A Practice Journal System That Actually Works

Written by Jason Heath, Founder and CEO of Contrabass Conservations

I’ve been keeping practice journals ever since high school. An entire shelf in my mom’s basement is devoted to them, in fact!  I often page through these old journals, taking a trip down memory lane:

October 10, 1992

•       stretching – 5 min

•       open strings – 5 min

•       3 octave scales – 20 min

•       Bach Prelude – 20 min

•       BREAK

•       Beethoven 5 – 20 min

Sometimes these entries would be incredibly detailed, with check marks next to each entry. Other times I’d write a few sentences about a specific piece or technique.

I knew there was value in doing this, but I’d never found a way to reference back to what I had done in the past. Every time I began working an excerpt, I struggled to remember what the issues had been with it in the past. Was my spiccato stroke uneven?  Was my phrasing out of whack?  Did I always rush a particular bar?

Also, I never could seem to keep track of previous comments from teachers, master classes, and colleagues. All this advice blurred together in my memory. As a result, I kept making the same mistakes over and over.

Rob Knopper’s Brilliant Solution

I was putting the finishing touches on my book Winning the Audition when I interviewed Rob Knopper.  Rob is a percussionist in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and runs auditionhacker, a site dedicated to developing audition skills.

We had a great conversation about Rob’s journey on the audition circuit, developing his audition skills, and the inspiration to start auditionhacker.

Rob recently wrote a post describing his practice journal system, which was a revelation to me.  This system makes so much sense!

Here’s the portion of our conversation where we dig into Rob’s practice journal system. You can listen to the complete interview here.

Jason Heath: Something that’s on your site is how you approach practice journals and organizing excerpts in general.  Can you talk through how you approach the audition binder system?

Rob Knopper: Yeah—you always hear how you’re supposed to take practice notes, and the classic way to think about it is you have one of those exam books for school and like:

Day One

September 30th, 2016

8 am – I practiced 14 scale exercises – check!

10 am – I practiced my Mozart 39

But I tried that, and it didn’t allow me to have all the information I needed at the time I needed it.  It was irrelevant.  I could flip through a bunch of days and learn nothing.

I wanted to be organized by piece.  It doesn’t matter the things I did yesterday, the things I did the day before.  What I really want is when I take out a piece, and I’m working on a specific measure, I have all of the notes that I have made on that piece in terms of notes I’ve made when working on it, exercises that I’ve written out for it, lesson notes from my teachers, and notes from listening to records and tempos, or which recording is best.  I want to have the relevant information from my past, so that I can, if I’m having a problem, look back and see “How did I fix that last time?”  Or maybe I didn’t—maybe I never had to deal with that.

The way that actually looks is you go to a lesson, you record it—always record it—it’s precious information, you go home, you transcribe the recording or at least write down the important bullet points, and then you organize it by piece.  Each piece has general comments and measure-specific comments.  You date that, and you save it into its own file.  What I would do it print out the “October 13th lesson with my college teacher from sophomore year on Delécluse 1.”  That would be my notes from that lesson.

When I go into the practice room for the rest of the week, I would take the notes from that lesson and put it on my stand on one side and the music on the other side, so as I’m practicing I’m revisiting every single topic or concept or bullet point that my teacher was talking about, so that I can ingrain it and have a better chance.  At the very least, it’s like self-preservation.  You want to go into your lessons without your teacher yelling at you for forgetting what they said.

But then, fast-forward to two years later.  You’ve now played that piece for that teacher twice, you’ve played it for a visiting teacher once, and you have notes that you took on your own that are also dated.  You have this chronological packet of notes that you’ve taken on that piece that you can apply to your work now.  You may not be looking at that stuff constantly, but it’s all right there, exactly in the place you need it, and sometimes the biggest breakthroughs come from working on a measure, not knowing how to fix it, and just being like, “I wonder how I figured that out last time?”  Flipping through and being like, “oh, my teacher said something then that didn’t really make sense to me, but I get it now, and I’m going to try it, and maybe something else that I’ve learned along the way helps me synthesize that concept and apply it to that new thing.”

What that ends up looking like in terms of a practice journal is every piece has the music, it’s paired with all these old notes—lesson notes and my notes and exercises and research—and it’s alphabetical.  They’re going to come back again, so you have this storage of all of these pieces you might play one day and you’ve played in the past.  And then you have the current pieces you’re working on, where you just take out each of these plastic protectors that are getting thick by this point with notes.  You have your four or five pieces you’re working on right now, or maybe 30 if you’re working on an audition, and you have everything that you’ve ever done on those pieces.

It’s awesome, because I have this going all the way back to high school.  I’m like a pack rat for information.  I’m like a hoarder, and this is the way hoarding information works.  I don’t hoard other stuff, but information is precious.  I’ll never throw it away.  I hoard emails.  I hoard documents on my computer.  I hoard old contracts.  Because at that desperate moment when you’re trying to work through something that sucks, you might just need to search for how to fix it in the collection of information that you’ve learned in your life that you may not remember.

How I’m Implementing This Solution

I love this piece-specific solution so much!  What a simple and brilliant way to make practice notes useful.

For me, going as paper-free as possible is important for all areas of my life.  I’m notoriously bad about losing notes, and I know that any paper-based solution would break down for me.

Also, with the technology we have available to us, I knew that there had to be a way to combine audio recordings of lessons and master classes with paper notes for specific pieces.

All of a sudden, I realized the perfect way to do this: Evernote!

How to use Evernote as a practice journal

I have used Evernote for nearly 10 years to organize all areas of my life.  It’s an incredibly useful tool.  I write all my blog posts in it.  My receipts are organized there.  All my podcast planning, to-do lists, and web clippings are contained in Evernote.

Setting up Evernote as a practice journal

There are two methods I’ve found for setting up Evernote as a practice journal:

Method #1: One Notebook per Piece

If you’re only using Evernote as a practice journal and notching else, this method will work:

1.     Create a new notebook for each piece

2.     Add all recordings, notes, scans of the piece itself, MP3s of favorite recordings, and other content into that notebook

3.     Tag each piece with information like:

1.     Name of person you played for

2.     The Audition you’re preparing for

3.     Most valuable comments

4.     Best performance of that piece

Evernote has a powerful search function. You can even create saved searches to call up information for frequent queries.

Using this system, you can call up all comments you’ve ever gotten from a particular teacher or everything you did for a specific audition. Tagging the most helpful comments allows you to quickly reference old information or add new information.

Method #2: Practice Journal Notebook with Tags

Another option is to create one notebook called “Practice Journal” and then tag each note with the specific piece. That allows for more flexibility since one note can have multiple tags.

If you use Evernote for multiple areas of your life like I do, you’ll probably want to use the tagging method.  Just make sure you’re consistent with your tags or you’ll wind up with a giant mess.

Recording in Evernote

Evernote allows you to record audio inside the app. That audio becomes a new “note” that can be annotated, shared, and exported. I used to use the voice memos function on my iPhone to record audio, but I soon realized the usefulness of keeping all of this content within Evernote. I started recording my practicing and taking notes in the app, and I found it to be a much tighter way to integrate all of this.

Taking paper notes and scanning them in

Evernote allows you to take a photo of anything and save it in the app. It will even do optical character recognition (OCR) on scanned notes.

Even though I’m a “digital guy,” I tend to take a lot of handwritten notes. I’ll scan these in and include them along with all the other content for a specific piece. I’m amazed at how well it interprets my horrible handwriting!

Evernote is free to use, with paid options for more features.  If you’d like to learn more about how you can use Evernote in the practice room, check out this talk that I did for the Illinois American String Teachers Association in 2015.

Jason Heath is the host of Contrabass Conversations, a podcast devoted to exploring music and ideas associated with the double bass. His blog and podcast are highly regarded in the music world and have been featured as top offerings in the world of arts and culture for the past decade.

An active double bass performer and teacher, Jason taught double bass at DePaul University for seven years and served on the Board of Directors of the International Society of Bassists for many years. He also previously taught at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and at Trinity International University. Jason previously served as President of the Illinois chapter of the American String Teachers Association and as the Illinois Music Educators Association District 7 Orchestra Division Co-Representative.

A graduate of Northwestern University, Jason currently performs with the IRIS Orchestra in Memphis Tennessee, and with he Midsummer’s Music Festival in Door County, Wisconsin. He was a member of the Elgin Symphony for 16 seasons and has performed with the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Grant Park Symphony, and numerous other professional ensembles.

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