Keeping a practice journal is a standard piece of advice for musicians that’s basically gospel.

Why? Well, keeping a written record of your practice and performance is important for keeping track of your improvements.  Just like a ship’s captain keeps notes on the weather and events of the day, a music journal can help a musician to keep track of practice progress.

Documentation of progress

What should you take notes on? The quick answer is, “Anything you want to.” In all honesty, when you practice, you just need a place where you can write things down. Write down what you did, what you need to do next, how it felt, and be meticulous in documenting everything. Because in order to improve, you absolutely have to remember the problems and their corresponding solutions.

You also need to remember the process that you went through to get from problem to solution. These kinds of things are easily forgotten, but they unquestionably need to be remembered, referenced, and ingrained into your muscle memory. In fact, the more information you have on a certain topic or piece that you’re playing, the more likely it is that you’ll be able to find better ways to fix it.

For example, when I practice I like to take notes on certain things I’m struggling with, what I think will help, and what I did to fix it. It’s important to write your notes as specific as possible, so you accurately assess what will fix the problem and also come back to it later. For example, if I was having trouble with speed, I would take that note: make sure to practice slow, visualize, and then practice above tempo so that the target tempo feels more comfortable.

Then, if you’ve fixed the issues, it’s good to document that as well. E.g. remember to visit above-target tempos for ease & fluidity. Lastly, I would make some final notes: After working on it, still having trouble with ascending line. Come back to it tomorrow.

Taking notes in this manner can really help you focus on your improvements much more effectively and you may even find that when you practice like this, leave it, and come back the next day, you’ll be much more successful at it your next attempt. There’s something about working methodically on something and letting that knowledge sink in over the course of the day/night makes practice more effective.

Keep it positive

Another thing I want to mention is when I take notes, I like to keep it positive. Instead of writing something like: left-hand feels clumsy on ascending climb. I prefer to focus on a more positive framing: focus on left-hand gracefulness in ascending passage. Why? I write notes in a positive frame because it focuses me on what I want to achieve put my mind into the proper framework.

“Don’t miss a note” requires your brain to process “miss a note”. This can often activate memories of missing a note, priming you and preparing you to do so again, and again. Instead, “nail the center of the note easily” in turn primes your memories for “center of note”, “ease”, etc. These are “wants” that you truly want. Writing notes in a positive frame not only prepares you to focus on success, but it also saves you time having to translate your notes into achievable goals.

Other ideas for what you can keep track of:

  • Daily practice agendas.
  • What exercises you practice for what period of time, at what tempos.
  • What’s working for new techniques, and what isn’t.
  • Songs that you’re learning.
  • Music that you’re listening to and any questions related to that.
  • Songwriting ideas.
  • Notes from lessons.
  • Progress on performance pieces.
  • Questions to ask an instructor.
  • Things to look up on the web later.

How to organize your music practice notes:

Additionally, one good way to organize your practice is to separate everything you’re working on from everything you’re not working on. You can use the following system to better keep track of what you’re working on:

  • Consolidate an excerpt along with all of its related notes
    The smallest unit in the system. Store all the information you’ve ever documented for an excerpt or piece together in a single place.
  • Store all the pieces currently being worked on together as your current repertoire
    Put all the excerpts you’re working on and their corresponding notes together in alphabetical order so they’re all in one place.
  • Put all the pieces not currently being worked on into excerpt storage.

How often you should be taking notes:

As often as you practice!

If you practice every day, then daily is probably the best answer. And though your practice time may vary from day to day, the repetition and frequency of this kind of practice will start to build your skills.

Don’t wait too long to before journaling about your practice session.  The reality is that losing track of details, fudging the numbers, or just plain forgetting what you did becomes easy if you wait too long.  Ideally, you should journal as you practice, or immediately afterward.

Digital journal or pen and paper?

Using pen and paper could be helpful to you if you like the tactile exchange of actually writing down notes.  If you tend to use lines, arrows, stars, and other non-character markings to embellish your notes –  you may find that using a traditional paper journal is easier and more preferable.

The advantage of going digital and using an app, of course, that it can go everywhere with you on your phone. It also won’t take up space and is easier to search through.

One popular note-taking app is Evernote. It’s free, it works on every platform and is optimized for high-level organization. However, if you’re hoping for a digital journal specially made for musicians, you can check out Modacity! Modacity was built to help musicians stay organized and focused, so if you want early access to features like notes on practice items, go to our FAQ, then navigate down to “How do I qualify for early features/tester access?” and click the link there to sign up.

Marc Gelfo

Marc Gelfo

Marc has been practicing music for 30+ years. After applying cognitive science & computer science to French horn, Marc became an internationally touring symphony musician. His experience includes teaching and performing with thousands of musicians around the world, including the San Francisco Symphony.