To Journal or Not to Journal: Five Productive Practice Tips

February 6, 2019, 12:18 AM · Last year, as part of one of my classes in San Francisco, I was required to keep a daily practice journal for 5 months. I had never experimented with practice journaling before this, so I didn't really know what to think or where to start.

During the first couple of months of this project, I experimented with different techniques of documenting my practice sessions: I tried recording exact times that I began and ended practice, planning an overall schedule and timing each segment of my practice (for example, allowing 20 minutes for technique, etc.), and other things that I thought might be helpful.

I'm going to share the 5 aspects that I found to be most helpful in yielding efficient as well as significant practice sessions, but with a disclaimer: it totally depends on the person, their learning style, and general preferences. So, whatever works for you, keep doing it! This is for anyone who sometimes feels a little lost in guiding their daily practice sessions and/or would like other ideas to aid their practice.

1. This may sound trivial to some of you, but it's important: get a notebook/other medium for taking notes that you like. For the purposes of my practice journal last year, I had a notebook that said "Carpe That Diem" on the front and it just made me feel really happy and positive. If you have that positive association with your practicing right from the start, chances are you'll be more likely to use your journal, and therefore (hopefully) practice!

2.Determine a way of note-taking that works for you. For me, I realized that I didn't need to keep track of every single thing I practiced that day like a diary; instead, I really used my journal to make note of certain spots I had practiced at what metronome marking (ESPECIALLY for orchestra & chamber ensemble music I found this was extremely helpful), and note what I wanted to work on/where exactly I wanted to start in my next practice session. Rather than recording which scale keys I had reviewed that day (who cares, as long as you get it done), I found this method of specific recording and reflecting, as well as a plan for the next session, to be most helpful in my practice journaling.

3. I'm a pretty visual person, so this might not work for everyone, but I find things like color-coding and ways of visual organization to be really helpful when arranging and separating my thoughts. For example, if I write my thoughts on Prokofiev in purple, it helps me mentally distinguish and chunk my ideas from, say, my notes on Bach, which I have written in black. Sometimes, when reviewing a page that was written in scribbled pencil, it's too overwhelming and already feels scattered before I even try to internalize the information. (I discuss the general benefits of chunking in my other blog post on memorization).

4. I record the date of every practice session, and if I don't practice that day, note that in the journal. But even if I take the day off (which I do about once a week), I come up with a plan for the next day that I plan to practice. I find that when i have a plan from the start of each session, I am much more efficient. In these plans, I also try to include all aspects of practice that are important to me: technique, learning new notes, and practice performing (like running 1 page or section of a piece).

5. Last, be positive. I've found that this is a super important factor in guiding my practice sessions. This may sound corny, but give yourself feedback like you would to a good friend. Constructive and helpful, while also kind. I think this is a good rule of thumb for any kind of practice that is done (journal or no journal). One thing I do, particularly after a session that I wasn't super happy with, is list a few things that I felt went really well before I list what I would like to keep working on. I think it's really important to give ourselves time to acknowledge that even though part of our craft is that we constantly need to critique ourselves, we are doing amazing things, and deserve a little self love.

Replies

February 6, 2019 at 08:07 PM · Clara you have once again given us a characteristically thoughtful and insipring essay. No. 2 really jumped out at me as something I should be doing! For me, the information you are recording in No. 4 would be more easily digested by charting rather than writing each date and time in a separate diary entry. Also, I think I would rather use something that's already structured for this purpose, such as a day-planner or week-at-a-glance. Some of those come in very cheery formats even with little jokes or New Yorker cartoons in the margins. Maybe I will look for that at my local (i.e., university) bookstore.

February 7, 2019 at 01:42 AM · I use a practice journal and find that it keeps me on track. I’d like to be more organised with it like Clara; I keep too much in my head. I hope this this article will lead me to better habits.

Terry

PS thanks to the person in another comment who wrote about taking the fine tuner off his e string. I did this after changing strings and soaping the pegs - it’s working fine. I don’t use a SR so the violin is really light now.

February 8, 2019 at 04:14 AM · I just started playing violin and I love keeping a practice journal. I like looking back and adding up the hours I've practiced. I imagine if I log every practice session after a year it would be really cool to see how many hours I've put in.

February 9, 2019 at 04:46 AM · I actually keep a journal for my students, listing what we did each week at the lesson and any thoughts about what should happen next, or general observations. I find it very helpful!

February 9, 2019 at 06:25 PM · i wish i'd done this from the very first. i started at age 65 and it would be interesting to see how much time i've spent practicing, playing with friends and taking lessons. not to mention how great it would have been to make note of what needs the most work as opposed to what's working pretty well. however, it's never too late to start so here i go to find a journal and get started! thank you.

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