Friday, November 20, 2009

Tools of the Trade: A Lesson and Practice Journal

The way I handle my lessons and the way I practice has evolved and changed over the years.  Right now, an important part of my training is my Practice Journal

I didn't always approach things in this manner.  For the first eight years, I did not record my lessons, write anything down, or have any kind of approach at all actually.  What I would do in those beginning days was kind of wonder what I should be doing.  I would think, okay, I guess I should try to practice.  And then stand there kind of clueless.  Should I do the exercises she does with me in the lesson?  But what were they?  Oh, I remember one of them.  I'll do that.

Well, eight years later, and on to a second teacher, I was wiser, right.?  This time I asked her how to practice.  She replied, "You should tape record your lessons and use them."  At first I used just some cassette tape recorder I had around the house. But the results were far from satisfying.  The recordings were terrible and I could barely hear what she was saying.  So, after a while,  I went out and bought myself the best cassette recorder I could.  That was better, but listening was hard, because I had to keep winding and rewinding.

By the time I was on to my third singing teacher, the young opera singer, the cassette recorder I had purchased had broken down, and since I had not known how to make use of it productively anyway, I scrapped the idea of tape recording lessons.  So, once again, I was not tape recording my lessons, nor writing anything down.  But this was a time in my life when I finally had had the realization that singing was athletic and that I would improve if I worked at it daily.   I was thinking much harder about how to practice, and I at least wrote down little notes in my music.  I took the things from my lesson, and remembering as much as I could, tried to practice every day.  Of course, I began to start making up my own way to practice.

Then, I read on the New Forum For Classical Singers that I mention so often, that most of the singers there seriously record their lessons.  I also met some singers on that board, and wanted to share singing clips like many of them did, so I read up in the technology section of the forum on which recorder to buy, and asked that year, for my birthday, for the Edirol R09, which is the one I use today.

At first, I did not know what to do with these lesson recordings, but once again a forum member came to my aid, when someone posted that same questions, "Most effective way to use your lesson recordings?"  There were many answers, but the one that jumped out at me was some thing like, "I listen once and take notes. It's time consuming, but it works for me."

From the time I read that, I decided to assemble a notebook full of looseleaf lined paper and do just as the forumite suggested and take notes from my lesson recordings.  She was right.  It was time consuming!  It takes me about an hour and a half at least.  At first they were just notes describing what I heard, but soon, I began to try to put the shapes of the exercises in.  Below is a picture of the attempt to start making a record of the exercises I was learning:

If you can't see that too well, just click on the picture to see it bigger.

This method worked for a while, but then I realized, "duh, just put the exercises on the staff."  The next thing I did was develop a little template, with a staff on one side of the page, and a place for commentary on the left.  In the next picture, you can see my template.  I know I could use this and make copies to use every week, but for some reason I like the ritual of drawing it out by hand before I sit down to listen to each lesson.

I don't always like to use technology for some things.  Sometimes I like the way it feels to draw and write, and I feel like it gets into me better when it is flowing through my hands and a pencil like that. I feel that when I try to draw the lines of the staff freehand, I am replicating my attempt to sing a vocal line without wobbling.

I take this template, and turn on my Edirol R09, like you see in the photo above, and begin to fill in the exercises and commentary from the lesson.  I sing along with the tape, trying to kill two birds with one song, and be all warmed up to sing by the end of the process.  I used to listen to myself, but I've realized that how I sound, even in the lesson, is of less importance than understanding how the work is to be done.  So, singing along and not hearing myself is just fine.

And finally, below you can see a sample of a filled-out version of my template:

I would like to thank my teacher, Susan Eichhorn Young, one and the same as the Susan in "Lesson with Susan" in the photographs, for permitting me to show these pictures with some of her great wisdom imparted on the pages.

This Practice Journal of mine has other sections as well.  I have a place for planning.  I have a section for song ideas and rep.  I have a section with ideas I get for my blog. Another section is for writing down my discoveries. It is a great all-around tool for keeping one's singing life in order.  Athletes and runners use journals like this too to track their progress and record their workouts.

I am putting this here in the hopes that someone might find it helpful and useful.  Should there ever be someone as clueless as I was, I wish for them to stumble on this page and get some ideas, so they won't have to wait so long to get going!
Today's practicing was a heavy duty workout with Elijah again.  There was a lot of progress from even just a few days ago.  Check it out in Frescamari's Practice Room: "How Does My Garden Grow: Another Heavy Duty Workout with Elijah -- and high note growth is apparent"


  1. Awwww...I feel all warm and fuzzy after reading that you found my NFCS thread helpful!

    I found the thread responses really useful too. (I didn't even think to record my lessons until I heard about it on NFCS!) Now I listen to the recording and take notes. It takes me two hours for every one hour of lesson time, though! Hearing myself sing is just as valuable as hearing the discussion with my teacher. It's fascinating how different my opinion of my own singing can be while I'm listening to it afterwards, versus during!

    I too like to make my notes by hand, I find it slows down the process in a way that really forces me to think and reflect.

    As for a practice log, I usually keep it in my head. I'll sometimes make practice notes if there is a specific list of things I want to work on that is too long for me to remember without writing down.

  2. I'm so glad you asked that question about lesson tapes that day. Sometimes it's scary to put a question out on that message board, but the helpful spirit of the singers who hang out there is so wonderful. It's a great community!