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Although it might seem patently easy to hear and listen to what you are actually playing, to me it seems anything but (as evidenced when I record myself).

There are many factors involved which distort the aural perception, e.g. being pre-occupied with getting the notes right or balancing the voices, etc but even ignoring all that I feel we hear our own mental image of what we would like the music to sound like rather than the reality of what is produced.

Does anyone have any suggestions or methods to work on this vital aspect of making music?

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This may sound strange, but when you look up while playing, you hear differently. Try it. You'll be amazed. smile

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Originally Posted by John_B
I feel we hear our own mental image of what we would like the music to sound like rather than the reality of what is produced.
Isn't that the truth! All I can suggest is concentration and practice...and as you said, recording yourself.


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I've also noticed that if you record yourself, things sound much clearer than what you hear. Sometimes it seems like there is no such thing as a pedal, but it might just be my bad microphone.


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It's also the mark of a great composer - being able to listen to yourself objectively.

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Originally Posted by John_B
Although it might seem patently easy to hear and listen to what you are actually playing, to me it seems anything but (as evidenced when I record myself).

There are many factors involved which distort the aural perception, e.g. being pre-occupied with getting the notes right or balancing the voices, etc but even ignoring all that I feel we hear our own mental image of what we would like the music to sound like rather than the reality of what is produced.

Does anyone have any suggestions or methods to work on this vital aspect of making music?


Excellent, essential post and question, and one which mirrors my own experience. Like John, I'm amazed at how much worse a recording of my playing sounds in comparison to the impression I get whilst actually playing. Listening, and really hearing what we produce is of paramount importance of course - my teacher emphasizes this all the time - but I haven't yet developed, as John says, "this vital aspect of making music".

Only last evening during my lesson my teacher - gently! - ripped apart my efforts at interpreting Brahms' Intermezzo Op 118 No 2, to the extent that I felt like returning to Für Elise. She was absolutely right of course and demonstrated as much by mimicing my wooden, expressionless playing. My control of dynamics and voice balancing was poor but, curiously, it didn't sound that bad to me as I played. Try as I might, I wasn't able to make much progress. It was as though the hands on the piano were not my own.

I'm not expecting an instant 'cure' but I too need urgent help with this problem.


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I think sometimes we hear what we want to hear, particularly when we know a piece well (in other words, sometimes we kid ourselves). It is really important to record oneself to notice where one fails and to improve.
I think it happens to most people... I have heard of this problem on other boards too.



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I recorded myself once about 30 years ago. I was so upset by what I heard, I have never and never will record myself again. Hopefully, I have learned to listen to myself better since then so my actual playing is more in sync with what I hear. If not, since I don't play professionally, I'd rather not know.

This is not to say I don't think the OP's question is very important and interesting.

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The Gieseking book says the single most important part of learning piano is learning to listen to ourselves. It is a difficult skill, not natural to anybody, and most people don't work on it enough to succeed.

I tend to agree. I think we have a protective brain mechanism that hides our mistakes so we don't give up in disgust. But that also slows our ability to correct them.


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I do have a comment first on the idea of recording oneself. Most of the devices that are affordable today, while good quality for the money, don't necessarily record accurately as would a $3000 microphone and equipment on that par. Most of the mics in fact will negate all or most dynamics to equalize it. Most of this stuff is geared toward pop/rock music which lacks dynamics, and so it is assumed that any dynamics are an accident. So you do have to take the recording with a grain of salt.

While you will never be able to listen/hear yourself the way an audience can, it is a skill you can improve. Trust me, singers have it worse. The sound we make sounds *nothing* like the sound that comes out because the vibrations we make affect the ear drums as the sound comes out. And no recording can quite catch it all because of the complex harmonics. What we do to work around this, of course, is we need to be led to the correct sound by a master teacher. Once we make the right sound, then we can identify that to ourselves so it can be duplicated. It won't sound good to our own ears, but we will know that it's a good sound to everyone else.

I think that piano is similar, although not quite as much a handicap. Still, having a master teacher to listen to you and tell you that your forte isn't quite forte, or that you need more rubato in this section is invaluable. Of course, it needs to be someone with whom you agree musically, so listen to how they play. Once you have enough of this kind of direction, you learn to listen more in that way to your playing. But like singing, it is easy to drift away, and so every once in a while you may need to return to said teacher for a "tune-up".

One last thing I'd like to point out that has helped me (not that I'm the world's greatest pianist or anything close to that), is that I find I can play in two modes: getting through and following instructions, and communicating. When I choose to communicate, I am listening for each note before I play it. It is envisioning on a small scale what I want each note to sound like and then matching that when I play it. When I don't do this, I can certainly give a lackluster rendition of a piece that is passable, but that isn't exciting at all. wink


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Originally Posted by TimR
I think we have a protective brain mechanism that hides our mistakes so we don't give up in disgust. But that also slows our ability to correct them.


I've also come round to the same conclusion. I suspect that it might be something we develop when we are in the early days/years of playing but it gets so entrenched that it becomes a very real barrier.

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Listening to yourself is so hard because you have to project the music you want to hear in order to play it, and by projecting too much you can't properly focus on what you're hearing. And if you focus on the actual sounds you make, you tend to lose sight of the music, and it usually becomes more mechanical as you will rely on your finger to do the work, rather than on your head (if that makes any sense).

I've found that working with a friend is a great way to improve both your playing and your ability to listen ; you need someone that can feel free to critisize you, and you also need to be able to keep your cool whatever s/he tells you !
I usually do that once a week in the conservatory practice rooms where there are two pianos ; I play the piece once in its entirety so she can have an overview of what I'm doing, then small sections. Instant benefits usually are spotting the misreadings (far more frequent than I thought), correcting wrong dynamics, and forcing yourself to reason your playing ("I'm doing this because...")

When listening to your own recordings, one thing that helped me was to always listen with intent like, "focus on the dynamics". If I listen idly to my playing, I'll usually just get frustrated because it doesn't perfect ; obviously I knew that before hand, but being faced with the fact is always hard. So rather than listening and being disapointed, I face it with goals such as "let's see how I can improve that crescendo", "is my idea regarding this phrase clearly coming through ?". For the overall impression on a piece, I leave that to my teachers and friends...


Ho and there's a funny trick for those who have electronic pianos ; you can easily change the tuning / transpose a few tones away. That way, when you'll listen, it will sound fresh and easier to analyze.

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Assuming you have the piece memorized, play with the music desk down. I'm always amazed at how much better I can hear myself when it's down.

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You really learn how to listen through playing lots of chamber..



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I always record what I play in concert, it's always the same: I play too fast, no dynamics, sloppy passagework, lots of coughs, haha, but seriously, my last teacher once said: wouldn't it be great if one could screw just 1 ear of and place it 30 feet from the piano to hear what one's doing, alas, ones imagination must come to help: projection, clear melodic lines, light left hand, enormous dynamic differences to a histrionic degree, and a very cautious right foot, for instance, can do good. Just played Haydn, Schubert and Chopin on an 1885 Érard, parallel strings, what a difference, wow, no heavy bass banging, clear upper strings, and, not unimportant, in tune, great!


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Originally Posted by Mostly
Ho and there's a funny trick for those who have electronic pianos ; you can easily change the tuning / transpose a few tones away. That way, when you'll listen, it will sound fresh and easier to analyze.


That's true! It's great when you start to get bored with a piece.


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