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Thursday, January 6, 2011

How to Practice, part 3: Using a Practice Log

In the past for my university students, I used a basic practice log:

Practice Log (university), © 2011 Paula E. Bird
I used this log for years at the university. Let me explain the components. My goal in designing this practice log was to encourage students to touch their instruments as often as possible during the week, and I graded accordingly. The form has 5 basic rows, but I only grade four of the rows unless there is something I have assigned in the 5th row in place of one of the other 4 rows.

There are four possible grades at each week's lesson: Scale, Etude, Repertoire, and Listening. I list the assignments in the top portion of the Practice Log. The student is then responsible for completing the bottom rows and columns. The letters S-E-R-O-L stand for: Scale-Etude-Repertoire-Other-Listening. The first left column after S-E-R-O-L I scribble "Lesson" across the entire column. If the student shows up at their lesson, this is a freebie from me.

Similar to the other practice logs I discussed in part 2 of How to Practice, I expect students to complete this practice log each week. If I do not get a practice log for a week, the student receives four zeroes for that week's lesson. I have provided the student with every possible opportunity to download the practice log outside of lessons, and I also accept handwritten or typed versions in the event that a student has lost their practice log.

You're probably wondering two things: (1) how do I grade these practice logs, and (2) how can I tell if the student is being honest?

(1) My grading plan is simple. If the student has completed every column in a particular row, that is 100%. If 6 columns are checked in a row, I give the grade of 90%, 5 columns equals 80%, 4 columns equals 70%, and so forth. Just showing up for your lesson is 40% (I'm so much more valuable, you see), but there have been times when I have not given the student the 40% for showing up at their lesson and have instead insisted that the student practice that day. There are occasions when I have opted to give the student credit for some other playing activity. For example, perhaps the student is involved with the opera orchestra and doing extra rehearsals during the week. I might give the student an 85 or 75 in one area to give the student credit for playing but not actually practicing lesson material. I don't explain myself. I just do it.

(2) I can tell if a student (whether university or private) skips even 1 day of practice. There is an overall change in the student's demeanor at lessons. It's a little more obvious with younger students, because they indicate a less than stellar practice week with other acting out behaviors. But for university students, I tell them upfront in the first lesson, that I will always assume they are being honest and telling me the truth. The first time their practice log doesn't align with the results in their lesson, I will note it. The second time I will assume that the student needs to correct their practice habits. I usually discover that there is a practice focus or concentration issue. Once I address the focus issue, the student's practice logs start to coincide with the results I hear in lessons. For incoming freshmen, this process may take an entire semester until we work the kinks out. But, I'll have a stronger student as a result.

Another benefit to this practice log is that a student can anticipate those weeks when priorities get muddled and there are too many performances or demands on the student's time. If a student is wise, they will store up a few 90% or 100% weeks in anticipation of those "slump" weeks of 60% or 70%. Even from week to week, a student should be able to balance out the practice priorities to earn a higher grade. For example, 100% in listening, 100% in scales, 70% in repertoire, and 80% in etude will net the student an overall grade of  87.5%.

Using this type of practice log may seem a bit simplistic and maybe a little juvenile, but I have found it to be a useful tool on the university level. It puts the student in the driver's seat as to organizing practice and practice priorities. It allows the student the opportunity to learn how to take responsibility for recording their practice efforts, and it affords me the opportunity to teach the student how to take more personal responsibility overall for noticing problems in areas such as discipline, focus/concentration, and sloppy practice habits.

Overall, most of my students will tell you that they find this particular method of grading useful. I recall one student explaining to another student how this practice log record allowed the student to "be in control of my grade," as if somehow the student did not realize that they have always been in control of their grade from the beginning. Yet somehow the practice log reinforces this concept, and for that reason it is a valuable tool for me at the university level.

By the way, when a student finishes a 90% or 100% week, we have heavenly lessons! So it really works.

I've added some more content to the "For Parents" and "For Teachers" pages. Please be sure to sign in whether you are joining us in the 100 Days Challenge, even if you are just beginning. And I'd love to have some comments from readers.


  1. Whew! I almost had to start at day 1 again, but in the chaos of the evening I did manage to eek out my own 5 minutes of practice! I have a song for you, Paula!

  2. Yeah, Teri! Go, lady! Can't wait to hear it!

  3. Teri, you did a great job! Imagine! You played a 1 octave descending scale with crossover fingering, changing hand positions, and independent hands. I'm impressed. Just think how many Christmas Carols you'll be able to play next December! I posted your performance photo on Facebook. Hope you enjoyed it. Your husband did!

  4. Could I add this chart to my website. I love it! It's the first one I've seen that looks like this.

    1. Of course! It was something I constructed when I first joined the university faulty. Let me know if you need a better document to upload.