Yes, it's true: An unprepossessing 3x5 inch notebook can become the most important tool in your musical arsenal.
It’s called a practice journal, and if you use it thoughtfully, it can increase the effectiveness, efficiency, and joyfulness of your practice!
A practice journal serves multiple functions: It keeps you accountable, tracks your progress, and helps you chart your course. It can also evolve into a resource you can refer back to later for ideas and inspiration.
The physical form of the practice journal can vary. I use a small notebook- easy to open, carry, and modify. I’m not picky about the cover, but if you’re a visual person, having a beautiful object might increase your chances of using it. You could also use a word doc or note-taking software as a journal. There’s even an app- though I find it to be more limiting than free-form journaling.
Whatever it looks like, a successful practice journal allows you to tracks several things:
- Time: When did you practice? For how long? I typically jot down my start and end times. Why track your time? It's not meant to be punitive or shaming. Rather, tracking is one of the best ways to motivate yourself. It's also yields valuable information. Try jotting a few notes about how you felt prior to and during practice. You may discover patterns in your practice: perhaps you practice with more energy after dinner, for example, as opposed to before you've eaten.
- Target: What’s your goal? Writing down what you’re trying to work on, whether it be for the task, hour, week, month, or year, helps you focus your energies and harness your attention. Some goals I’ve set recently include improving my clef reading and brushing up on RV 443.
- Task: What did you practice? Ideally, your tasks should relate closely to your targets. I might make a note that I practiced reading tenor cleft excerpts for 10 minutes, e.g., or that I spent 5 minutes practicing the tricky bit in the Vivaldi at half time.
- Thoughts: How did go? What did you learn? If I discover something in the course of my practice that will be helpful to remember, things I tried that I want to avoid or amplify, I jot them down. Reflecting on my practice helps me refine it. It also helps my build on each day's practice moving forward.
- Tomorrow: At the end of each session’s entry, I make a note of what I want to accomplish the following day (or week, or month). I might read a longer excerpt, or tick up my metronome marking, or make a note to listen with my score to a piece for an upcoming concert.
- Odds and Ends: This is optional, butI tend to use my journal as a place to jot down things I want to remember. It might be a sonata want to play, or a recording I want to listen to, or something somebody said that was extremely helpful. I star these kinds of entries so that I can flip back through my journal and quickly locate ideas, inspiration, and advice.