When I'm playing my flute I sound fine, but when I listen to a recording I sound terrible. Is there any way for me to become a better judge of my playing? Especially while I'm playing, I want to be able to know if the sounds I'm making are good.
This is a terrific, and very important, question!
Have you ever heard a recording of yourself speaking? Did it come across as odd to you? Did you ever think "that's not how I sound!"? The same is often true when we play an instrument.
In fact, playing an instrument is even more complex. In a kind of auditory McGurk Effect, our brain has to distinguish between how we think we are playing (or how we want to play) with how we are actually playing.
In my experience, the best way to improve this is to continue checking your progress by recording yourself. For instance, you may think that you're playing a wide interval leap smoothly, but your recording proves otherwise. As such, you have to keep practicing and recording until it actually sounds smooth in the recording. Once you've mastered that smooth leap, then you can determine what that sounds like to you while you're playing, and map it onto future excerpts.
A teacher can also help with this; they can listen to you perform it, make adjustments to your technique, and eventually give you the "Yes, remember that...that was it!" response.
Edit: And if you're not familiar with it, make sure to check out Arnold Jacob's (longtime Principal Tuba of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra) concept of "song and wind." Basically, he emphasizes "song" (how you want your music to come across to the audience) and "wind" (the airstream---very important for a flutist!) as the key elements to making effective music on a wind instrument.
Right off the bat, what you're doing is great -- recording yourself sets you on the path to becoming a self teacher.
Of course, when you first start recording yourself, you aren't going to sound good. It's like hearing the sound of your own voice on a recording -- everyone thinks they themselves sound weird. But that passes over time, and that will pass if you continue to record and listen to yourself.
When you listen back to yourself, critique yourself based on what you are working on. Ask yourself questions like:
- How is my tone?
- Is my tempo consistent?
- Am I using the correct inflection?
Over time, this will help your playing incredibly because you are now focusing more tailoring your playing for how you want it.
One thing is to have others check the recordings: recording equipment can be finicky with regard to the tonal quality. Though stuff like phrasing, articulation, inherent dynamics and so on tend to get through even on bad recordings.
If you find that your play is significantly different on recordings than in real life, most likely because of your attention being diverted to playing the instrument rather than listening to it and because of a rather unique listening point, you want to practice with recordings.
Assuming that your audio equipment is of reasonable quality, what you'll also want is a delay line (possibly some computer program on your computer: nowadays a delay line is much cheaper to do digitally than impleme ntations in the age of tape and bucket delays). Take some representative phrase of quite short duration, don your listening headphones (open variety!), set the delay line to 10 seconds and go. You'll be able to hear your own performance unencumbered 3 times a minute by alternating between playing and listening.
It's important that you don't need to fiddle with equipment all the time. A delay line is a bit inflexible (you need to devise your exercises to match), so you can also try "looping" equipment which is also designed for not requiring putting your instrument down. When doing it on a computer, however, you'll still want to hook it up to some foot controller as a trigger.
A good way to get better at listening while playing is to "hear" sounds mentally BEFORE you play them. Yo Yo Ma, on the Marsalis documentary "Taming the Beast" (about practicing) mentions that his teacher always used to tell him: never play a sound without hearing it first. I might have the exact wording wrong, but that was the gist. It is one of the best individual pieces of advice about practicing I've ever heard.
You may need to slow down in order to pull this off, especially at first. Patience and persistence is key.
Recording yourself is a great idea, as has been mentioned. But you asked about "Especially while I'm playing". Recording now and listening later will help you play better next time around, certainly, but IMO that answer doesn't quite get to heart of the question, "While I'm playing". So I'll try it this way:
The reason recording helps is because by listening to recordings of yourself, you learn to hear yourself as a listener - an objective outsider - instead of as the player. That is the key: It's difficult to assess what you're playing while you're playing it because you tend to become very engaged in playing. Recording allows you to step back and assess your playing when you're not involved in the playing itself, but as a listener.
That being said, the way to assess better what you're playing, while you're playing it, is to disengage your mind from what you're playing. "Let your fingers do the walking" and listen to yourself as an outsider- in the context of the music as a whole. Become your own audience and you'll hear yourself very differently. Recording yourself helps you to do so, but it's not necessary to record yourself to acquire that ability, which is what you're really striving for.
Certainly, this necessitates having chops good enough so that you can indeed detach yourself from the physical activity of playing, turn your mind to the big picture, and adjust your playing accordingly as you go. So if your chops aren't that good, start with something very simple - something that you know you can play by rote, and make yourself the audience as you play.
(It's not relevant to reed or horn players, but guitarists and keyboard players who want to sing and play together need to acquire that same ability to put their playing on auto-pilot, so they can focus on singing.)
I can put something down on tape(I'm old fashioned that way) and be quite disappointed when I hear the playback, I think because I'm hoping for "magic" to happen for me and it never does. But I've noticed when I give it some time, maybe a week or two, and listen again, I'm very often surprised at how much better it sounds to me. It seems to give me some distance between me and my playing and I'm able to be a much more objective listener. Of course if I played poorly on the recording, no amount of time will help, and I'll have to redo it to be happy with it.
I think something's missing here so I'm going to add it.
Obviously, recording yourself and listening back later is a way for someone to evaluate your playing, and that someone is you. But there are many other people who can evaluate your playing.
First, you can find a teacher. They are pretty much paid to tell you how you're doing and suggest how you can do better.
Second, you can work to find an ensemble of other musicians to play with. Mature musicians should be able to work with others in a group and offer constructive criticism or straightforward praise, even after just an audition.
Finally, you can play to an audience and gauge their reaction and explicit feedback. Audiences are the most likely to be dishonest, but as you play in front of more and more people, you really can get a sense of how well you are entertaining people.
Correlating the feedback from others with your own internal experience and impressions from recordings helps you calibrate your self-criticism. Which is really what you need. Your own evaluation of your playing is important, but will always be biased and kind of warped by the fact that you're attempting to evaluate yourself. It's like using a mirror to try to see how you look to other people. It's only going to get you 90% of the way there, at best.