Practicing Well, Part IV: Keeping a practice journal
Hey, it’s 2013! I hope everyone had a great holiday season and vacation. Thank you to all the readers here who have read, commented, and shared the posts from this website since it launched in late October last year, and thank you especially to those of you who purchased music! For the upcoming year, you can expect to see many new articles posted and many new charts added to the store, so be sure to like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter to keep in touch!
It’s time to continue in my series regarding good practicing with some words about the practice journal. A practice journal is exactly what it sounds like: a record of what you practiced, documented by you. There are tons of benefits for this and no disadvantages, and using one gives you a major boost in your routine.
The practice journal will help you keep track of what you have played and is very simple to maintain. When you play something, jot it down. Indicate the tempo or other performance notes, and include a memo to your future self that describes how you did. Here is a sample entry based on my own style of note-taking:
- Oh Lady Be Good - good, new keys
- Old Devil Moon - not bad, hold
- O Grande Amor - ok i guess, slower next time
Brandt 34 Studies
- 1 @95 - good, speed up a little
- 2 @95 - ok, hold tempo and clean up
- 3 @80 - not bad, chops are tired, try again tomorrow
After writing down the date, I include “warmup,” which to me makes sense. My warmup has basically been the same for four or five years, so if I change something up, I’ll let myself know. I worked with the iReal b Android app for a bit using default settings, and finally, I played out of the Brandt 34 Studies book until my chops collapsed (in all seriousness, if this actually happens to you, make note of it and don’t be embarrassed!!!). Everything I did in one sitting I wrote down.
Now, the next time you practice, you can glance at your journal and know exactly where to pick up. You will notice that I am focusing on the Brandt studies, and I didn’t skip ahead to the fourth study. I started at the first one, around 95 bpm, and now I’m going to work my way up to 116 over the next few days. Though I’m tempted, I will not skip the etude even though I nailed it at 95, and I also am being careful not to jump up 116 until I’ve worked my way up. Tedious, I know, but I promise that this is really is the fastest and most efficient way to improve on your instrument.
In addition to the Brandt studies, I also work a lot with improvisation. If you look at my notes, you’ll see that I need to do Lady Be Good in a new key, O Grande Amor a little slower than the default tempo, and I can keep Old Devil Moon right where it is.
Being able to see your last session in detail ensures that you never practice more or less than you need to. Keeping track of your progress adds focus to future practice sessions. This applies regardless of whether you practice every day or not. If you are someone who doesn’t play every day, a practice journal will be a game changer. However, it is only the future that is affected, so if you skip a day you only damage your next session - it’s important to continue the chain. This is especially true for sessions that come after longer hiatuses.
At this point, you might be saying “What’s the point? I can remember this stuff!” Sadly, you are mistaken. Off the top of your head, what did you have for lunch eight days ago? Do you remember what you were up to Sunday of last week? How much water did you drink three days ago? You probably cannot answer these questions, at least not easily, because we don’t need to. Our brains are designed to focus on important details that influence behavior (and ultimately survival), and it really doesn’t have the capacity to file away the ≈ 50,000 thoughts we have every day. Unless practicing clarinet is somehow involved with creating experiences to help your brain make predictions critical to survival, your brain just isn’t going to remember every mundane little detail.
Here’s an experiment: go ahead and do one week with a practice journal (be sure to practice every day for this one!). Then go one week without it. Record the differences in your playing. Then do one more week with a practice journal. Again, record the differences in your playing. I guarantee that once you’ve learned to work with a practice journal, you’ll want to stick with it.
Good luck! There is one more article in this series left, so stay tuned!