How to Video Yourself for Guitar Practice and Be Your Own Teacher
As guitarists, we’re always wanting to get better. We want to
- get cleaner, faster, and smoother.
- play the new tune.
- get the latest piece polished and up to its potential.
For this, we study technique. We learn difficult tunes and challenge ourselves. We show up and put in what time we can.
But most of the time, we know better than we do.
We have ideas of how we want our hands to move. We have ideas about how the piece should sound. We have ideas of what fluid, easy playing looks like.
And there’s a gap between where we are (reality) and where we want to be (the ideal).
The ideal is like the horizon: it will always be just out of reach. But we can use it to move forward. Our ideals give us direction and point the way.
One way to move towards those ideals is to take stock of where we are in the moment. The more we examine the details of our playing, the faster we’ll grow as musicians and improve as guitarists.
Video can help with that.
Video as a Practice Tool
One marvel of the modern age is the prevalence of video cameras. Chances are, you have at least one and perhaps as many as 3 or 4 within 10 feet of you right now.
Yet, much of our thinking about video still stems from the days when film was expensive.
- “Don’t waste it!”
- “Only professionals should be on camera!”
- “I should look good on camera because it lasts forever!”
But now, we can shoot video, watch it once or twice, and delete it. It’s very close to free.
In our guitar practice, this means we can use video as a feedback tool.
While we’re playing, our attention focuses on a small number of details. We focus on the notes, our hands, the rhythm, or one of many other details that classical guitar requires.
But while we may think we know what’s going on. There are myriad details we miss.
This is where video provides an opportunity. It allows us to watch ourselves from the “outside”. We can notice aspects of our playing that we wouldn’t otherwise.
It’s For More Than Just Polished Pieces
It’s easy to put video into “the future”. We say, “When I’ve finished this piece, I’ll video it.”
But this way of using video fails to take advantage of our natural learning styles.
One of the fastest ways to improve is to have frequent feedback. With feedback, we can notice what works and improve on it. Likewise, we can notice what doesn’t and fix it. This means we get better in less time, and to a higher degree. (Flight simulators were a game-changer for fighter pilots. They allowed for mistakes and experimentation, without the high costs of error.)
One of the fastest ways to improve is to have frequent feedback.
We can review our technique and movements on scales or arpeggios. We can check our slur exercises for inefficiencies. We can spot check small sections of a piece we’re learning and plot the way forward.
We can do a quick video review of anything we’re working on. Then we can take the perspective of the teacher and make recommendations for next steps.
Check Your Ego at the Door
One of the most common objections to video is, “But I hate seeing myself on camera…”
We have to get over that. It’s not about looking good. This video won’t be live on the internet (unless we decide to post it). No one but us will ever see it.
We can think of it more like looking in the mirror while we comb our hair. We could comb it without a mirror, but the mirror lets us do a better job and be sure it’s what we want.
In time, videoing ourselves in practice could be as common as glancing in a mirror.
Bonus! Performance Practice
Besides subduing our vanity, regular video also prepares us for future performances. Being “on the spot” so often accustoms us to focusing on demand.
This skill will work in our favor if and when we choose to play for others.
The Goal of Videoing for Practice
The goal of video in guitar practice is to answer these two questions:
- “What is working?”
- “What can I work on in the next practice or two to improve on this?”
It’s important you acknowledge your success. Success feels good, and is far more motivating than criticism. Of course we want to take away constructive criticism. But noticing and celebrating success is equally important.
Keep it Quick and Dirty
The more time we spend fussing with your camera or phone (more on gear below), the less time we spend practicing.
When we record, we only need play the least required for feedback.
When videoing scales, we can play our scales for 30 seconds and stop. We can then watch it back, and notice what works and what doesn’t. Then we can get back to practicing, with a focus on whatever information we gleaned from the video.
When you review your video, cite specific successes. List exactly what is happening well.
Then cite specific areas for improvement.
For instance, this is poor feedback:
“My playing is sloppy.”
This feedback is much better:
“I could keep my fingers closer to the fretboard.”
The second example gives us something specific to practice. With this information, we can slow down and focus on keeping our fingers lower to the fretboard.
We make definite and noticeable improvements (and get some immediate gratification!).
Avoid the Plume of Complexity: Use Simple Equipment
It’s natural and easy to make things more complicated than they have to be.
And video is no different. We may distract ourselves with which camera to use, the lighting, the sound quality, or any number of irrelevant details.
For practice purposes, simple is better. Use your phone. Use your webcam. Use whatever option you already know how to use.
For practice purposes, simple is better. No fancy setup required.
The goal of the video is to get quick feedback we can use to practice effectively. Any more time spent than necessary distracts us from our guitar practice (which is, after all, the point).
3 Options for Guitar Practice Videos
There are three main camera angles we can use for practice videos. Each has its benefits and drawbacks.
We choose based on what sort of feedback we’d like.
Option One: Close-Up of the Left Hand
You can raise our music stand (holding a phone or camera) and fill the frame with your left hand.
Angle your body away from the camera so you can see your fingers and the guitar neck well.
Use this angle to check your left hand technique.
You may examine these left hand points:
- Hand/wrist position and alignment
- Finger curvature (“C” shape)
- Fingers stay low to the fretboard (no fly-aways)
- Finger placement just behind the frets
- Fingers take shortest path (in chords as well)
- Thumb position
- Hand position during shifts (also, shift landings)
- Appropriate tension
- Fingerings consistent (notated or not)
Or any other detail you wish to examine.
Option Two: Close-Up of the Right Hand
Likewise, you can keep the music stand low and fill the frame with your right hand.
Here, you can make sure you’re doing what you think you’re doing. You’ll often surprise yourself with what you see. It’s easy to resort to an old bad habit when the complexity of the notes or left hand cloud the waters.
Some points to consider viewing the right hand:
- Hand/wrist position and alignment
- Fingers move as intended (technique)
- Tone quality
- Hand position over sound hole
- Fingerings as written
- Appropriate tension
- Overall confidence/solidity
- Fingerings consistent (notated or not)
Or anything else you like.
Option Three: The Full Shot
You can also back up from the camera and capture both hands and your body.
This is useful for checking overall posture. You can also use this shot for analyzing polished pieces or sections of pieces.
For the body and mind, you could check these points:
- Posture (upright, balanced, stable)
- Present moment focus
- Confident appearance
- Shoulders released
- Freedom in joints (not stiff)
- Overall visual impression
- Anything else you choose
Musically, you could listen and watch for:
- Notes as written
- Rhythm as written
- Tempo (speed, pulse) steady
- Notes sound clearly
- Notes hold full length (instead of clipping)
- Notes connect smoothly
- Each note sounds intentional
- Dynamics intentional and obvious (heard clearly)
- All accented notes intentionally accented (no notes popping out, especially the high ones)
- All rubato (rit., rall., etc) structured, intentional, in the character of the piece
- Each voice at the right level (melody, bass, accompaniment)
- Melody obvious (connected, easy to follow, never obscured)
- Similar material (technical, thematic, writing style) phrased and articulated similarly
- General forward momentum (action never bogs down or stalls; is compelling throughout)
- Ornaments and special effects maintain character & style of voice (instead of upstaging)
- Character of the piece remains consistent throughout
- Or anything else you have on your radar
Tip: If you don’t understand any of these, ignore them for now. Focus on what you can use and disregard the rest. Over time, you’ll focus on different aspects.
Know What You’re Looking For
When you watch your practice videos, look for specific details. The more precise you are in the questions you ask, the more awareness you’ll have around those issues.
The goal is to find one or two details you
- Are doing well
- Could improve upon
The Successes are Important!
We often forget to acknowledge what’s going right. But we need to know we’re succeeding somewhere.
Instead of starting with, “What’s broken?” and “What’s next?”, begin each video review with a positive focus. “What is going well?” or “Where do I see improvement?”
Lead with endorphins, not cortisol! Warm fuzzies, not fight-or-flight.
Act on Your Findings Immediately
Once you find one or two details you can practice with, stop watching and get back to practicing.
You don’t need to go through the whole list. The goal is to gain direction in your immediate practice. When you’ve got that, turn off the camera and get back to work.
When you know what to practice, turn of the camera and practice.
If you watch your video at the end of a practice session, write down what you’ll work on in your next practice, based on the video.
If you don’t act on the feedback from the video, there’s not much point in taking the time to record yourself. (Unless it’s to celebrate successes. Then have it!)
Wash, Rinse, Repeat
We can use video daily in our practice to make consistent incremental steps. Over time, we gain more awareness of the fine details. And we train ourselves to notice more details in real time as we play.
With time, the process becomes more natural and comfortable. Video can be a powerful tool in our practice routines, but only when we use it!
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