Weekend Woodshed: 5 Reasons To Film Yourself Playing

Beyond his incredible athleticism and skill, LeBron James is a student of the game of basketball. He watches countless hours of film, examining his own strengths and weaknesses as much as those of the players around him. This is why he is extraordinary and not merely great. But he’s not the only one who does this.

Hercules Smartphone Holder

Olympic swimmers watch underwater and overhead footage of themselves week after week to see where they can shave seconds with their technique. Golfers and baseball players dissect their swings by watching themselves in slow–motion. Gymnasts and figure skaters obsess over footage of their routines.

The reason these athletes do this is simple: seeing yourself as object opens your eyes to aspects of your performance you’d never otherwise notice.

This is just as important for musicians. We’re not playing against an opponent or looking for a judge to hold up a “10” after our songs end, but we are under the constant watch of an audience that is feeding off what we do and don’t do. We are only limited by ourselves, so it’s critical to watch ourselves once removed from the act of playing, to take notes, and to adjust.

But there are more reasons to film yourself playing than just looking for areas to improve. Here are five reasons to invest in a smartphone tripod (this one even attaches to a stand) and hit that record button next time you sit down (or stand) to practice a piece.

1. Video is a great marker of progress.

Even if you don’t want to dissect your fingerings, body position, breathing or “game face,” you can still film yourself playing a given passage or piece every few days or every week to illustrate the progress you’re making.

As you get something under your fingers or more confidently attack certain notes with each try, the small improvements that happen from minute to minute are often so incremental that it seems like we’re hitting a wall. But seeing footage from several days apart — as long as you continued to practice that passage in between takes — can affirm just how much progress you’ve made.

It reinforces the value you assign to practice, and in turn makes it more motivating to pick up your instrument on those days when you’re not feeling good about your skills.

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2. Video can be a motivational tool.

Corey Richardson at Soundslice shared this tip:

“I make a big stink out of recording myself improvising on a tune, learning an arrangement, or shedding a new technique. I make little video recordings of myself after a practice session on my phone or in Photo Booth, which then automatically sync up to my Google Photos account.

Then the next day, when I don't feel like practicing again, I pull open my Google Photos library and have a look at the last thing I practiced. It ends up being a nice motivator to think 'Hey, that wasn't so bad,' or 'I bet I can do a bit better than that,' which eases me back into the woodshed."

Plus, there's no way I'd have enough space on my phone or computer to hold all the videos I make. Once they get compressed and sync'd by Google, I delete the original on my device."

3. Video reminds you of what you played while improvising.

Ever go back and listen to an audio recording you made over a year ago when your guitar was in some alternate tuning and your mind was (beautifully) on another planet? Do you remember how you got those sounds? Didn’t think so.

Filming yourself saves enormous time when returning to old compositions and trying to flesh them out. When nearly all musicians have a video camera in their pocket, there’s no excuse not to document those jams and writing sessions. Save it to the cloud.

4. Video provides insight into where your technique is breaking down.

Whether it’s realizing that your embouchure is preventing you from hitting that double high C or that your thumb–anchoring on the neck is gumming up your 14–fret run, there are some things that are hard to notice when you’re in the moment, particularly when playing something that requires total concentration.

When you’re dedicating all your mental bandwidth to playing a difficult passage, you can’t think about what you’re doing. You just have to do it. Video prevents the vicious cycle of charging into passages, messing up, and repeating the mistakes because you haven’t taken the time to see and name the problem.

Is your pinky resting on the soundboard when your hand should be picking through freely? Are there places where you should be fretting with your pinky instead of your ring finger or vice versa? Are you palm muting accidentally in certain spots? Are fingerings lifting or not lifting at the wrong times and corrupting your rhythm?

You’ll never know what you might find until you look.

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5. Video shows what the rest of your body is doing.

As an introvert, I’m mostly in my head. After watching myself play what I thought was a solid show with my old band, I realized that my facial expression and body position hardly moved throughout many of the songs. I was playing all the right notes, but I wasn’t communicating with the audience.

This doesn’t mean that you should necessarily practice a catalog of wild, expressive faces in front of a video camera. Or work on your Prince–like footwork while playing. Sure, video can be useful in building your stage presence. If that’s part of your act, go for it.

But on a more subtle level, you can look for places where you don’t seem comfortable performing. Are you unnaturally stiff at times? Are you slouching? Unsure of your what your feet should be doing?

Does your facial expression say that you’re really receiving what you’re playing? That you’re feeling it?

The audience doesn’t need a theatrical production, but they do need to feel that you’re comfortable and confident performing in front of them.

Beyond that, video can surface where you might genuinely be harboring tension in your arm, wrist, fingers or shoulders while you play. Over time, this will cause serious problems. If you can feel it but aren’t sure where it’s happening, it’s usually obvious when you can step back and watch yourself play.

Finding a teacher who pays attention to the physical side of playing is a great way to work through tension issues. Show him or her your film, and do a bit of John Madden–esque annotating together.

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