition, the older camcorders could not adequately record music. Audio recording has the disadvantage that proper recording of the piano sound is more difficult than most people realize and such attempts usually result in failure and abandonment of the effort. Camcorders have become so affordable and versatile that videotaping is now unquestionably the better method. Although the resulting sound may not be CD quality (don't believe the claims of digital video camera manufacturers), you do not need such quality to achieve all the useful pedagogical objectives. Only when you have a properly voiced, high quality grand piano (Steinway B or better) and you become an advanced player, do you need the necessary equipment for satisfactory audio recording. Even then, you will get better results more cost effectively by seeking out a recording studio.
Initially, start by making a one-to-one map between what you think you are playing and the actual output. That way, you can modify your general playing tendencies so that the output will come out right. For example, if you are playing faster than you think in easy sections and slower in difficult sections, you can make the proper adjustments. Are your pauses long enough? Are the endings convincing? The recording is also helpful in deciding whether you want or need a better piano; your inability to perform satisfactorily may in fact be caused by the piano, not you. With old, worn hammers, you can't play pianissimo. Once you become a good enough pianist, factors such as the quality of the piano and proper voicing of the hammers will show up more obviously in the recordings.
There is no question that you must record your playing if you want to progress beyond just playing for yourself. The recording session will test how you might react in an actual performance, for example, if you make a mistake or have a blackout. Watching yourself react to mistakes will give you an opportunity to see what types of reactions are "proper" and what types are "improper". Also, during a performance, you tend to get blackouts, etc., at unexpected places where you generally had no trouble during practice. Recording sessions will bring out most of these problem spots.
In general, your pieces are not "finished" unless you can record them satisfactorily; that is, to the degree of perfection that you desire. Videotaping turns out to be a very good simulation of playing in recitals. Thus, if you can play satisfactorily during videotaping, you will have little trouble playing that piece in a recital. You will also find that you are not nervous performing pieces that you can record with acceptable results; we will discuss this in more detail in the section on nervousness (stage fright). Thus videotaping is one of the best tools for polishing a piece and getting it ready for performing.
What are the disadvantages? The main disadvantage is that it will take a lot of time, because you must watch or listen to the recordings. You might be able to save some time by listening while you are doing some other chore. The recording session itself takes little extra time because that counts as part of practice time. However, every time you correct a section, you must re-record and listen again. Thus there is no escaping the fact that watching/listening to yourself is going to be a time consuming operation. However, it is something that every piano student must do. Another disadvantage is that, without a really super recording system, you may need to use more pedal than you would like because the percussive component of the piano sound is picked up more efficiently by the audio system than by the human ear.
I describe some methods for audio and video recording below.
Audio recording piano music is one of the most demanding of recording tasks. Things like portable cassette recorders for recording voice will not do, because the volume and frequency ranges of the piano exceed the capabilities of most inexpensive recording systems under about $1000.00. Modern equipment is sufficient to pick up most of the frequency range, and what small distortions are introduced, are not generally bothersome. However, the frequency response is not sufficiently flat, the highest and lowest frequencies are missed, and the dynamic range is insufficient. There is a surprising amount of audio power in ambient noise that the human ear/brain excludes (for example, the ears are shaped in such a way as to act as a noise filter), which microphones will pick up. Therefore, you will have to put up with some hiss for the softest playing and/or distortion for the loudest sounds, and all background noise (such as someone walking around or washing dishes) must be minimized. And unless you purchase very good mikes and/or put a lot of effort into their proper placement, etc., the piano sound will not be faithfully reproduced.
The following is an audio recording system that I have set up for myself. The components are:
(1) Sony MiniDisc ($150).
(2) Small mixer ($150 to $250).
(3) Boundary or PZM (Pressure Zone Microphone) mike ($50 to $300 each). You will need one for mono recording and two for stereo.
(4) Connecting cables.
I am assuming that you have a HiFi system into which you can plug the output; if not, use your TV (via the mixer). The Sony MD is readily available at electronics stores. In the US, Sam Ash may be the best place to buy a mixer, cables and mike, or you can get them at Radio Shack.
The MD is convenient because it is easy to edit, label, erase, and to quickly locate different recordings, is portable (fits in a small pocket), operates on its own rechargeable battery and comes with headphones. You can record 74 minutes on one disk, which can be rewritten any number of times. It also has many features such as optical and analog input/output, and most of the important functions (volume [both for record and playback], recording modes [mono/stereo], etc.), are programmable. The greatest disadvantage of the MD (I don't know if this has been corrected with the newer models) is that, although it is a digital device, it has no digital output. Within its dynamic range, the sound quality is almost as good as a CD so that the sound quality will be limited by the mike. Make sure to bring all the components with you when shopping around for the cables.
If you have a versatile HiFi system, you may not need the mixer. However, because the mixer allows you to try many more options and to optimize the system, I highly recommend it. You might first set up the system without the mixer and then buy it if necessary. The mixer has many built-in functions and just about any type of connector you might have, allowing you to connect practically any device to any other device and perform some signal processing. It contains pre-amps, signal attenuators, equalizers, balancers, etc. It has inputs for mono and stereo so that you can put in a mono signal and distribute it to both inputs of your stereo system. This is useful if you have only one mike. However, stereo recording gives audibly better results. For example, one mike placed towards the treble will not pick up sufficient bass sound; however, you can correct for this using the mixer. Most mixers will even supply power to your mike. Since the MD has both a line-in and mike inputs, you can record either with or without the mixer; however, you will usually sacrifice quite a bit of dynamic range, resulting in distortion or excessive noise. For playback, the same mixer will allow you to plug the output into any HiFi system. For many HiFi systems, the MD output may not have sufficient power.
Digital camcorders are better than the older analog types because you can make copies without degradation, they provide more options for editing, etc., and you can copy them directly to CDs or DVDs. Once you start taping, you may want to send the tapes to other people! However, analog camcorders are more affordable and are quite adequate. The biggest problem with camcorders is that they all have motors that make noise which is picked up by the built-in mike. Find a model with either an attachable mike of good quality, or a mike input and buy a separate quality mike. This will produce better results than the built-in mike. Also, make sure that the AGC (automatic gain control) can be turned off. Especially with classical music, you want to record the entire dynamic range of your playing. Some AGCs in high end camcorders do such a good job that you barely notice them, but you should make every effort to turn them off because the dynamic range is such an important characteristic of the piano. Most camcorders have plugs for connecting to a TV, which makes viewing simple. You will also need a fairly sturdy tripod; a light one might shake if you really pound away at the piano.