My November music-themed birthday party table decorations; photo courtesy of guest Grace Hueunemann.
Thelonius Monk always said that the first take is best*; Burt Bachrach** said that the famed singer Dionne Warwick would record "90,000 takes" of one of his songs only to agree with him that the first take was best (what a waste of 89,000 takes!).* I was fascinated enough with the topic some months ago to write a poem about it, published in my second volume of poetry (poem set forth below).
But why is the first take the best? Doesn't "practice make perfect"? Maybe it does for some folks -- especially when it comes to preparation for recording or concertizing, but after that, the first take still seems to be best. Two professional musicians seem to concur with that proposition.
My new friend, professional bandera llanera guitar-specialist Alejo Cordero, confirms that "When you practice constantly recording your sound, you start to feel more comfortable and satisfied with 'the first.'"
Amy Ahn is an awesome young harpist and member of the Stockton Symphony whom I met at a December Groupmuse performance in a converted warehouse (video above). She says "In my case, the first three takes are the most organic and authentic when it comes to a recording (across all genres)—albeit it heavily depends on how prepared for the performance I am. By the fourth and beyond, it gets very easy to get in your head about minuscule details that begin to stand out (usually for the worst in my case) and ultimately distract me from the bigger picture or overall flow of a piece or song. I’ll usually give myself a day to cleanse my ears of the takes and listen back on the recordings only to find that the first few takes capture best what I wanted to hear in a piece."
Multiple takes seems to be de riguer in the movie industry. Wikipedia under the topic of "Take" reports that Stanley Kubrick (and others) is "notorious for demanding numerous retakes of a single scene, once asking Shelley Duvall to repeat a scene 127 times for The Shining. During the shooting of Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick asked for 97 takes of Tom Cruise walking through a door before he was satisfied. Charlie Chaplin, both director and star of The Gold Rush, did 63 separate takes of a scene where his character eats a boot—in reality, a prop made of licorice—and ended up being taken to the hospital for insulin shock due to the high sugar intake. Chaplin also did 342 takes of a scene in City Lights (1931)."
Even actors can get into the act (sorry!) of multiple takes. Wikipedia says that one fight scene in Jackie Chan's "The Young Master" was so intricate that it required 329 takes to complete, and "During the filming of 'Some Like It Hot,' director Billy Wilder was notoriously frustrated by the retakes required by Marilyn Monroe's inability to remember her lines."
In the music world it's rather common knowledge that pianist Glenn Gould of Bach fame would harass his audio technicians nearly to death with take after take, in his search for personally defined musical perfection in his recordings. And of course, some multiple takes recorded by a musician or singer come out later in releases of the same piece by the same artist.
As for concert pianists, it's absolutely true that each time she or he plays a piece, the nuances will not be identical; musicians are not robots -- at least, not yet. So will one performance be "better" that the other? At their accomplished level of play, that's hard to say, but the performances will be different one from the other, even if those of us less familiar with musical performances cannot tell the differences.
Alejo pointed out something even more important that relative numerical position of "the best", and it is worthy of consideration. "From my personal experience, there are no two equal takes and the first is not always the best (nor is the 100th take either). When you have the groove and you're 'inside,' sometimes beneficial aspects of interpretation appear which were not premeditated, and this will not happen again even you want it to be so. That does not depend on the first take; it could happen during any given take."
But what if re-takes in the recording process just result in overworked, over-thought, strained interpretations, or more mistakes than not resulting from mounting pressure to "get it right"? Re-takes seem for harpist Amy Ahn, to result in distracting her from the overall flow of the piece into focusing on minute details that may mislead her into making mistakes or rendering a less brilliant exposition of the music.
One pianist commenter on Reddit agrees: "I usually get my best recordings early on actually, but the more takes I do - I actually get more nervous and don’t play as well."
That appears to be a current trend when it comes to listeners. "The First Take" is a Japanese recording YouTube venture that records songs by various musical artists (most recently including Harry Stiles) on his or her "first take," including preparatory breathing and other pre-recording rituals and comments. Apparently 6.3 million subscribers are fascinated with the results -- and so was I.
There is something to this spontaneity thing in a first take that for me, seems to work well. More times that not when I am recording myself as I practice by myself, the first take is the best. (Playing in front of a friend or two nearly always results in more errors than normal). I did find a comment on Reddit of another pianist who said he could get his best performance if he was just playing by himself but that the presence of a recorder made him fall apart, and I experience that sometimes, but usually not.
So why is my first take usually my best one?
Julliard professor and violiist Noa Kageyama says that "... for the many who do find the first take to be better, a lot of times it’s because you’re not overthinking as many things the first time around. But when you try a second take and try to play better, or fix something that didn’t go well the first time around, it can be easy to overthink the mechanics or focus too far ahead, or compare how things are going with the previous one, etc., all of which can take your focus and attention away from the right things, which can also disrupt the automaticity of the movements you’re engaging in."
This seems like a topic worthy of more reflection. Especially if you are like me and find the first take usually best, I'd love to hear about your experiences and opinions as to why that is the case.
*From Thelonius Monk: "...usually we take the first take, sometimes we'd take the second, but, never the third. You see once you play it the first time - that's the way - the feeling and everything is - and, after that, it starts going downhill;" https://m.imdb.com/title/tt0098465/quotes/
**New York Times Magazine, Sunday December 31, 2023, "1928 Burt Bacharach" by Rob Hoerburger in noting the passing of Bacharach.
Is the first the best?
The very first version of what we play–
or our first kiss?
Does refinement tend to grow with practice
and with age?
Does it depend on the stage of life
or the day we try to express our very best?
But if the worst? Must we stand still and stare
and wonder where’s the thrill and what should come next,
we ponder? Could be the second will be better
if we heave a sigh and try another then another?
Why bother? Because we can–no lie!
Start first to listen deep within,search for the sound
and then the sweet and light and pure delight,
then try again.
You’ll win this time, don’t brook one doubt!
Just move and play first from within and then out.
Think the notes, think the sound,a tone hard or round?
Imagine that you travel far beyond a star
and enter into the welcoming black hole of oblivion
and become One
where all melodies and harmonies begin.
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