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How can student notebooks be more effective?

When I first started teaching, I was determined not to make my students fill out the dreaded practice log. As a young teacher, I still had fresh memories of my own student days, and times spent scrambling right before a lesson to reconstruct (or perhaps invent?) my practice times for the week. Even as a kid, it seemed like a pointless exercise to me—a good teacher can tell within the first few minutes of a lesson whether or not the student has practiced.

As I taught, however, I realized that even if I wanted to forgo the traditional time charts and weekly minute totals, there had to be something to help organize the practicing and keep students (and in many cases the parents) focused during their practice sessions. In the article below, I think you'll find a creative solution that literally brings the music and the musical problems into the student's notebook. And, by having students take notes themselves, Réa Beaumont's approach involves them in the process just like other academic classes. I enjoyed learning about this technique, and I'm looking forward to using it in my own teaching. 

Take note: Developing an organized practice system for piano lessons 
by Réa Beaumont

studio music teacher occasionally encounters a student who is habitually unprepared for weekly piano lessons. Although this lack of preparation is often attributed to the student's unwillingness to practice, the underlying problem may actually be a deficiency in organizational skills. 

Many students have busy schedules and may be overwhelmed by the pressure to maintain good grades at school while simultaneously pursuing extra-curricular activities. Piano lessons are forced to compete with other subjects for a student's time and attention, which is sometimes difficult, because music, as an abstract art form, is intangible and temporal by nature. As such, it is more difficult for a student to identify and organize the work that needs to be completed in order to improve before the next lesson, whereas homework assignments in other disciplines usually take the form of a document (print or digital version) that must be completed by a specific deadline.

It is, therefore, important for studio music teachers to show their students how to develop an organized practice system that will capitalize on the time they have available, reinforce a daily routine, and produce positive, consistent results. The first step in developing this system is to select manageable amounts of music for the student to work on. The next step is to organize the material effectively by keeping an electronic or print notebook specifically designed for piano lessons. For beginner to intermediate students, the passages that need to be corrected should be entered into the notebook so they have a visual reference of the musical score for their homework assignment. For advanced students, re-writing the music may not always be feasible, but referencing bar numbers should suffice. It is important to remember that the notebook is not a daily practice log, but rather a summary of topics addressed in each lesson and an indicator of specific expectations.

This organizational process requires students to take notes during music lessons, just as they would in other academic subjects. For very young pupils, a parent or guardian who attends each lesson with their child may take notes on the student's behalf. It will provide a level of consistency if this is also the individual who oversees daily practice sessions.

An effective manner of structuring the notebook is to have the student divide entries into three components: 

1. Passage

2. Problem/Goal

3. Practice Suggestions 


For each composition, enter the name of the composer, the title of the work, the movement, if applicable, or where the passage to be practiced occurs within the structure of the work (e.g. Exposition, Section B in a Ternary movement). This additional information provides context for the corrections. Then, instead of circling these sections in the score, write down bar numbers and beats to target specific areas of the piece (see examples below). Or, rewrite the excerpt from the score.


Be specific when identifying errors and clearly state why the passage requires improvement. For example, should the student be aiming for rhythmic accuracy? Consistent articulation? A richer tone? If more than one element of musicianship or technique needs to be practiced, then a manageable list of items should be assigned. It is imperative that the fundamental components be corrected first and the details polished later. It would not be advisable to work on the finer interpretive points of a passage if rhythms are inaccurate. Assigning too many corrections all at once will be overwhelming and possibly discouraging, therefore it is advisable to isolate and identify a feasible number of goals. This will enable the student to organize and manage practice sessions at home.

The system can be tailored to meet the needs of each student, including the choice of terminology. For example, most individuals prefer to be "problem-solvers" and work very effectively when problems are identified and solutions are provided (as in this three- step system of Passage, Problem, Practice Suggestions). Others, however, respond to affirmative goal-oriented statements, in which case it would be more effective to use the word "Goal" instead of "Problem" in step two. 

Practice suggestions

After the passage has been identified, describe in detail how your students can improve their performances and then demonstrate these ideas at the keyboard. This is possibly the most important information that the teacher can impart. For example, if there is difficulty with a staccato passage, identify the type of staccato that should be implemented and be very specific. For example, does the music require finger staccato on single notes and wrist staccato on octaves? Identify the steps entailed in the process of correctly executing the staccato as the student takes notes. Although the procedure may initially seem time-consuming, this level of detail does generate highly effective results.

Not all passages can be remedied within a week, or even several weeks, and the passages may need to be reassigned. This is when the notebook becomes an effective and valuable time-saving tool, as the studio teacher can simply refer back to the entry where the materials are readily available for review. Immediately, the student will have a visual reference for the methods that were initially suggested to correct the particular issue.

Space may be left in the journal for additional ideas that can be added at a later date, and I would suggest using a folder into which pages can be inserted. Students using digital technology may prefer to take a recording device to lessons and then transcribe the teacher's instructions at home on a computer. 

Suggested entries for an advanced student's notebook

Excerpt 1 illustrates the section of the piece being addressed in this example of a notebook entry.

Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven
Title: Sonata in A-flat Major, Op. 26
Movement: IV: Allegro
Section: Rondo, Section A, mm. 7-10
Passage: Measure 7, beat 2 to measure 10, beat 1
Problem: Sixteenth notes are not aligned (hands are not together) Goal: Align sixteenth notes when hands play together 

Practice suggestions #1:

Play the section slowly in blocked chords with a good tone to understand the harmonic sequence. Practice hands separately and then hands together until you can move easily to the next chord (see Example 2). 

Practice suggestion #2: 

Practice the passage slowly, hands separately, in different rhythms until the passage is fluent and rhythms are precise. Maintain a good, solid tone throughout (see Examples 3-5 on page 58). Note: in the actual notebook, you would not have to rewrite the passage—you could just notate the different rhythms without the pitches. 

Practice suggestion #3: 

Practice the passage very slowly in the rhythms indicated, but with hands together. Listen for a good tone and alignment of every note.

Practice suggestion #4: 

Slowly play measures 7-10, as written, hands separately then hands together, while listening for evenness and alignment of sixteenth notes. If still experiencing difficulties, repeat practice suggestions #2 and #3.

The notebook would then continue with additional passages and suggestions.

Structuring the notebook in this manner creates a systematic approach to practicing and helps to monitor progress. It sets specific goals that equip music students with the tools to achieve musical and technical skills. Over time, the notebook becomes a valuable reference manual for use in the future. 

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