Practicing everyday can feel like an exercise in futility. Putting in your 10,000 hours seems especially hard when breakthroughs never happen as often or as quickly as you would like, and progress can take so long!
This is where I was a couple of years ago. Practicing for three to four hours per day and feeling unfulfilled and unsure of my progress at the end of a session. At the time, I wasn’t gigging as often as I am now, so again, it was hard to see the practical progress from day to day.
When I expressed this to my teacher, he clued me in to something that would change my life.
He and I frequented the same university gym and we were both fairly meticulous about our workouts. I kept track of how much I was lifting and made sure that there was a linear progression.
So he said to me, “you keep a journal at the gym, why don’t you keep one for your practice?”
Clarity! It makes sense – practicing is much like going to the gym. You are training physical mastery of a very particular skill. Getting stronger and better with repetition, focus, form, and determination. So from that day forward I have kept a practice log, and so should you.
Documentation Of Progress
The single biggest reason to keep a journal is to document your progress. Much as you would document a day’s events in a regular journal, your practice journal will have a record of your accomplishments and trials over the course of the session.
Throughout the practice, I would make notes of certain things. For example, if I was having trouble with an independence exercise, say my left hand was feeling clumsy and wasn’t accurate, I would make a note: LH feeling clumsy on ascending climb in independence ex. 1.
(Note that I am quite specific. This way I can accurately assess what will fix the problem and also come back to it later.)
Then, I would write down what measure I took to fix the problem. E.g. slowed metronome to 45 bpm, and then increased speed to 110 by intervals of 5.
Lastly, I would make some final notes: after working on it, still having trouble with ascending line. Come back to it tomorrow.
Interestingly, I find that when I practice like this, leave it, and come back the next day, I can often do it on my first try. Something about working methodically on something and letting that knowledge sink in over the course of the day/night makes practice more effective.
The next day, I can come back, look at my notes from yesterday, and start by working out the problem spot. When I finished, I would make a note: worked on ascending line, ex 1. Started slow and worked up to it, can do it perfectly now.
And there you go! You have now have visible progress from one day to the next. Without journaling I would never have had this sense of satisfaction.
Easy Way To Keep Practice Structured And Scheduled
As a musician, you basically set your own schedule. This, for me, was initially harder than I thought it would be. It’s so easy to get off track and just start fiddling with your instrument. And hey, sometimes that’s alright.
But it’s generally more effective to have a fairly structured, scheduled practice session. If you’re journaling, this becomes much easier!
Firstly, I use the Bullet Journal as a template for my practice journal. Essentially it’s an indexed, customizable journal system with an easy to use bullet system for creating and finishing tasks. Over time I’ve adapted the journal to my specific needs.
Every day before I played a single note, I would lay out my practice sessions as follows:
Technique: 30 minutes
Songs for upcoming rehearsals: 1.5 hrs
Language: 45-60 minutes
Learn solo from “Drive My Car”
Writing: ~1 hr
Below each header, I leave a couple of lines for progress notes, reflections, breakthroughs etc. Obviously, you’re practice won’t look exactly like this, and you should structure your practice to be congruent with your personal goals.
Regarding the time limits, I actually set timers on my phone. With the notable exception of writing, I don’t practice any one thing for longer than the allotted time.
I find this limitation makes my practice more efficient and results in a more focused practice. When I’m writing, I prefer to take a song all the way to the end, with no time limit. This is a very personal preference – experiment and see what works for you.
Journaling Allows For Easy Reflection
Something that I have recently made a habit of is setting goals at the beginning of each month. The goals could be anything; from learning 3 songs/week to improving at one particular skill such as time.
This is another benefit of practice journaling; easier reflection. Each day I have my goals in the back of my mind as I practice and at the end of the day I can easily see and reflect upon how my practice moved me closer to a goal.
I also reflect on my practice every week, because it is just so easy to look back upon the week’s practice.
At the end of the month, I find it very rewarding to look back upon my daily and weekly reflections and see how close I’ve come to reaching the goals I’ve set.
No more wondering if I’m actually accomplishing anything, the truth is in the journal!
Provides A Motivational Tool
Perhaps you’ve realized this already, but to me progress = motivation. And that’s a two -ay equation; if I’m progressing I have plenty of motivation, and if I’m motivated I can easily progress!
Being able to easily track my progress made a huge difference in my practice. Suddenly I realized I was actually accomplishing something! Further, the creation and realization of practice related goals gave me something very real to work towards, which in turn allowed me to structure my practice and become more efficient.
Believe it or not, I actually practice less now that I’m so used to journaling. The fact is, I can accomplish everything I need to in less time when my practice is ordered and organized. This kind of efficiency leaves me less stressed and more productive. I am now a firm believer that 2 hours of focused practice is better than 4 hours of regular “practice”.
I would encourage you to amp up your practice using journaling. Look into Bullet Journaling and start incorporating this into your practice. It may seem like a lot of work at first, but believe me when I say it’s worth it.