With all of the “how-to” books on musical scales, technique, chords, standards, and such circulating in print or online, you’d think we would all be a bunch of John Coltranes, or Oscar Petersons – running around creating masterpieces 24/7!
Thankfully though, we are humans, and will always be prone to aging, varying levels of talent, opportunity, and motivation, falling in love, and all the things that make life worth living, or at least clinging to tenaciously (Go Toronto Maple Leafs!). But it can be hard sometimes to keep track of and organize how we are growing as a musician, to make sure we are utilizing our time and life as efficiently and effectively as possible. Thus, as I have found one activity to be very helpful in keeping track of the swirling continuum of activities and feelings that make up our musical studies, though – the act of keeping a multi-topic practice journal.
A practice journal doesn’t have to be an overly scientific study of every aspect of your playing. But the closer attention you pay to your playing and associated life-style, the closer you will get to discovering your voice and style. You must know exactly who you are now if you are going to be “someone.” Here then are some areas to focus on when starting to record your musical activities.
It is vital to use a metronome, and as such important to keep track of the various tempos (tempi) that we use for the scales, arpeggios, and patterns we practice. By writing them down, you make it clear to yourself where your limits are, what tempi you aspire to play in which areas, and can make wiser choices concerning the material you compose and perform for yourself and others. I know for myself that I can play certain things at high speeds, but play much more musically at slower tempi. I know this because I have tested the threshold of my abilities, and there is a physical limit to how fast my big fingers can move. This knowledge also helps other musicians that hire you with organizing their own arrangements and set lists if they know your particular musical traits and habits.
And how often do we have a great idea for a song and then promptly forget it? Having a practice journal around puts you in the habit of always having paper, pens, a cell phone, or laptop around to keep track of your possible genius. Even if you end up not using it now, you may end up liking it a few years later upon rereading your entry on the subject. Also, many people keep practice records for a couple of weeks, but then it devolves into merely a to-do list of things their teacher wants them to work on. Your opinion counts, especially to you! So being honest and writing down your feelings about your procrastination, struggles, boredom, and so on can help you get over them, especially when this information is shared with your teacher. You don’t have to hide these facts; sharing them with your teacher will help the both of you come up with an effective strategy to move forward with.
If you work hard and efficiently, and wisely manage the opportunities you get, you will undoubtedly travel to foreign lands to perform, and the cultural events and opportunities available to you will be greatly expanded. For example, the picture above shows me at the Chelsea Art Museum in New York City – standing in front of my favorite painting by Jean Miotte, who paints in the Tachist manner, also know as Gestural Abstraction. I was performing there as part of a series of events launching Theresa Sauer’s book NOTATIONS 21, and was on a concert bill that also featured two of my favorite artists Malcolm Goldstein and Joan La Barbara (who voiced the hybrid baby in the movie ALIEN 3). Having been given that amazing opportunity, I didn’t want to waste it, and thus made sure I documented any/all interesting, inspiring, or career enhancing information. I have done this in all the places I have travelled to, anywhere from locally in and outside of Toronto, all the way to Palestine, Iceland, Finland, the width and breadth of the Japanese archipelago, and so on. Keeping a journal before, during, and after such a time gives you the opportunity to record networking info, addresses, interesting bits of information, new travel vocabulary, and such during times when the phone or the laptop is shut off or back in the hotel. And writing these things out by hand (especially in cursive form) inevitably leads to flowing, often poetic thoughts which can inspire lyrics or song titles as well. Writing things down this way is a great creativity stimulator.
Also, keeping track of all these ideas in a journal means you will record a few interesting greetings, toasts, and local colloquialisms to help you integrate into the scene a little easier, and demonstrates to the locals you are aware of their regional differences. It will also save you from a lot of embarrassment. If I had kept track of my circumstance on my second trip to Japan, for, example, I might not have (true story!) taken a rather large swig of liquid dish soap that I mistook for Gatorade! And lest you think you are immune to such mistakes, my trio’s bass player, who laughed the longest and hardest at my predicament, ended up doing the exact same thing an hour later!
You don’t know where you are going if you don’t know where you have been. Looking at your collected practice journals years later is a mostly pleasant experience. You can see your progress, laugh at your folly, and reminisce about the good old days. And surprisingly, many of the “bad” days will be remembered in the future as rather good days. A musical practice journal can be used many different ways, and I recommend you explore as many of them as possible.