When I was seven years old, I started piano lessons. My teacher, Miss Enid Butler, was an older lady with frizzy dyed brown hair, saintly patience, and a closet full of Archie comic books. She also had two candy jars. One was full of huge jelly beans, and at the end of every lesson, you’d get to have one, just for coming to your lesson. But there was another candy jar, hidden in her music library closet, that contained the good stuff: the Hershey Kisses, the mini Krackle and Mr. Goodbars, the Tootsie Rolls. You’d get to choose a piece of candy from that jar as well, if you had practiced. And how did Miss Butler know whether you’d practiced? Well, from your playing (of course!), but also from reviewing your Practice Journal.
This Practice Journal was a little red book with a page for each week, where your teacher could write your assignments, and where you would enter the number of minutes you’d practiced each day that week. I don’t think I was the only student of hers to fudge my numbers from time to time… I really liked Krackle. But I also really liked practicing, and I did a lot of it.
When I was seventeen, I was finally allowed to take private voice lessons (although I’d been singing in choirs all my life). At my first lesson, my teacher, Metropolitan Opera legend Blanche Thebom, instructed me to bring a journal to my next lesson. It wasn’t to be a practice journal, per se, but a place where I could dutifully record her pearls of wisdom, such as: “Singing is a mental exercise,” and “Tension is a result, not a cause,” and, my favorite, “The voice is perfect, now. We must only provide for its needs.” Once again (coincidentally), my journal was a little red book, with a picture of some exotic bird on the front. Several years later, as I headed off to graduate school, I took this book to Indiana University with me, where I recorded the pearls of wisdom shared with me by my next two teachers, Margaret Harshaw and Giogio Tozzi.
That bird is almost totally worn off the cover, now. The journal sits in my piano bench to this day. As I review it occasionally, I am transported back to Miss Thebom’s spacious studio, I hear Miss Harshaw’s firm voice, and I see Mr. Tozzi’s kind smile. I must admit, some of those “pearls” they shared with me are only now making sense.
For a reason I cannot now remember, I began once again to keep a Practice Journal when I was a graduate student. I decided, simply, to write down the observations I made while I was practicing. Now, as I read my own writing from 20 years ago, I once again find incredibly valuable “pearls of wisdom”—my own. For example, “Playing piano while singing is BAD for posture. I need to stop this.” (I’m still trying!) And, “When working with the mirror, don’t just hold it, LOOK into it too!” (I’ve gotten much better at that one.)
From that time on, during the course of my career as a professional singer and as a voice teacher, I’ve gone through periods of practice journaling, and periods of journal “silence”. And I regret the silences. Because when I take the time to revisit my journals, I never cease to be amazed at how valuable my own perceptions are, and how they help to inform my practice, even years later.
Keeping a practice journal, while a bit unusual among singers, is simply a given for many elite athletes. In fact, “Training Journals” for athletes abound, and are routinely marketed with language that could apply to singers as well. For example, The Athlete’s Training Journal, published by SportMedBC, is described as follows:
“Successful athletes almost always have one thing in common: they systematically set goals and document their progress…. [The] Athlete’s Training Journal provides a clear and concise method for doing this, [including] space to identify and track physical, mental, and technical/tactical goals while factoring in other important aspects of training, such as nutrition and recovery. The Athlete’s Training Journal effectively promotes accountability, helps athletes set and meet challenging goals, and stay motivated so that they are ready to compete at the best of their ability.”
Sounds good, doesn’t it? In my experience, a singer’s Practice Journal can have the very same benefits. If you’ve never kept a practice journal—or even if you have—there are a variety of things you can note there. Of course, not all are necessary (or you might end up journaling for longer than you were practicing). But since this tool is for you alone, you can develop your own forms of “shorthand”, and capture a lot of information in a very short time. For example, you might record:
- Calendar. The date, time, and length of your practice sessions
- Exercises you sang, or just the exercises that were particularly challenging, or particularly helpful
- Repertoire you worked on
- Your physical condition: sleep, hormones, hydration level, allergies, things you’d eaten or drunk that were affecting your singing, either positively or negatively
- Your vocal condition, both before and after your practice session: any vocal fatigue, persistent phlegm, noticeable changes to range, timbre, or ease of vocal production
- Technical concerns or discoveries
- Goals for your practice, including for repertoire work, memorization, research, and listening
- Comments received from teachers, coaches, conductors, and directors
- Metronome markings (e.g., the tempi at which you are working coloratura passages)
- Interpretation insights regarding texts you are singing, or characters you are portraying
- Listening notes, from recordings or videos of repertoire you are working on
- Lesson notes, from recordings of your lessons with your voice teacher
- Questions to ask your teacher at your next lesson
And the list goes on. But once notes are made, remember to re-read them! The simple act of writing does indeed help some people to process their progress and begin to answer their own questions. But revisiting those observations occasionally can be a crucial way to reinforce new discoveries and motivate further progress.
So here is today’s practice challenge. If you do not already keep a practice journal, consider taking notes on just today’s practice. What did you sing? How did it feel? Did you make any discoveries? What still needs improvement? After you’ve done one journal entry, perhaps you will be motivated to continue. Perhaps not. But either way, revisit your one journal entry before beginning your next practice session. Was this second practice session informed, in any way, by the journal entry you re-read? How? Are you motivated to continue journaling now?
Please share your questions, views, or successes regarding practice journals. Happy practicing!