Three tips for hearing your playing better

I played with a rehearsal band last week. Something happened during the obligatory tuning process that gave me a thought about a major aspect of playing well – jazz or otherwise.

We went around the band tuning the wind instruments with the the reference note, and something occurred that I often see/hear in this situation. While playing their tuning note against the reference, I saw that self-conscious look of puzzlement on their face. “Am I in tune?”

They were not. In fact, the pitch of many of those notes (in green) was something like:

These were not beginning players who haven’t yet developed the ability to hear pitch. These were older more experienced musicians. So why weren’t they better able to hear the pitch?

One reason is the lack of air support, but that’s a mechanical weakness. That doesn’t explain their confusion over their pitch. It doesn’t explain why they were unable to accurately hear themselves.

So let me offer three tips for strengthening your ability to hear yourself better, not just about pitch but in every aspect of your playing.

Tip #1:  Eliminate your mental distractions

I remember early in my playing experience, being in this situation, I would be so self-consciously consumed by what people were thinking of my playing that I was unwilling to properly control and evaluate my pitch. All I could think of was, “Let me get close enough to avoid having to visibly make the wrong adjustment so that we can move on to someone else.”

I often see wind players play a tuning note and then pull out or push in as a guess in order to appear that they hear the required adjustment. This is a sure sign that they do not hear themselves relative to the reference note due to distractions like fear or self-consciousness. “What if people realize I can’t hear my own intonation?”

If you find yourself in this situation, in the privacy of your practice space, play a pitch from a tuning app (not the visual part of the app, which I recommend NEVER using). You can also play the following audio:

This is not a post simply on intonation, but your ability to precisely hear your pitch is directly related to your tone and other aspects of your playing and hearing. I think it relates to almost every aspect of your playing. While listening to the above audio, sing various related pitches and play not just the note “A” but other pitches on your instrument.

How does that experience differ from tuning in front of your bandmates? Do you notice less self-talk as you play that note? Do you notice that your attention is more focused on your playing and pitch? Rather than hoping for accurate pitch, you are able to hear yourself free of social distractions.

While we’re on the subject of tuning, one tip is to not try to match the pitch but instead, play full volume and without adjustments to hear where your pit truly is. Only THEN make tuning adjustments.

This advice relates also to improvisation. Mental distractions will always get in the way of you telling your personal musical story. The self-talk about what is coming next or about what you just played drowns out your hearing of your own playing. I’ve shared this many times including the lesson on left and right brain in my free Pocket Jazz course:

Tip #2: Want to hear yourself

That probably sounds like odd advice, but you must be willing to objectively evaluate the sound of your own playing before you can eliminate distractions. You have to want to hear, warts and all.

Is it possible that deep down you fear hearing the reality of your own playing? 

You don’t need to be a psychologist to know that fear of reality can block our perception of things. Maybe the next time you are improvising, tell yourself that it doesn’t matter what you sound like. Tell yourself there are no such things as wrong notes. I used to play a game with a sax-player friend who was teaching to play jazz. The game was to purposefully play “wrong” notes as we played together with backing tracks. If you purposefully play them, maybe you’ll fear them less. Maybe the concept of wrong notes evaporates all together. What a concept!!

Tell yourself that you want to hear yourself head on – the good, the bad, and the ugly. You might find something liberating within that mindset.

Tip #3: Record yourself

I know of no better way to hear yourself than to record and then listen back. If you fear recording and listening back, refer back to tip #2. “I hate the sound of my playing.” is a sure sign that you have difficulty listening objectively to your own playing. You are avoiding the possibility of hearing mistakes and imperfections.

It is difficult to hear yourself accurately in real time, especially with the self-talk and self-consciousness churning away distracting you from your playing.

Make a habit of recording yourself when you practice, rehearse, and perform. If you have a difficult time listening back, start by recording yourself and NOT listening back. Hey, at least you had the courage to hit the record button!

The next step is to listen back. Yes, that experience may show you that you are not as good as you’ve been imagining, but that’s a good thing. You’re one step closer to reality. You might also hear something better that you thought.

I record myself on an almost daily basis. One example was the recording I made of the tune “Stranger in a Strange Land” after returning from vacation. This was also after COVID, so I was anything but in peak playing condition on trombone!

The first few takes were awful. out of tune, out of time, poor tone, etc. But things started to improve after several takes, largely because I listened to each take and took note of what was good and bad.

The next day, my chops were stronger, yet the first few takes were still no good. But by the end of the night, I could again play trombone. My progressive improvement was due in large part to my listening to everything I played. My mind & body made the necessary adjustments that allowed me to return to my capabilities. If I had hidden from those early takes, all the time assuming I sounded better than I did, my brain and body wouldn’t have made the needed adjustments, at least not as quickly as I did.

Get past your fear of sounding less that you imagine or that your friends and family tell you you sound. Hear yourself as you truly sound, both in real time and through recording, and you will more quickly become a more confident and better musician. (Oh, and more in tune!)

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Michael Lake

Michael Lake

Trombonist, author, composer, marketer

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