Practicing 101: The Journal

 

One of the most laborious yet important parts of the process of being an artist is practicing. Believe it or not, not everyone enjoys practicing; some even dread it (as witnessed by most parents, at some time, during the meltdown of a child being made to practice scales before dinner). However, most people only have problems motivating themselves to get started practicing. Once they start, they have no problems continuing. Here I'll show you a simple and extremely effective way to make the art of practicing less daunting, more engaging, and a more educational process: The Practice Journal.


The practice journal, a simple little notebook, helps the instructor assess what the student has worked on, what difficulties need to be addressed in the lesson, and the direction the instructor needs to take the student. What it does for the student is far greater still. The practice journal serves as a vital self-motivating tool for the student to plan for long-term goals, track progress, and recognize their successes.


The journal focuses the student on the coming tasks ahead. It allows a student to cerebrally engage a work, breaking it down into smaller, more digestible units; thereby, making the “impossible” seem like an accomplishable reality. When the student breaks down the assignment for the week(s) into smaller, seemingly accomplishable units, the limiting factor (what I term to be the opposite of a motivating factor) to practice is lessened or removed entirely. “Whew. I only have to learn nine measures today!” or “I only need to sit down and write out my IPA and translation today” seem so much more inviting than “I have to learn everything today...every day...every single day....everything.”


The journal also helps keep the student motivated by allowing him to see, in visual format, the amount of progress he has made and how much success he has gained as an artist through practicing. Through the “Difficulties” section of the practice journal, over time a student can see that what used to be difficult is now less difficult or even routine! This encourages the student to practice, because the student can see that by practicing one can be successful at overcoming difficulties.


Being successful, and having the ability to see credible evidence of it, is one of the, if not the, most critical aspects of motivation. In sports, one can see success very easily by winning. In music the only opposing team is one's own mind, and it wins almost every time. This is because the mind likes to cheat. It cheats by playing on our own doubt and lack of self-confidence. When we are on stage and the nerves creep in, the only thing we have to rely on is what we have practiced. With a written log and visual evidence of success in a practice journal your mind can rest assured that you have the skills to pay the bills.


Using the practice journal is very simple. The first part of your practice session is spent planning out what you are going to do during your practice session. Keeping this journal is so important to your success that it actually counts as time spent practicing (which is a wonderful way to help motivate demotivated young children and teenagers to practice – it doesn't even involve using the instrument).


Every
time (emphasis added, due to its extreme importance) a student practices, the journal should have an entry in the following format:

Date:

Goal(s):

Time Started:

Time Ended:

Materials Worked:



Difficulties:







Goal Accomplished? (If goal not accomplished, explain.)




At the start of the practice session the student fills in everything except Materials Worked, Difficulties, and Goal Accomplished. Those are filled in during, in the case of Materials Worked, or after the practice session (for the rest). Start by making one or two reasonable goals for the session. The more this method is used, the better at determining if a goal is too ambitious or too easy. Fret not, said the rope, it takes time. Learning to practice takes...practice.


Under the Materials Worked section, write down every single thing practiced (scales, etudes, vocalises, translations, diction work, acting stagecraft, et cetera). This helps the student gauge if during practicing they are doing something that distracts them from accomplishing their goal. Playing or singing through Disney tunes, while enjoyable, will not help you learn that concerto or aria your teacher wants to hear next week. Save just playing through music or singing for fun until after you have practiced. As a speech pathologist friend likes to tell her clients “Work before play.”


The Difficulties section is one of the most important parts of the journal. It helps a student realize what still needs work, and once the difficulty is worked out it turns the practice journal into a visual tool for success. A guide for parents and students on what is considered a “difficulty”: if after using your teacher's methods of practicing you are unable to make progress on something, that is a difficulty. It means you need additional help or extra time working on it. Don't be alarmed if your “Difficulties” section is longer than any other part of your journal. That's the point. If you didn't have difficulties, you wouldn't need practice. Now would you?


The Goal Accomplished section is self-explanatory. Were you able to succeed at the goal you set for yourself or not? If not, why? Was it too ambitious? Were you only able to learn part of the goal? Did you run out of time because you had to go do your chores? Was a part of it not understandable and you need additional help? Write it down and use it as springboard to help you for further practice sessions.


Make sure to take the time after you are done with your music work to write down these last sections. They are the most important parts of the journal, so they also count as time spent practicing.


Here's an example of what a finished practice journal should look like:

Practice Journal Entry Example

10/31/2010

Goal: Learn measures 60-95 of Mozart's “Violin Concerto in G, 1st mvt” (notes and rhythms)

Time Started: 6:30

Time Ended: 7:45

Materials Worked: Etudes (Kreutzer #2), G-major and D-minor scales (three octaves), and Concerto measures 60-95.

Difficulties: String crossing in measure 72. Shifting into third position in measure 88. Did not understand rhythm in measure 93.

Goal Accomplished: No. Could not manage to get the shift in measure 72. Will pick up from there next time.


I promise if you use this simple method, practicing will be clearer, more engaging and will give you a better sense of what you are doing and why are you doing it. The more you put into the journal, the more you get out of it. Stay motivated and stay strong. You can do this.



The Motto for Studio J:


Practice makes permanent, so no excuses; only excellence.