Practice Journals Are “Notable” and the “Key” to Making Musical Progress

foxsfiresides

It’s all about defining focus, setting goals, practicing, and methodically solving problems!

A good way to “warm-up” to the benefits of making a personal practice diary, check out this video of cellist Sarah Joy “A Look Inside My Practice Journal.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=253UMKMfOoc.

(She has quite a collection of YouTube releases… everything from sight-reading tips to structuring your practice time. They are short and sweet!)

So, let’s get started with the “why” and “how” of using practice journals…

I asked the South Hills Junior Orchestra members to give me their insight on how they prioritize/plan their practice time. Thankfully, I received a thoughtful response from one of our violinists, Nicolette:

For practicing, I usually start out with a scale. Then, I’ll play a couple etudes I have. However, I won’t play all of them, instead I’ll leave some to play at the end of my practice. Then, I’ll move on to some of my easier pieces to practice. Moving on from that, I’ll play my harder pieces, or my orchestra music. I usually try to change it up a bit so I don’t get bored. Then I’ll finish up with the rest of my etudes. After I’m done practicing, I usually try to write in my practice journal. Whenever I practice, I will keep out my notes from my teacher and my practice journal to look back at while practicing.

For my practice journal, I try to write in it whenever I remember, because I would be lying if I said I wrote in it every day. When I do write in my practice journal, I write down what I need to practice the next day, whatever I was having difficulty with that day, and maybe some notes my teacher gave me.

If I’m starting to feel stressed and frustrated, or if I’m starting to get bored with practicing, I’ll start listening to music. The music can vary, but I mostly stick to musicals.

What do the experts say some of the rationales for maintaining a written journal for any serious educational pursuit?

  1. It defines targets for a more efficient use of time. http://www.essential-music-practice.com/efficient-practice.html
  2. Promotes accountability. http://theaspiringguitarist.net/guitar-practice-journal/
  3. Documents progress. https://www.musicindustryhowto.com/the-musicians-practice-journal-and-why-you-need-one/
  4. Keeps track of details. https://music.stackexchange.com/questions/3299/do-music-students-find-practice-journals-useful
  5. Harnesses creativity. https://lifehacker.com/why-you-should-keep-a-journal-and-how-to-start-yours-1547057185
  6. Explores what is important to you. http://blog.connectionsacademy.com/5-reasons-for-students-to-keep-a-journal/

What does a typical practice log/diary/journal look like?

The “basics” are lists of specific assignments, warm-ups, musical and technical goals, and repertoire. For example, the Fort Couch Band Director Dr. John Seybert distributes the following simple form to his grades 7-8 band students:

FCMS Practice Journal

Each entry should be dated and allow space to make comments and goals for your next session of practice. Many musicians divide up the page into segments, such as warmups, scales/exercises, etudes (studies), method book or solo pieces, and ensemble music, each with an area to jot down a narrative of what you did and how well things went.

When I was teaching strings (grades 5-12), my students and I developed an extremely detailed daily practice regime, which included a year’s checklist of lesson targets:

Daily String Practice Routine

You can make your own “things-to-do” list, including the focal points your music teachers “harp on” for improving form and technique. What does the band or orchestra director say about long tones, tuning, good posture, steady beat, rhythms and note-reading, fingerings, ensemble blend and balance, etc.? Emphasize one or more of these for each practice session!

seriestoshare-logo-01In your “customized” journal, I recommend leaving space for metronome markings, special articulations, practicing tips and instructions (like “repeat it three-times-in-a-row perfectly” or “work on measures #1-8 today, #5-12 tomorrow,” etc.) and time spent. Remember, you are a problem solver and seek ways to integrate your “tool box of tricks” to learn each challenging passage. What works for you? What doesn’t? That’s the true magic of a journal… in with the good, and out the bad!

Several previous Fox’s Firesides have explored practice methods and the setting of goals: http://www.shjo.org/foxs-fireside/. There are many other online resources, samples, and articles about practice journals. A few sites try to sell you printed forms, but others just offer you advice on creating and using documents to set practice goals. Take time to peruse these:

What do you have to lose? Try setting up and maintaining a practice journal! It may improve the value and focus of the time you devote to working on your music… and make a real difference in your musical progress! Like Olympic athletes… go for the goals and the gold!

For a printable copy of this article, click here.

Feel free to share all SHJO enrichment resources and “Fox Firesides” at http://www.shjo.org/foxs-fireside/.

PKF

© 2018 Paul K. Fox

Photo credit from Pixabay.com: “Fire” by Alicja
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TEAM = “Together Everyone Achieves More”

A Twist on an Old Fable… Who Really Won the Race?

Photo credit: FreeImages.com, photographer Eric Thibodeau

 

Before you do anything else, I want you to “take four,” fire up your computer, and view this YouTube video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xevQ2yTyK9Y.

foxsfiresidesWhat is the moral to the final story of these two racers… the turtle and the rabbit?

To all student instrumentalists: SHJO and your school music ensemble represent a “TEAM” – not only inspiring your own creative self-expression and skill development, but learning to communicate, connect “symphonically,” and come together with all the musicians to achieve common goals.

For similar advice, we can go all the way back to the famous Greek philosopher Aristotle:

“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

According to Wikipedia, synergy is the creation of “a whole that is greater than the simple sum of its parts.” The term synergy comes from the word synergos (συνεργός) meaning “working together.”

Another way to reflect on this concept is with this parable “Whose Job Is It” (author unknown) demonstrating apathy:

This is a story about four people named Everybody, Somebody, Anybody, and Nobody.  There was an important job to be done and Everybody was asked to do it. Everybody was sure Somebody would do it.  Anybody could have done it, but Nobody did it. Somebody got angry about that, because it was Everybody’s job. Everybody thought Anybody could do it but Nobody realized that Everybody wouldn’t do it. It ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have done.

If you want to create the life and musical success you want, don’t be like Everybody, Somebody, Anybody and Nobody. Be true to yourself. Take responsibility for your life! Don’t let Everybody, Somebody, Anybody or Nobody stop you from doing what you need to achieve what you want and deserve for yourself and the TEAM!

The “take-a-ways” from this fable? What is your charge “for the good of the TEAM?”

  • Take personal responsibility for defining what life and musical success means to you.
  • Take personal responsibility for building your self-confidence. (Practice!)
  • Take personal responsibility to participate in rehearsals regularly. (Attend every week!)
  • Take personal responsibility for developing the competencies (skills) and preparations (focus on the hard passages) you need to succeed in the music.
  • Take personal responsibility for putting sufficient time seriestoshare-logo-01into the “TEAM.”
  • Take personal responsibility for building and nurturing relationships in the orchestra that will help you promote success.
  • Take personal responsibility in supporting the TEAM in “fun” raising (socials) and fund-raising projects… as we used to say back in the 60s, “be there or be square!”

At a SHJO rehearsal last Saturday, I expressed concerns that the reality of inconsistent attendance and inadequate at-home practice is making it difficult to rehearse and achieve progress. However, rest assured, I know our concerts will be great!

In every fifth-year anniversary milestone of SHJO, we have given back to those who have given us a very special gift… a permanent home. Our fund-raising efforts are lagging behind and we need all Friends of SHJO to “step up to the plate.”

In the future, you will have the opportunity to engage with other booster members and their leadership team to proceed toward our fund-raising goal of $12,000 for a gift to our gracious hosts, the Upper St. Clair School District. Ads and patron donations received as we go forward will be acknowledged in future concert programs, and we look forward to your generous assistance.

You are encouraged to peruse the South Hills Junior Orchestra website. Under “Resources,” check out the free “Series to Share…” additional “Fox’s Fireside” issues by Paul K. Fox, and “Music Enrichment Workshop” presentations by Donna Stark Fox.

PKF

© 2017 Paul K. Fox

 

SHJO35yr

This “Series to Share” is brought to you by… the Founding Directors of the South Hills Junior Orchestra (SHJO), “a community orchestra for all ages” based in Western Pennsylvania. Feel free to download a printable copy and distribute to music students, parents, teachers, and fellow amateur musicians.

Pizza, Batting Averages, and the “Ten Times Rule!”

Photo credit: FreeImages.com, photographer Sean Myers

More Practice Tools for Musical Preparation and Building Self-Confidence

foxsfiresidesInstrument lessons and orchestra practices provide opportunities for the music teacher to impart a few “tricks of the trade” in reading and then practicing music. I call these my “Craftsmen Tools” for successful musical construction… one note or one line of music at a time.

Take it from a world-famous maestro! According to Itzhak Perlman, practicing effectively “comes down to listening. What are you listening for when you practice?” He advises, “Just reduce it to small increments, two or three bars, and try to get a hold of everything at the same time… You can accomplish a lot more in less time. Practicing slowly is extremely important. Then you can figure out what’s going on. Nothing escapes you.”

You may have heard my reference to “cutting pizza” for the focus on a specific section, passage or “slice” in the music in order to repetitively drill to learn the notes. I suggest to my students that they should “take it small and take it slow,” and then gradually speed up the excerpt. Psychologists and education experts know that humans cannot absorb/retain/recite huge amounts of data at one time. (That is one of the reasons, for example, we separate long numbers with hyphens, like phone numbers, zip codes, and the social security identification. We CAN remember two, three and four digits at a glance, but most of us feel a little overwhelmed to memorize five or more numbers or places!)

In learning a new piece of music, the recommendation is to divide the work into segments. Our fast-paced life-style and hectic schedules do not usually allow for “gulping the whole thing” at one sitting (or playing through the entire folder of music, every note including the easy whole notes and rests). It is equally important to prioritize the “hard spots” in the music, and use slowed-down echo practice to our advantage. Labeling each section, and even going as far to marking the date each time it is practiced, will help our instrumentalists to focus on things that seem hard, logically plan (at first out-of-sequence), problem-solve, learn the day’s “goal,” and eventually put the pieces back together.

seriestoshare-logo-01At lessons, some music teachers refer to batting averages, and point out how a .333 baseball hitting average is outstanding in the Major Leagues (when big-league pitchers are throwing 90-mile hour balls at you), but terrible for a musician who plays one note right to two notes wrong. Since each practice session builds neural-connections across brain cells (physical “memory” to do the skill again), in order to “play it right” consistently, we have to repeat it accurately over and over again, thus “the Ten Times Rule.” Musicians have to achieve a .950 or better average, and practicing their challenging musical “slice” ten times in a row will do the most good. Cumulative effort over different sessions or days is also the key to success! If a hard passage is played 10-20 times today, repeated 10-20 times tomorrow, another set of 10-20 drills the next day, etc. until the part can be played perfectly “in a row” every time, the player will have NO WORRIES when it comes time to perform it at the concert.

Several months prior to my senior viola recital at Carnegie-Mellon University, I told my professor I was a bit nervous. He said I was not practicing enough (on the hard sections). What I did not understand at the time was I lacked this drill-method of practicing to build my self-confidence and improve my “batting average.” If nothing but perfect sounding or “reruns” of music comes from your practice session, you are not properly focusing on “one slice at a time” nor winning with “the ten times rule!”

Take a trip to the South Hills Junior Orchestra website. Under “Resources,” check out the three sets of free “Series to Share…” additional “Fox’s Fireside” issues by Paul K. Fox, and “Music Enrichment Workshop” presentations by Donna Stark Fox.

PKF

© 2017 Paul K. Fox

 

SHJO35yr

This “Series to Share” is brought to you by… the Founding Directors of the South Hills Junior Orchestra (SHJO), “a community orchestra for all ages” based in Western Pennsylvania. Feel free to download a printable copy and distribute to music students, parents, teachers, and fellow amateur musicians.

SHJO rehearses most Saturdays in the band room of the Upper St. Clair High School, 1825 McLaughlin Run Road, Pittsburgh, PA 15241. New members are always welcome! For more information, please go to www.shjo.org.

Goals for the Musical Road to Success

Photo credit: FreeImages.com, photographer Matt Hains

Making mature and meaningful decisions to plan personal practice

As the school concert season draws to a close and summer is almost upon us, now is the perfect time to reflect on a little musical goal-setting, complete a personal inventory and needs assessment (in what areas do I need help?), foxsfiresidesprioritize what’s the most important, and define several new “practice plans.”

Do you recall a cartoon with Lucy van Pelt bossing Charlie Brown around and handing him his own very long list of New Year’s resolutions? Except for your parents and the music teachers who know YOU, it isn’t usually effective for someone else to pick your goals. (Of course, if you don’t listen to the suggestions from your music directors and private teachers, there’s a good chance you will never improve!) Sitting around doing nothing, accepting things as they are now, and randomly floating from one task to another accidentally “making music” without foresight or planning are not likely to work. Inattention and osmosis are slow ways to achieve anything in life. Obviously, you must be motivated, ambitious, focused, and committed to “whatever it takes” on the pathways towards self-improvement and musical mastery!

According to “goals experts” (such as the One Minute Manager book by Kenneth Blanchard and the Utah State University recommendations below), to create meaningful personal goals, they should:

  • Be written down (Take the time and post them in your room!);
  • Be specific (Keep it focused, simple, and to the point!);
  • Be concrete (Exactly what/how do you need to do?);
  • Be measurable (How do you know when you’ve succeeded?);
  • Be viewed and reviewed often (Look at them daily/weekly/monthly, and every time you practice!);
  • Be shared (Show them to your music teacher and/or parents/spouse!);
  • Be flexible and change as needed (Modify and adjust – set new goals!);
  • Have a time frame (When will these have to be completed?).

ALL students, parents, and teachers – CLICK ON THIS LINK! Download, print, and read Getting What You Want – How to Make Goals: https://www.usu.edu/asc/assistance/pdf/goal_setting.pdf

seriestoshare-logo-01Your practice should have well-defined goals. What do you want to learn as a musician? Are there particular pieces of music, styles, or technical skills you would like to be able to play? Knowing what you want to accomplish will help you decide what work is needed and assist defining specific learning targets. If you have a private teacher, he/she will automatically prescribe objectives for you, based on your present strengths and weaknesses. But if you desire to join the local youth symphony, participate in a music festival, play in a pit orchestra, perform solos or chamber music, become a conductor, help coach your peers, or want to improve a specific technical skill or general musicianship, make sure your teachers know it! They may be able to share warm-ups, strategies, or practice materials that will help you improve and expand your knowledge, technique, expressiveness, sight-reading and ear training.

Here are some goal-related questions to ask yourself (consider several of these):

  1. Have you signed up for the local band or string camp?
  2. Have you made arrangements to take a few lessons on your instrument or even on piano or music theory over the summer?
  3. What was the last method book you used? Did you finish it? How many pieces can you memorize from it?
  4. When was the last time you performed a solo or two and recorded yourself? Wouldn’t it be fun to video yourself playing a mini-recital and sending the DVD to your grandmother or grandfather?
  5. One of the greatest challenges in performance is sight reading. Can you pull-out a random piece of music (even something written for a different instrument) and play it straight through without stopping?
  6. Pick your greatest weakness or problem on the instrument. What needs your attention? New keys, rhythms, articulations?
  7. Ask your teacher what would be an appropriate exercise book. Can you define several new challenging goals in playing scales, arpeggios, other warm-ups, or études specifically geared for your instrument?
  8. For Western Pennsylvania residents, did you know the South Hills Junior Orchestra is always open to new instrumentalists? SHJO begins its Saturday practices a week after Labor Day (USCHS Band Room 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.). Everyone is welcome to play in 2-4 free-trial practices!

Take a trip to the South Hills Junior Orchestra website. Under “Resources,” check out the three sets of free “Series to Share…” additional “Fox’s Fireside” issues by Paul K. Fox, and “Music Enrichment Workshop” presentations by Donna Stark Fox.

PKF

© 2017 Paul K. Fox

This “Series to Share” is brought to you by… the Founding Directors of the South Hills Junior Orchestra (SHJO), “A Community Orchestra for All Ages” based in Western Pennsylvania. Feel free to download a printable copy and distribute to music students, parents, teachers, and fellow amateur musicians.

SHJO rehearses most Saturdays in the band room of the Upper St. Clair High School, 1825 McLaughlin Run Road, Pittsburgh, PA 15241. New members are always welcome! For more information, please go to www.shjo.org.

Where Are the Models, Mentors, and Motivators?

Photo credit: FreeImages.com, photographer Peter C.

 

Are You Listening to Solo, Chamber, and Orchestral Music?

foxsfiresidesWhen I was teaching full-time school orchestra music grades 5-12, the following conversation by students in my program may have been shared at the dinner table. “He wants me to spend time and listen to several outstanding players. I was a little embarrassed when he called on me in class and asked, ‘Who is your favorite violinist?’ and I could not identify a single principal string player or even the current Concertmaster of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra!”

I was dismayed that as many as 80% of my instrumentalists could not respond with the name of a famous classical musician who is currently playing their instrument! This brings the issue to the forefront of my greatest concern: DOES ANYONE LISTEN TO GOOD MUSIC ANYMORE?

Obviously, most people learning how to play golf, tennis, ballet, ice skating, gymnastics or any of the contact sports, could instantly name their “hero” and leading examples in their field. Can you imagine not watching a professional athlete model his/her technique? For example, if you wanted to learn how to be a high-diver or competitive swimmer, would you simply read a book on the subject, study the moves, take a few lessons, practice in the pool, and not once attend a local swim meet or watch the Olympic event when it appeared on TV?

seriestoshare-logo-01Pittsburgh has a strong cultural base, providing a home for the world-class Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and Pops, the Pittsburgh Ballet and Pittsburgh Opera companies, and the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera productions, to name a few venues. We are also most fortunate that many amateur or semi-professional groups such as the Pittsburgh Civic Orchestra, Washington Symphony, and River City Brass Band are local (some concerts presented conveniently next door in the Upper St. Clair HS Theatre). Professional soloists and chamber groups visit our city nearly every month, and opportunities to enjoy free concerts are limitless on cable/FiOS television and WQED.

This revelation motivated me to bring my laptop computer to every music lesson and ensemble rehearsal to share musical examples. With truly “basic” technology, there is really no excuse for not exploring a sea of masterpieces, watching a virtuoso performing his craft up-close – thanks especially to online resources such as www.youtube.com. Here are just a few “totally free” audio examples:

Here is the musicianship prescription – tips on providing meaningful motivation, momentum, and exposure to GREAT works of art in order to become more culturally connected and musically literate:

  • Families: Take the music break and listen to Classical (all styles/eras), folk, pop/jazz music at least once a week.
  • Encourage your musician to regularly use his/her computer/tablet to watch performances on the web.
  • Choose several favorite soloists playing the same instrument you are studying, and follow them.
  • Buy CDs of music or download movements of concertos, sonatas, or symphonies from iTunes, etc.
  • Go to a live professional concert at least once a year – more often in the summer, if possible.

Take a trip to the South Hills Junior Orchestra website… Under “Resources,” check out the two sets of free “Series to Share…” additional “Fox’s Fireside” issues by Paul K. Fox, and “Music Enrichment Workshop” presentations by Donna Stark Fox. In particular, download and read the Listening Enrichment Session, the perfect companion to this article.

PKF

© 2017 Paul K. Fox

This “Series to Share” is brought to you by… the Founding Directors of the South Hills Junior Orchestra (SHJO), “A Community Orchestra for All Ages” based in Western Pennsylvania. Feel free to download a printable copy and distribute to music students, parents, teachers, and fellow amateur musicians.

SHJO rehearses most Saturdays in the band room of the Upper St. Clair High School, 1825 McLaughlin Run Road, Pittsburgh, PA 15241. New members are always welcome! For more information, please go to www.shjo.org.

Does Practice Make Perfect?

Photo credit: FreeImages.com, photographer Alexander Kalina

 

foxsfiresides

Tips on Developing Better Practicing Habits

Every good musician knows that regular practice is a must, but did you know that careless or inattentive practice can actually make you worse?

It is not necessary true that “practice makes perfect” – more likely that “perfect practice develops perfect playing.” Quality not quantity, you say? Your school music teachers will urge you to increase both the quality (focus, attention, goals/planning, etc.) as well as the number of minutes per week. Here are a few hints on improving practicing techniques. Read on… there are many additional resources for parents to guide their musicians to musical mastery!

  1. Designate a quiet place for practice at home
  2. Limit all distractions (TV, video games, computers, phones)
  3. Plan habits of consistent daily practice time(s) and weekly frequency
  4. Make practice goals (what do you hope to accomplish this week?)
  5. Take a few minutes to warm-up (scales, finger patterns, long tones, or lip slurs)
  6. Sandwich method (start at the bottom and work your way up)
    1. Review a song you already know (bottom slice of bread)
    2. Focus on a few “hard parts” (the meat in the middle of the sandwich)
    3. Sight-read something new (condiments, pickles or cheese)
    4. Review another well-prepared song (top slice of bread)
  7. Pizza slices
    1. Identify and prioritize the problems or hard sections
    2. Partition the entire song
    3. Focus on a “slice” of the music – a measure, phrase or line of music – at a time
    4. Drill (daily) on one or a few slices
    5. Next practice session, repeat then progress to next section
  8. Re-order the sections of a piece (scrambling)
  9. Target a difficult passage, play slow at first, then increase tempo gradually each time you play it
  10. Try patterns of instant slow/fast and then fast/slow
  11. Fire up different sections of the brain on a problem spot
    1. Say the letter names out loud (or sing them) – speech center
    2. Bow or tap the rhythms “in the air” – left-side psychomotor
    3. Finger the notes without the bow or mouthpiece – right-side psychomotor
    4. Combine a, b, and/or c on specific passages – all parts of the brain
  12. Create new rhythmic or articulation/bowing variations to challenge your playing of the passage
  13. To improve your musical batting average, implement the Ten-Times Rule (accurately in a-row)
  14. Always add expressive markings including dynamics, tempo and articulation changes, etc.

seriestoshare-logo-01Yes, practicing should be heard at home. It is NOT enough simply to play at school. The long-tested “success equation” is TIME + MAKING PROGRESS = FUN (encouraging more time, progress and fun). Practicing on a regular basis improves technique, musicianship, self-confidence, endurance, reading skills, and besides… playing better is a lot more FUN!

PARENTS: Here are several excellent websites on recommendations for developing better practice skills, but ask your school music director for more advice!

PKF

© 2017 Paul K. Fox

This “Series to Share” is brought to you by… the Founding Directors of the South Hills Junior Orchestra (SHJO), “A Community Orchestra for All Ages” based in Western Pennsylvania. Please feel free to download a printable copy (CLICK HERE) and distribute to music students, parents, teachers, and fellow amateur musicians.

SHJO rehearses most Saturdays in the band room of the Upper St. Clair High School, 1825 McLaughlin Run Road, Pittsburgh, PA 15241. New members are always welcome! For more information, please go to www.shjo.org.