A little background…

Whether keeping a practice journal is new to you or your teacher is pestering you about it I hope this post helps.  My teacher had the hardest time getting me to keep up with my practice journal.  And I will tell you that now I find myself looking back at that journal for all the gems my teacher gave me and wishing I had been more diligent about using it.  Those tips and tricks from my teacher have really come in handy as reminders of what I should be doing or thinking while I am seeking to play at my highest level.

The guide below is simply one way of keeping a practice journal.  With all the information on the internet it’s pretty easy to find more examples should you desire further inspiration.

Practice Journal:  What it needs to be…

First, it needs to be something you reference before, during, and after every single session. 

Like I said, my teacher used to nag me about this, but he never really enforced it so I never really did it.  I did use it to an extent, and I’m especially grateful now to have his notes in it, but I didn’t use it to the extent that I do today.  Nearly 20 years later, here I am making way more progress than before just by increasing my awareness during my practice, and not by forcing myself to practice harder; a common misconception with music students.

Second, it should be something you enjoy using.

For example, I use the Bullet Journal method and it works well to keep me organized while being fun for me to use.  I track techniques (habits) that I want to be working on consistently, how much time I spend practicing each day, and the specific pieces I’m working on.  I make weekly goals using a sort of future log of my performance schedule, and I make it pretty (when I have time) by making fancy titles, trackers and headers for collections.

Practice Journal: The details…

Here are a few things to use your practice journal for:

      1. Tracking techniques
      2. Tracking the pieces you’re working on and what stage they are in
      3. Tracking how many hours a day you are practicing
      4. Writing down what your goals are for the day, week, month, season
      5. Writing down notes of what you are actually practicing
        • As ideas arise while you are practicing take a moment to write it down. 
        • Bonus tip: This is often when I have ideas about how to more effectively practice something.  See my post on a fun way to practice octaves.
      6. At the end, reflect on your practice session.
        • What were your wins?
        • What were the ughs?
        • What do you need to do tomorrow?

Practice Journal: Planning your practice…

First, you need goals.  Do you have a performance come up?  What do you need to play for orchestra or chamber music class?  Is there an audition you’re preparing for?  Perhaps there’s a piece you are dying to learn??

Second, use these goals as guideposts for your progress and backwards plan from each one to help you determine what you need to practice today.  In your plan, break each goal down as minutely as you need.  Usually I just write the piece and the particular level (I made my own level system) I want it to get it to at the end of each week leading up to the performance or audition. 

For example, my goal is always to have a piece Performance Ready at least two weeks prior to the performance or audition.  If I have four weeks to get a piece ready, it needs to be prepared to ½ tempo four weeks out, and ¾ tempo three weeks out.  By two weeks before the performance I should be able to play the entire piece up tempo with the utmost accuracy.  If not, I’m at least much closer because I’ve worked it up bit by bit, week by week.

Practice Journal: Actually using it…

Next comes actually using your journal while you’re practicing.  Here’s an example of when I get to my actual practice session. 

After I’ve warmed up, worked on scales and general technique I start playing my repertoire.  My one and only goal here is to make it better than when I started.  My previously defined goals serve as a guide so that I know in what direction “better” is.  Plus it ensures I’m not wasting precious practice time. 

For instance, to work on intonation I play passages with a drone and open strings, and use internal melodic double-stops to make it better.  I also make before and after videos so that I can confirm whether or not it actually sounds better than when I started. 

Next, I may also need to work on articulation. So, I practice the rhythm and bowing apart from the melody, just using open strings to get the cleanest and most consistent sound.  I also record a before and after video to compare the sound.  Finally, I’ll take notes in my journal to reflect on my results and help me plan what to work on next time.

Practicing in an effort to simply make it sounds better relieves the pressure to make it perfect.  We all know perfection isn’t possible, but many of us (myself included) seem to continue grasping for it.  When I practice in this way I find I have an easy focus and end up getting better results, or at least am more satisfied with what progress was made. 

Curious to see my process in action?  Follow me on Instagram and check out my #100daysofpractice journal and other practice videos.

Practice Journal: Planning the plan and marching onward…

You now know your big goals, weekly guideposts, what you’ll write in your journal, and how you’ll practice, but where do you fit it all in?

First, figure out how much time you have to practice each day and over how many sessions you’ll accomplish that time in a given week.  See a few short examples below:

  • Monday for a music student:
    • 1 hour AM warm-up session before classes
    • 20 minutes between classes
    • 1 hour after lunch
    • 20 minutes between classes
    • 1.5 hours after dinner
  • Monday for a freelance musician:
    • 2 hour AM warm-up and practice session before heading to the studio
    • 1 hour practice at your teaching studio
    • 1 hour practice before bed
    • – or –
    • 3–4 hours in the AM before heading out to teach and gig
    • 20 minutes surprise window when your student cancels last minute

Don’t discredit those 20–30 minute windows!  They can have a huge impact.  By focusing on one thing and coming back to it several times throughout the day, it actually sinks in better.  Try it and you’ll see.  I once memorized 4 pages of music in 4 days using this technique.

Second, once you have an idea of how much time you’ll have to practice, plan how much time to spend on: warming up, scales, technique, repertoire for recitals, orchestra rehearsal, or auditions. 

Warming up should take enough time to get your mind and body physically warm and present.  I think 15 minutes is great.  Scales and technique, though infused throughout your repertoire practice, should occupy about 20–25% of your practice time.  So, if you have 4 hours, you should spend 1 hour practicing scales and technique.  Then you are left with two hours to work on rep.  I like to set a timer for 15 minutes and choose one thing to focus on and when the timer goes off I either stick with it or am allowed to move on to the next thing.  My list, again, is based on my goals for the week and I try not to cover everything in a single day.

A few final thoughts…

1. Always do a proper warm-up in the morning.  Within the first 20 minutes of your first practice session you want to simply remind yourself how it feels to make a beautiful sound with ease in your mind and body.  This is the foundation upon which everything else rests.  Of special note: I find using the specific term “reminder” invites a sense of ease and grace and puts me in a more open position to learn and grow.

2. Of the time you’ve allotted for practicing figure out how much time you can spend on each piece before you start the day.  You would likely benefit more from running through particular sections or pages from memory, or working out quick, technical passages than running through pieces in their entirety… especially when those pieces are still in the early stages of learning.

3. Record yourself!  Go the extra mile and record each piece as you work on it to reveal if your practice techniques are working as effectively as they could.  I like the metaphor here of using a map to go somewhere.  You might know where you want to go (audition), but without the proper map (knowing your personal musical challenges and planning for them) you won’t get there, at least not in enough time.

4. Practicing should be fun.  It is playing music after all.  When you are more organized with your practice by using a practice journal, you get more out of it, improve more quickly, and that makes playing your instrument that much more enjoyable.

Happy practicing!