Listening Back: Get a New Perspective on Your Playing

Listening Back

A few days ago, I happened to be “shuffling” through my music library and stumbled upon a long-forgotten EP that I played on in high school, just a few years into picking up the bass. I took a short break from my day and decided to listen with a hint of skepticism, a dash of personal critique, and a boatload of nostalgia. I remembered getting to an old, beat up studio in a not-so-hot neighborhood, laying down the five tracks in two hours, with no rehearsal, and worrying about my mistakes and studio jitters coming through on the recording. After this spontaneous trip down memory lane, I listened to a few other tracks that I recorded roughly two years ago, and one that I recorded yesterday.

This exercise in listening brought out more than just the memories; it reminded me of exactly how far I’ve come as a player and how my personal style has developed over the years. If you’ve never taken the time to “listen back,” try to find an hour and revisit some of your recorded (or filmed) playing. Aside from simply enjoying the music, here are a couple of great reasons to do some retrospective listening.

First: reassurance.

Creative people have a tendency to experience highs and lows. There are nights when we feel great about music, the control we have over our instrument, our ability to display our talents in front of a crowd, and the inspiration that comes from loving what we’re doing.

And then there are nights when we question every thing, like “Why I can’t play through these changes?,” “Why can’t I remember the form of this song?,” “Why don’t my fingers move fast enough?,” and, worst of all, “Why do I bother wasting my time with this thing?.” These are the nights when it’s certainly worthwhile to stop for a minute, listen, and reflect on what you’ve accomplished in the past. This will help you get a different perspective on what you’re doing at present and, hopefully, will restore some faith in your abilities.

Try listening to something that you recorded when you were still relatively new to the instrument. Think about how far you’ve come… listen for technique, feel, note choice, and tone. Then, try to remember the difficulties you had as a player at that point in time. Did you lack some crucial theory knowledge? How well did you understand the neck of your instrument? Did you have much experience playing in a studio or live setting? Then, try to realistically think about who you are now as a player and what you’re able to do. Chances are, you’ll discover that you’ve come a long way, you’re farther along than you think, and the journey is far from over.

Second: recognition.

When we’re in the studio or seriously critiquing something we just recorded, we’re usually “micro-listening” and trying to pick out any flaws. We tend to nitpick and second-guess what we played, how we sound, and whether it’s a good contribution to the track. When you’re far away from the recording process and unable to make any changes, listening becomes a very different activity. Instead of focusing on the individual notes, the mix, and the tone, you simply get to listen to the music. In doing this, you’ll be able to recognize the final product as a whole, and you may actually enjoy the recording and be proud of your playing! Sometimes we need to revisit things for that reason — as a reminder of a musical accomplishment. Let this listening exercise remind you of the experience you had recording a tune or playing a show. Think about the people you played with and the work you put into it. Then, recognize the existence of a final product. Whether you were hired to play on the session, decided to record a jam with some friends, or worked on your own musical project, you’ll realize that you are the one playing bass (and that’s a pretty cool thing).

Third: reflection.

We’ve already touched upon “reflection” in reference to looking back on an experience, but remember that this word has multiple meanings. Think of “reflection” in terms of what you see when you look in a mirror. Much like how a mirror reflects an image of what other people see, a recording reflects the sounds that other people hear. When we look in a mirror, we see both the good and the bad. Suddenly you realize that you have spinach in your teeth, that perhaps you should’ve gotten more sleep this past week, or that you happen to be having a really good hair day. After seeing these things, we’ll probably run and grab some floss, set an earlier bedtime for that evening, or walk around feeling confident in our appearance. When you listen to a recording, try to hear both the good and the bad… maybe you realize that you need to start practicing more with a metronome or that you found the perfect setting to get a good tone on your instrument. You may be pleasantly surprised by what you hear, thinking that you came up with a cool line or have a solid groove. Or, you may discover that you have a lot to work on when developing a bass part or locking in with the other players.

Once you listen back to some old recordings, my hope is that you gain a new perspective on your playing. Aside from judging whether what you played was good, bad, genius, or ordinary, this exercise will give you a better idea of who you are as a player. Chances are, you’ll recognize your personal style and perhaps hear hints of your musical influences in the early stages of your playing and in what you’re currently doing… it just so happens that the EP I played on in high school featured a handful of blues tunes, some of which I continue to play today. While the songs remain the same, my clarity and confidence as a player comes through in more recent recordings, which is exactly what you want after years of dedication.

If you’re new to the instrument, try playing through a few tunes and make a recording or video. This way, you’ll have something to look back on when you’re working on someone else’s session or tracking for your own CD.

And finally, remember to have a sense of humor when you’re listening. Don’t be too harsh on yourself (especially if it’s one of your early recordings) and don’t worry if thing’s aren’t perfect.

And remind yourself to keep practicing.

Photo by Jeroen Thoolen

Ryan Madora is a professional bass player, author, and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and session work, she teaches private lessons and masterclasses to students of all levels. Visit her website to learn more!

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