How To Practise, Part 3: Keeping Track
In a drawer under my bed I have a collection of old diaries stretching back to 2008, detailing almost every day of the last decade. Here are a few of them:
These are not diaries in the conventional sense – they don’t contain my musings on life’s trials and tribulations, there are no empowering affirmations or overly confessional spoken word poetry. Instead, there are scribblings – hieroglyphics listing exercises, keys, metronome markings and time logged at the instrument, part of the never-ending process of attempting to achieve musical mastery.
So why would anybody want to engage in such a boring, borderline-OCD activity?
Tracking your practice has numerous benefits:
Keeping Track Keeps You On Track
Maintaining a log of what you practise, how often you do it and how much time you get at the instrument is a great way of providing yourself with accountability (this was also emphasised in the last post on finding a teacher). Nothing motivates me more than opening my practice diary and being embarrassed by the long gaps between practice sessions – I can see when I’ve been slacking off, or letting life get in the way of spending time at the bass. Seeing the fine details of your practice (or lack thereof) in black and white reinforces the message that you alone are responsible for your musical development – even if you’re taking regular lessons, your teacher cannot do the work for you; if you want to improve then you have to put the hours in.
Tracking Provides Accurate Feedback
What were you practising 6 weeks ago today? What were you working on? What keys did you play in? How fast were you playing? How much have you improved since then?
If you rely solely on your memory for these items of information then you’re not only burdening yourself with lots of extra figures to carry around in your brain but you’re also likely to forget many of the details, especially if you’re practising regularly. There’s a Chinese proverb that goes something like this:
“Even the palest ink is better than the strongest memory”.
I find having an accurate written record of the minutiae of my practice routine helpful in gauging my musical progress, not least because my short term memory is terrible – in fact, the act of ‘going back in time’ in my practice diary by 6 months or so is a useful way to remind myself of all the things that I should be able to play but have probably forgotten.
Tools and Tactics
I have two ways of tracking what happens on a day-to-day level – one physical, one digital:
The Practice Diary
As detailed above, this acts as a detailed written record of what I’ve been working towards on a given day – my preference is for an A5 notebook, but if you’re clocking up lots of hours then you might want to opt for a larger size. I used to prefer the ‘day per page’ diary format, but my embarrassment at wasting numerous pages has forced me to adopt a plain notebook instead.
I’ve mentioned this rather childish looking productivity app before in this post on brain-rot but I’ll cover it here as well, because it’s my favourite method of fighting digital addiction and maximising productive time. In short, the app rewards you for spending time locked out of your phone, which forces you to concentrate on the task at hand without distractions. This means that I can easily keep tabs on how much practice time I’m logging in each week and my natural tendency to be competitive with myself means that I’ll push myself to try and increase my score each week.
In fact, I’m such a mega-nerd that I apply the concept of tracking to other areas of my life…
Tracking Daily Life
The book that’s had the most profound impact on how I operate on a daily basis is Deep Work by Cal Newport – a manual for achieving peak productivity in a world of constant distractions. One of the tactics that Newport advocates for maximising productivity is to keep a weekly log of so-called ‘deep work’ hours, which over time form what he terms a ‘cadence of accountability’ – regularly engaging with important tasks in a focused manner soon becomes habitual; deep work begets more deep work.
For me, the following areas fulfil the criteria of ‘deep work’:
- Practice (obviously…)
- Meditation (more on why this is important HERE)
- Reading for research (not all the stuff on here is made up on the spot)
I don’t include gigs, teaching or any sort of ‘digital admin’, as playing ‘Superstition’ and replying to emails aren’t pushing me out of my comfort zone.
The Power of Planning in Advance
An important key to maintaining a regular, effective practice routine is to schedule dedicated blocks of time in advance. I find that I’m most disciplined and productive if I spend 10-15 minutes on a Sunday scripting as much of the week ahead as possible in iCal – this means I can see where I’m going to be each day and allows me to pencil in practice around other obligations.
One crucial part of this process is also deciding what I’m going to work on in each session based on forthcoming gigs, website projects or personal interest. This minimises ‘decision paralysis’ – losing the first 15 minutes of a practice session by trying to decide what it is that you’re going to practise.