New Year, New Practice Journal

I have kept a practice journal ever since I made the realization that practicing was a serious pursuit. I must have been 15 or 16 at the time, and just beginning to self-guide my musical development. I think that all successful musicians reach a point where they realize that they can’t rely on their teacher to solve all of their problems, and that nobody is going to make sure they achieve their goals except themselves. At this point, they become their own teacher and now have the responsibility of goal setting, problem solving, and assessing growth. A practice journal is a natural tool for this, and in my experience, improves creativity, productivity, focus, and most importantly ownership of the learning process.

I love the possibilities that arise with beginning a new journal at the new year. Not only does it feel fresh and new, but there is some time before the semester starts to implement good habits and try out some new ways of thinking. As 2020 came to an end, I spent some time reading through my practice journal, noting the highs and lows, keeping routines that work effectively, and discarding those that don’t.

Through the years, I have tried many different formats for my practice journal, and have made the following conclusions:

  • A handwritten format is best for creating meaningful journal entries. While electronic formats are convenient and come with built in practice trackers and metronomes, etc., they feel too transitory.
  • A less-fancy notebook is better than a fancy one. I like a notebook that looks nice, but that I wouldn’t feel terrible if I spilled coffee on it.
  • Less structure is better than more. A great practice should feel like it builds on established habits while giving free rein to exploration. If the journal is too prescriptive, creativity can be stifled.
  • Tracking, while satisfying in its way, is not the point of a practice journal. The journal should focus much more on discovery and reflection than on achievement.
  • The journal should induce a sense of calm curiosity. Different colored pens and chaotic entry styles distract from the content.
  • Practice time is precious. The journal should not take up so much time that actual practice is compromised. If the journal isn’t saving time by making you more productive, it is convoluted.

For this year’s journal, I have elected to use a sketchbook format. This is a happy accident, as I meant to pick out a lined notebook, but neglected to pay attention at the store and ended up with a sketchbook. I nearly returned it, but the more I thought about it, the more I liked the malleability of a completely blank page.

While I have used aspects of bullet journaling for years in my personal journal, I have never incorporated these into my practice journal. The flexibility of this organizational system is ideal for what I have in mind for this year’s practice journal. Here is how I set it up:

  • Number the pages
  • Designate the first few pages for a Table of Contents
  • Create a “Future Log”- space for each month (I used a quarter page), space for next year divided into quarters, and space for as many years as I want to plan ahead. (I went up to 2026.) These pages are used to track calendar items and benchmarks.
  • 1 page for 2020 Review
  • 1 page for 2021 Goals- I keep these pretty broad, with a mix of specific performance goals, and more growth based goals. I expect to add more as the year progresses.
  • 1 page for 1st Quarter Goals (January 1-March 31)
  • 1 page for January Goals
  • 1 page for Week 1 Goals
  • At this point, I use a template for each practice session.
    • Date, time, and how long I intend to practice.
    • 3 questions or problems I will explore during this session.
    • 3 specific goals for repertoire, technique, or musicianship. This might be more or less depending on how long the session is. 3 is a good number for me given 2 hours to work.
    • A description of the process. This is usually a warm-up, followed by 15-20 minute segments of practice alternating between the questions/goals, interspersed with 3-5 minute active breaks. I usually designate a cool-down activity like improvisation, sight-reading, or revisiting a favorite piece. Ending with positivity is important!
    • Space for noting discoveries. I try to fill this up during the session.
    • Space for questions. I write these down as soon as they pop into my head. If this space isn’t full by the end of the session, I spend some time coming up with more questions. I can then use these questions to help form the next practice session.
    • Space for capturing negative thoughts. This might be self-talk, excuses, egotistic bs, etc.

At the end of the week, I take time to read and reflect on the week’s entries. I review the week, month, quarter, and year goals to make sure I’m on track, and to adjust as necessary. Next I set goals for the next week, and the process repeats itself. Once the month is at an end, I will reflect on January and create goals for February. At the end of March, I will reflect on the 1st Quarter and create goals for the 2nd Quarter.

Other tasks I use my journal for:

  • Taking notes on performances, lectures, masterclasses, books, or articles.
  • Creating templates or workflows for analysis, practice structure, or performance routines.
  • Lists: quotations, music I want to learn, books I want to read.
  • Creative distractions like poetry or sketches.

If you keep a practice journal, I would be curious to know how you use it. Have you found that your process has evolved as you have matured? How has journaling effected your practice habits?