How to keep a music practice journal: Enhance your musical memory and progress

What’s the best way to keep a music practice journal, and what should you write in it? Reflecting on your practice is such a valuable part of making progress, but sadly it’s a step that’s often skipped.

Keep reading to learn how and why keeping a music practice diary will help you save time, spark more creativity, improve your memory retention and ultimately help you make progress faster.

There’s a well known phrase that says what gets scheduled gets done. Yet when it comes to planning practice sessions in advance it can be completely overwhelming and hard to know where to start. 

If you missed my previous post on creating a music practice plan with step by step instructions to follow, I’d love you to check it out here.

In this post I’m going to talk about keeping a music practice journal and the benefits of reflecting on your practice sessions.

There is a difference between your practice plan and your practice journal.  Think of your plan as the action you take before practising, and your journal as the action you take once you’ve completed your daily practice.

Why you should plan and reflect on your practice

Less than 20% of people write down their musical goals and keep a detailed practice diary. I don’t mean a book that your teacher writes about what you are supposed to practice; I’m talking about a practice journal documenting and reflecting on your daily progress.

Chalk board with writing about music practice

It’s worth noting that learners who plan out their practice sessions are up to one and half times more likely to accomplish their tasks.

But, it gets even better;

Learners who reflect on their practice sessions in writing and review what they’ve written 24 hours later can increase their memory retention by up to 70 %.

Let’s just think about that for a moment. When practising, say you keep getting the fingering wrong on beat 2 of bar 3.

If you take the time to put a note in your practice diary, you are 1.5 times more likely to get it right in your next practice session. Better still, your awareness will increase by up to 70% if you read that note before practising it again the following day.

What are the benefits of writing things down

Neurologists have shown through their research that by writing things down, you are helping your brain form a memory. When you put pen to paper, a deeper action takes place called encoding.

Encoding is a process which puts information into our memory in a way that makes it accessible. Things we perceive and analyse move to our long-term memory when we write them down. Hence you increase your chances of remembering them.

This is just one of the many benefits of keeping a music practice journal. Another huge benefit is the improvement you’ll probably notice in your memory recall if you take the time to reflect in your practice journal at the end of each session.

It always interests me how adult learners often seem to be in a rush and can be rather dismissive of anything being called practice other than physically playing their instrument.  

It does take time to plan and reflect on things, and if you find your inner voice, trying to convince you that this planning and writing stuff is a waste of time, I want you to pause for a moment and really think about why that thought has occurred.  

The chances are you find planning and reflecting difficult, and you are making an excuse to avoid it. The brain likes to conserve energy and it’s the job of the subconscious mind to protect us and keep us safe. However, thinking like this limits your growth, and the research on planning and reflecting speaks for itself.

Effective practice should always be based on more thinking and less playing. See the time spent writing in your journal as practice, because done with care and love it will help you make better progress.

What type of diary should you use?

While it’s tempting to do everything on a computer or tablet, I recommend that you stick with pen and paper. Research has shown that typing is not the same as writing when it comes to helping the brain consolidate memories.  We make a greater connection with the shapes that form letters when we write.

That said, once you are more experienced and have the tech skills and equipment you can use a pencil with something like an iPad, which is what I tend to do these days.

Whilst there are many practice diaries that you can purchase, I find that these often don’t include much space to write, so I prefer a simple notebook. You may also find it rewarding to personalise your diary.  When I was at college, I used to wrap my in wrapping paper, but these days you can get a whole array of crafty things to make it look special and unique.

What to Include in a Music Practice Journal

At the front of my journal, I like to put my practice schedule, which for me rarely changes. If you are unable to keep your practice sessions at the same time, I recommend that you write down at the start of each week when you are going to practice.

And if you’re one of the few who legitimately doesn’t have a lot of time to practice, perhaps because you work away from home – I’d write a list of things that you can practice without your instrument in your journal, and then take a picture of it so that you have it to hand on your mobile.

At the back of the diary, I like to write a list of pieces I have heard and would like to play and a list of pieces I’m learning or will be learning soon. 

I also like to keep a chart of my musical goals. Planning your musical goals and sessions is another area worth investing time in. You can learn more about planning musical goals here.

What to write in your Practice Diary on a daily basis

There are two main parts that you want to include when you begin keeping a practice journal.  And I like to have a separate book for each.

Planning – Planning your sessions helps you stay organised, on point and when done well it enables you to accomplish more. You can download my free guide to creating your music practice plan here.

The second is Reflection 

Reflection empowers memory; it’s the super force of learning so write your thoughts down every time you practice. Reflection tells the brain that the information is important and it needs to be remembered.  

I like to make notes as I go along in practice sessions to avoid forgetting things. It also helps me slow the pace of my practice down, which is always valuable.

You may at first find this challenging, so if you prefer to reflect on everything at the end of your session, that’s ok.

Keep reading if you are already feeling a little daunted by the prospect of reflecting on your practice as I’m going to share some questions that you can ask yourself at the end of every practice session, which should help you.  I’ve also got a FREE guide on how to keep a practice journal which you can grab here.

You want to describe how you feel and the physical sensations you’ve experienced during your practice as this gives the brain even more information to connect the memory to.

Reflect on your thoughts during the session

Were you thinking about a particular sound when you played that bar? 

Are you imagining something visual or audible? 

How successful were you in achieving things?

Was your inner voice raising any doubts or fears?

Be as descriptive as possible about the problems and challenges you’ve encountered, and then write down what you could do differently in your next practice to improve things.

Here are a couple of examples.

It’s so frustrating that I still keep making a mistake in bar 3.  My 3rd finger always seems to hesitate which causes unevenness in the rhythm and tone.  Tomorrow I’m going to visualise the movement of that 3rd finger before I practice that bar slowly. I’ll try and recall the notes from memory later today.

Or perhaps today you experience freedom and joy with a passage that you have previously had difficulties with.

I’m feeling triumphant today as I nailed the semiquavers and my 3rd finger moved with ease. The visualisation really helped.

Whatever your emotions are, write them down in detail.  

Look out for behavioural or emotional patterns

Over time you may see emotional patterns that you can focus on.  For example, you may feel anxious when playing fast notes in the upper register.  

Therefore it would be worth focusing on this area of your technique to make improvements.  Or maybe you learn that there is a particular rhythm that always catches you out, or a certain note is always out of tune.  It is these types of discoveries that lead to more intentional practice that will serve you better in the long run.

Music Journal prompts

Now for those of you who might procrastinate over what to write or worry that you are doing things wrong, I want you to share some questions to help you get started and don’t forget there’s a free guide for you to download with lots more suggestions.

1. Write down something you did well today

No matter how small your achievements are, they are always worth writing down.  Adults are often so dismissive of their achievements or feel the need to balance out praise with criticism. It’s ok to admit you did something well.

2. What did you find challenging and why?

Be descriptive here, so don’t just write “I found the rhythm hard”, write down the bar that you found challenging, and what was challenging about the rhythm.  Perhaps you were able to vocalise the rhythm, but when you tried to play it, you kept getting ahead of the beat. You noticed that when playing you were finding it difficult to keep counting internally which is why you kept going out of time.

3. What mistakes did you make today?

Take care not to be too overly critical here, and again be as descriptive as you can.

4. How would you rate your overall progress today? 

Tick off any metronome marks that you’ve achieved and make a note of how many accurate repetitions you accomplished so that you keep track of your progress.

5. What is one thing that you can do differently tomorrow to help you better achieve your goals?

We often do the same thing in our practice each day, yet we hope the outcome will be different. Using different practice methods is all part of effective practice, so use your reflection time to get creative.

6. How can you practice away from your instrument to make progress?

Spaced learning and using different encoding methods are the best ways to make progress. Check out this post for some ideas that you can do to practice without your instrument.

Over time if you notice that your reflections often have a negative tone, I’d encourage you to change your thinking. We take action based on our thoughts and feelings so negativity can inhibit your progress. It’s amazing how your results can improve just by reframing those negatives into positives.

You can then use your reframed positive statements as a springboard to take more positive action. Perhaps you need to vary your practice methods more.  Maybe you need to space out your practice sessions further or look for some additional support from a music group.  

I know that members find the support that’s offered by everyone inside my membership, Learn Music Together, invaluable. Hearing others who have similar struggles can help you be kinder to yourself, and you can also learn heaps from those people who are one step or more ahead of you. Link to membership waitlist

And just before you go, it’s worth mentioning that when you feel a little down about your progress, taking a few moments to look through your practice journal can remind you how far you’ve come. 

Practice journals are a wonderful collection of memories you can learn and grow from.

You can watch a video presentation of this post below.

I hope you’ve found this post helpful, and do let me know in the comments how you get on starting your music journals.  

Don’t forget to grab your free guide on How to keep a practice journal. The guide will help you get started, and it includes lots more journaling prompts so you won’t have to worry about what to write.

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