For every musician, practice is a problem. No matter how we write about it, talk about it or think about it, the only solution to the problem is to do it. However, there are lots of useful things that can help you get over that barrier that tries to prevent us from starting in the first place.
Today, I want to talk about practice books. Every teacher I’ve had has used some system to make notes on what to practice for me. Sometimes, it’s been books. Sometimes it’s been bits of paper. I know some teachers who print their own forms to put into binders, and others who just write in pencil on the music. My system is to use a copy book. I write the notes in the lesson and give the top copy to my student to put in the front of their binder, then I type up the notes from the copy into Music Teacher’s Helper and email them a copy as well.
However, the question remains. What’s the point of this?
For me, some of the point is to help me remember what I’ve taught my students. I only teach part time just now, so my other job can zap all the details of lessons out of my brain. Full time teachers will have lots of their students confusing their brains. A practice record helps us to build from one lesson to the next in an organised fashion.
What about for you, though? What’s the point of the practice book for you? Ultimately, your practice book contains what you need to focus on this week and usually some way of recording what you did.
Practice books help you focus on what you need to work on right now.
Practice books need to be seen to be used. They are useless if they’re left in your music folder/rucksack/pocket/teacher’s house over the week. Instead, when you get home from your lesson, why not put your practice book on your music stand open on the last lesson? Putting your book in a visible place that you’ll see when you come to practice means you’re immediately working on the key things you covered in your last lesson. It means you’ll know you’re supposed to be doing Bb major not B minor, so when your teacher asks you to play it next lesson, you’ll be able to. I’m always forgetting the studies my piano teacher sets me, so leaving my practice book open reminds me to play a couple each day.
Practice books help break down long pieces into smaller chunks.
Remember that bar you stumbled on in the lesson? Or maybe not? Your practice book will probably say things like “focus on high notes at the end of the verse” or “smooth out register changes in chorus”. These give you smaller chunks to focus on that will mean you learn your songs faster and more accurately.
It can be really tempting to just start at the beginning of a song, sing it to the end and never really focus on the parts which are causing you problems. This is even more of a temptation for singers compared to instrumentalists as we are masters of “keeping going”. We usually work with a piano accompaniment which means we can’t stop, so we fudge over the weak parts and make it work. This often means we learn to sing things wrong, which is much harder to sort out than fixing mistakes when they first happen.
Breaking down songs into smaller chunks and working on specific passages or skills means harder work in the short term, but much greater reward in the long term.
Practice books help you see what you’ve achieved
Have you ever flipped back through your practice book? Simply looking back through the notes can help you realise just how far you’ve come. If you fill in the check boxes in some of the printed ones, you can see a visual record of how much practice you’ve done too. All of us hit plateau points in our art, and sometimes we need to realise that we’ve come a very long way and achieved an awful lot. Practice books are one of the most obvious records of what we’ve done. Why not pick up a song you were learning three, six or twelve months ago and sing it again? It will almost certainly come back to you and be better than it ever was before.
Your practice book is a record of all the repertoire you’ve learned and worked on too. I tried to make a list once of all the songs I could call “repertoire” (I could polish them for a performance in less than two weeks). It’s a pretty long list these days.
Don’t have a practice book? Ask your teacher for one, or just buy a cheap notebook from the supermarket and bring it to lessons. If your teacher doesn’t write in it, use it to make notes on what you’re supposed to be practicing during the lesson.
And, don’t forget to put it out where you can see it when you get home!