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Saturday, January 8, 2011

How to Practice, part 4: Using a Practice Journal

For my own practice purposes, I have found it useful to use a practice diary or journal rather than a practice log. The actual journal itself can be whatever is comfortable for you. I bought a little spiral notebook that isn't much larger than an index card. Here's how I use the journal.

In the very beginning of the book (or starting from the back pages of the journal if you prefer), I leave a few blank pages. I write my goals on these pages. Leaving them in the beginning (or back pages) of my journal, I can easily refer to them. I like to include several levels of goals:
  • Long term goals: These are the goals that I want to accomplish in the next 5-10 years. I usually start with figuring out what my age will be 5-10 years hence, then I just list a few goal ideas. I can always add to this list or delete completed or obsolete items as time passes.
  • Mid-range goals: These are the goals that I want to accomplish in the next 1-5 years. Again, I consider how old I will be, and then I compile my goal list.
  • Short-term goals: These are the goals that I want to accomplish in the next 6 months to 1 year. After the short-term goals, I consider what I want to accomplish:
    • This quarter (three months ahead)
    • This month
    • This week
My purpose in computing my age in order to compile my goal list is that I find it gives me greater clarity in terms of the time ahead. I expect to live to over 100 years of age, and I find it helpful to plan accordingly (smile). After I have finished listing my goals (and I will revise them from time to time as I go along), I list my weekly goals at the start of my current week of the rest of the journal pages, which is where the meat of my journal begins.

I put the date on every single page. If I am using a larger notebook, I might be able to put two days on 1 page. I write the date for every single day as it occurs, even if I skip a day of practice. If I skip a day of practice, I write down the reason why I skipped the practice. Sometimes I find this simple trick is enough to encourage me to practice anyway rather than have to write down my excuse.

After the date, I write down what I practice as I practice it. This can be detailed (e.g., 3 octave scale, G major, acceleration routine) or just a quick note to myself if I tend to follow the same pattern.

I continue to list items as I complete them. If something comes up in my practice that I need to work on, and I'm not willing to practice those items at the moment, I turn the page in my journal forward to the next day and write myself a note about what I want to practice. Then I flip back to the current day's page and continue my work.

Once I have completed my practice, I make any notes to myself on the following day's page (or perhaps even further in the future) about things I want to follow up on, and then finally I note how much time I spent on my practice session. I find the act of keeping track of my practice or playing time is crucial to my keeping myself injury-free. I have had students come to me with complaints of worrisome aches in elbows, neck, shoulders, or fingers, and when I look through their practice journal, I find the cause of the pain is generally due to the student's inattention to the amount of time they are playing.

If I have to do a lot of heavy playing one day, I try and balance that out with an "easy" day the next day. What is a heavy day for me may be different for one of my students or for you. By working with a practice journal, it will be easy to determine what a heavy day is. So I log in any sort of playing. If I practiced 2 hours in the morning, then play a 2.5 hour rehearsal in the afternoon, and play with my students for another 2 hours, I will have spent about 5-6 really solid hours playing my instrument. I can sustain this kind of playing for a few days, but eventually I need to balance this out with an easier more restful day. Fitness experts tell us that it takes 48 hours for a stressed muscle to recover, so I generally adopt a hard-easy-hard-easy practice plan whenever possible. The journal keeps me aware of my activities with the instrument, and it provides a record that can be useful later when diagnosing problems.

I also use the journal as a place to record my instrument maintenance activities: replacing old strings, rehairing my bow, buying a new shoulder rest. I usually put a huge asterisk or use a colored highlighter pen to bring the information to my attention. Here is a sample page from my practice journal from January 6, 2011.

practice journal: 4 x 6 memo book

Let's look at the information on the page. Along with the date in the top margin, I also noted "AQ vln" and "1.0 hard." "AQ vln" refers to the violin I use with the Artisan Quartet, one that blends well with that ensemble. "1.0 hard" refers to the length of time I practiced and my perceived effort, in this case I felt that I had put out hard effort in my practice. I noted this information because I play on more than one violin. If I start to note specific injuries, I might notice a pattern; perhaps some injuries are a result of switching between instruments. I also keep track of perceived effort, because I don't want to do too many "hard" days in a row. I need to insert an "easy" or "medium" day now and then to keep my body and mind fresh and injury free.

The next notes refer to my specific practice, in this case the Beethoven string quartet, op. 74, all of it and some specific detailed work on certain sections. My next three comments refer to how I am feeling physically. I've been monitoring my fingers because they have been extremely dry lately and feel tight unless I have enough lubrication on them. My shoulder has been bothering me because I think I pulled it a while back while working with my horse. I've been keeping track of it to be sure I don't aggravate the sore area by doing too much of a particular practice that might upset my healing. I have noticed that with the new violin that other physical issues have manifested themselves, so I check in on my neck too. Note my reminder to check the height of my shoulder rest to be sure that the shoulder rest isn't causing the neck ache. And finally, I wrote a reminder that I need to order new strings. When I finally put the strings on my instrument, I will also notate that in my practice journal.

I have found the practice journal to be especially useful when recording my practice, managing my practice details, and recording my observations about a great number of things. I hope that this tool will also be useful for your particular practice situation.

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