I am continually surprised that so many students, including those at the college level, can be reluctant to fill out practice journals or charts. I’m not surprised that perhaps an individual feels he can keep track of what he is doing during practice time without journaling, because I am one of those people. I am also not surprised that there are people who have a thorough well-thought-out practice regimen for whom journaling may be redundant.
I am a person who has not regularly kept practice journals so it may seem surprising to you that I am writing about this right now. However, I have used journals in the past and will continue to use them in the future, as needed, with great results. I also know from a pedagogical standpoint that they are a great way to teach people how to organize their practice.
What surprises me more than anything is when a student is required to keep a journal as part of her lesson regimen…and she doesn’t. The first question is: why would you not do what your teacher requires? I don’t believe in flat-out refusing to do something with no explanation other than an “Oh I forgot,” or “I practiced but I didn’t write anything down.” The second question is: why on earth would you jeopardize your grade when it’s so easy to scribble a few things down on paper now and again?
Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty here. There are multiple issues at hand when this happens:
- By not completing your assignment in the way the teacher requested, you are not being 100% respectful of your teacher's knowledge. Without realizing it, you are sending the message that what your teacher asks/offers is not important to you; that you’d like to do it your own way. (I’m not saying that your way might not be perfectly functional for you if indeed, you are a thorough and regular practicer…but see the next point below.)
- You are not giving a new perspective a chance. How do you know that keeping a journal won’t be helpful? Show eagerness to adopt new ways and to better yourself using new techniques. Willingness to be adaptive to other perspectives and methods is a great trait and will help you in the future no matter what you do with your career.
- You might not want to face reality. You may not even realize fully that you are NOT doing these things because they will serve to outline the fact(s) that: you may not be practicing enough, that you may not be practicing the right things, and that you may be glossing over issues. At the heart of the matter could be a defensiveness of the fact that what you write down makes what you have or haven’t done “official,” and you may not really like to put that in writing.
- You might be being lazy. But let’s not even go there, because if you are too lazy to write a few scratches on a piece of paper then opening a flute case would be a huge effort as well. ;)
It may feel a bit tedious to write in a book about what you do. But your journal serves to provide you with data, guidance and goals. A practice journal, at the most basic level, simply charts the frequency or length of your practice. For some of you, this can be eye-opening, especially if you are not in the habit of practicing frequently. At the same time, it can provide impetus to improve and to practice more often.
- Your journal can guide you through your progress in a detailed way. It is easy with a journal to itemize the scales you need to practice, the sections of a piece that need to be completed, and the techniques you are trying to implement. It can be quite clear what has been overlooked when reading through a practice journal.
- A journal can be goal-oriented. A simple note about future goals, or about what to work on during the next practice can serve to keep you on task.
- The journal is also a useful diagnostic. Reading through the journal or chart together can help teacher and student adjust, itemize and reprioritize practice. It can help both teacher and student realize where there is not enough focus, or where perhaps there is too much focus. It can help open up conversations about how to create more practice time when needed. This is the primary reason that I personally will ask a student to fill out a journal. It is not punishment. It is not “busy work.” It is a very useful diagnostic! I want to help, and your data helps me help you! For real!
- Your journal can be a simple as a daily chart: just checks on a piece of paper to let you know that you achieved the goal of practicing that day. Seeing those checks can keep you accountable. It can be as detailed as a science experiment with charts and metronome markings and itemization of progress. It can be as personal as a diary, where you write about what you did, your difficulties, your achievements, your “aha” moments, and questions for future lessons.
It is up to you where you want to let the journal process take you. I am personally beginning a journal this month to help me stick to the task of repeating/rotating through specific technical exercises with more frequency. I tend to like variety to the extent that I switch off of something sooner rather than later. I am journaling right now to document what happens when I stick to something for a bit longer than usual.
Think about this journal thing a little. I often tell students that they have every right to reject a particular technique or approach to playing once they have adopted it in regular practice. It is not until you have incorporated something into your playing/practicing life so that it’s done with a fair bit of facility that you can truly contrast and compare the new way with the way you functioned before.
Don’t disallow yourself possible improvement and success because of either defensiveness or ego. Give it a whirl and let me know what happens. I’d love to hear how it works for you.