As a self-taught musician, one of my biggest breakthroughs happened when I started taking notes of what I was practicing. One day I just opened a blank notebook and wrote down the tunes I had played. It was the start of something huge. It helped me stop marking time with my practicing. I was able to imagine what I wanted to see happen, get to work on those ideas, keep working on them, and then look back at what I had done.
There are so many reasons why simply writing down what you’ve done every day can help you progress faster. There is quite a lot about this in my book, Best Practice. [I listed a few relevant chapters at the bottom of this post.]
Over the years I’ve tried many methods to track what I’m working on, including handwritten and digital notes. I’m a technophile, so I’ve tried multiple apps, programs and various methodologies like mind mapping. My all-around favorite method for daily practice notes is a simple, low-tech, hand-written notebook.
I developed a customized workbook, with alternate pages of blank paper and music manuscript, that’s small enough to fit in a gig bag. It allows space to scribble, a way to write some music notation, and a reminder to set an intention or goal for the day.
But this post isn’t an ad for my workbook. You don’t need a customized notebook to take great practice notes. Any notebook will do. You may prefer to take notes digitally. Or you may use multiple tools, in succession or in parallel.
Below are some fairly personal thoughts about the nuts and bolts of practice note-taking. I hope you find something inspiring and useful.
Note-Taking: Digital or Hand-Written?
I’ve discussed practice note-taking with many musicians. These are the three methods that they told me they use:
- Hand-written notes
- Electronic notes i.e. a note-taking app, a list-app, or a generic program (i.e. word processor)
- A spreadsheet
Each has advantages and disadvantages, and, depending on how you use them, one may be more helpful than another. Hand-written notes are the clear favorite among musicians I’ve polled. I myself use all three for slightly different purposes.
A Hand-Written Notebook
Writing notes by hand has many benefits. You may have lost the habit of using pen and paper, but physically writing things is excellent for memory retention. This has been verified by multiple studies, over many years, in disciplines from psychology to neuroscience.
At least one recent study compared writing by hand to “digitally” writing on an app or tablet or smartphone. The study determined that writing on physical paper leads to stronger brain activity when recalling the information later. This fits what we know about memory: Recall is always improved when there are more sensory touchpoints. The unique, complex, spatial, and tactile experience of writing by hand creates a banquet of inputs for the brain.
Put It into Practice
Grab a notebook — preferably unlined — and write whatever you feel like writing at the end of your practice time. Think about things like:
- What will help me remember what I did, so I can come back to it tomorrow?
- What will help me feel good about what I worked on today?
- What do I want to get right down to working on again, the next time I practice?
- What are the overarching themes I want to carry through for the next week, two, or more?
- What can I use to measure my forward movement? (Examples might be metronome speeds, or the ability to remember a tune or transition, or play through well the first time.)
In my own notebooks, some days I just scribble the tune names I worked on. I may circle the ones that I want to work on again. Sometimes there’s a note (“end of B part — string crossings”). Other times I write intentions or encouragement:
- Keep bow moving
- Left shoulder down
- Singing sound — BETTER!
I might write down metronome markings, or even longer-term objectives
- Read through 3 tunes a day with metronome
- One new tune a week
- Practice simple tunes, saying notes names out loud
Does It Work?
Looking through books and books of practice notes, my scribbles might seem disorganized to an outside observer. It’s fair to ask, “What’s the point of writing all this? Did you accomplish all of these objectives? Why have all these notes if you don’t read them?” I would answer that there’s no question that my notes are helpful. Whenever I sit down to play, I page back a day or two in my notes. I go back further when I’m looking for new inspiration.
As for meeting my intentions or objectives: For several weeks I might focus on one or two ideas, such as getting a “singing sound” from the fiddle bow, or keeping my left shoulder down. These things keep popping up in my notes, and I keep trying. Six months later I can tell that I’m consistently getting a more lyrical sound from my violin. I know my left shoulder will always be problematic, but it is relaxing by degrees.
I may drift away from another idea — for example, my idea to “practice 5 simple tunes saying note names out loud” didn’t happen. All this is fine. It’s my practice, after all. No one is standing over me with a ruler.
Create a Sensory Banquet
As long as you’re taking notes by hand, go ahead and make it a sensory banquet. Draw pictures, circles, pointy fingers, exclamation points. Write on a slant.
Snippets of music notation can be very helpful. You can add phrasing, fingering, accents, dynamics, chord notation, or whatever helps you remember what you need to remember.
Summary: Although some people hate writing by hand, hand-written notes create a lot of good, sticky memory touchpoints. Pen-and-paper is a very flexible medium that allows for creativity.
Digital methods of note-taking have the (theoretical) advantage of being “available across all devices.” You can also sort, alphabetize, hide, highlight, move important things to the top, search by keyword, and all of that digital stuff. There are specialized note-taking apps that let you “color outside the lines,” writing on a slant, adding images, and drawing.
On the other hand, I’ve found that writing snippets of music notation can be challenging in digital formats. I want to include notes on fingering, chords, chord patterns, phrasing, and dynamics. Creating annotated music notation can be so time consuming on a computer that I usually get lost in the mechanics and lose focus on practicing.
The annotated notation above was accomplished by opening the sheet music in MS Paint and using the brush tool to write the fingering, chording and other notes. This can also be done (laboriously) in Preview on the Mac, using the annotation tools. Then the snippet would have to be cut and pasted into the note-taking app you’re using, which I did using Mac Preview. Of course, first you have to write the underlying music notation or “dots” the way you play it.
Summary: Digital note-taking has advantages, but it doesn’t offer the “sensory banquet” of hand-written notes. Digital apps can also be frustrating when incorporating music notation. (Please tell me if you find an awesome digital solution.) If you like tech, go ahead and be digital. If something helps you take notes, it’s a good tool for you.
I’ve used many a spreadsheet for tracking the tunes I know, but never thought of spreadsheets as a practice tool until recently, when someone showed me how to add a few helpful fields. One I’m liking is a color-coded field for the “last practice date.” You can add as few or as many columns as you want, depending on your instrument and your preference. A big benefit of spreadsheets is the ability to hide, sort, and drag things around. You can also share them, for example with a teacher.
Below are two examples of spreadsheets I use daily. The first is more of a practice aid, including fields for whether I can recall the tune without help, goals, and current playing speed.
The example below is a list of repertoire, however it does incorporate some practice elements in the note section and the “start level” and “status” columns. This is helpful to me when I’m seeking out a tune that I might like to revisit.
Spreadsheets can be a great tool for tracking progress on individual tunes, especially if you’re managing a large repertoire. They obviously don’t incorporate “big picture” ideas that apply to all your practicing, like posture, breathing, intention, or tone.
One downside to the spreadsheet as a practice tool is that by its nature, a spreadsheet directs your attention to quantifiable ideas that fit into its cells. This can fool you into conceptualizing the music, and your playing, in a tidy, almost clockwork way:
- “What key is it in?”
- “Can I remember it?”
- “How fast can I play it?”
You will need to remind yourself to think “outside the box” (pun intended).
- “Was I able to play without grimacing?”
- “Am I phrasing the B part the way I want to?”
- “Are the faster notes even?”
- “What’s the fingering in the B section?”
Summary: While spreadsheets can be helpful tools for daily use, they’re best used for elements that can be quantified (metronome speed), as opposed to practice concepts that are more qualitative, abstract, or reflective. They may be most helpful when used in combination with written out notes.
I hope this has inspired you to take notes, if you don’t already, or to get back to it if you’ve been less diligent. As always, feel free to give me your feedback!
Here are a few chapters in Best Practice where you’ll find more about taking notes:
18 — Taking Notes
54–Tracking Small Wins
101–When to Move On
108–Learn a New Skill in 45 Days
182–Give Yourself a Gold Star
Judy Minot is a musician and the author of the book Best Practice: Inspiration and Ideas for Traditional Musicians.
Judy has played and practiced piano since she could reach the keys, training in classical playing until age 16. She now plays traditional music in various settings on a number of instruments, and gives workshops and classes on Best Practice ideas all over the U.S. and virtually.
Judy spent her working life in broadcast television and digital marketing. She holds a 4th degree black belt in the martial art of Kokikai Aikido and is a certified yoga teacher.
For more information visit: www.judyminot.com/bestpractice