Note Taking - The Key To Success
Most of us are back in the full swing of the school year. Whether you are a student (or teacher!) who has decided to stay online or you are back in the classroom, by now you have likely gotten a taste of the post summer shock that comes with suddenly having a lot of work to do and tasks to keep track of.
Students will likely be balancing a tremendously demanding course load on top of the expectations that they will practice a lot, making sure to grow their musicianship, increase their technique and play in ensembles, all while making plans for their future careers.
No big deal. (Yeah, right!)
What follows are some suggestions for how we can get the most out of our lessons and efforts while in school through tracking and reflection. There are lots of ways to do this. At the very least, I hope that this gets your wheels turning!
Everyone learns differently - it makes sense that we are all unique and so our learning styles and methods benefit from being tailored to our preferences.
I highly recommend taking a learning style quiz (Google "learning style quiz" for lots of options) and understanding if you are an aural, kinesthetic or visual learner. Perhaps you are some combination of those. Learning how you best process information allows you to identify efficient ways to retain the new information coming at you from all directions.
So, do you take notes after your lesson?
Spoiler: I think we all should.
Whether you draw something to remind you of what you learned, make a voice memo of a few important points, simply write down your tasks for the next lesson, or rewrite some of the major concepts of the lesson, you reinforce what you learned by reviewing the lesson in your mind.
Summarizing what was covered in your lesson helps you to retain the information, making it easier to apply in rehearsals and the practice room.
Some examples of things you might record after your lesson:
- What you need to do for the next lesson
- What is new? What are you working on that is a continuation of a larger project or goal?
- Objectives: What are you trying to accomplish with each assigned task?
- Sensations: What did it feel like when you did something well in the lesson? (ex: a great interval) What did you do physically that made it work?
I want to emphasize how important it is to synthesize our logical, analytical experience of what we learn with the sensations of physically doing the task (playing your instrument, singing, throwing the ball, etc).
It's not often you see an athlete taking notes and then setting them aside, assuming that the academic learning will be enough to help them make the big play in their next game. They are always connecting what they've learned studying plays or watching tapes with the action it connects to.
The better we get at articulating what it feels like to get something right, the better we will get at replicating it and teaching it.
Playing an instrument is a mental and physical activity. Our goal as musicians is always to connect what we know about the music with the correct physical action to produce the desired result we imagine every time.
How you keep track is entirely up to you. Here are some suggestions of places to keep notes for yourself:
- A voice memo (you could also record your lessons, but you should still summarize the experience for yourself)
- A special notebook that is meant just for your reflections
- A voice memo
- A document on your computer
- A notes app on a tablet (I would suggest using Do Not Disturb mode while you reflect on what you learned if you use a digital tool)
Personally, I love keeping a special notebook where I can reflect. (I still keep some of my lesson notes on hand at all times in my practice space, and sometimes even in my gig bag!) This makes sense for me as a kinesthetic and visual learner. Do what works for you!
Some other useful tools and tactics might be to keep a practice journal (separate from your lesson notes) and to make reminders that you can put within sight while you are practicing.
If you are in college and using different practice spaces often, a small sign (for example, an 8x11 sheet of paper or post-its you can trade out on an 8x11 sheet) that you can keep in your bag is a great way to carry your practice reminders with you.
A practice journal can be as detailed as you'd like (think Excel spreadsheet!) or a loose list of what you did each time you practiced. I tend to think more detail is better so that when you reflect on it later, or need to submit what you did during your semester, you have all the information you need.
Examples of what you might track in a practice journal (not an exhaustive list!):
- What you practiced
- Practice techniques used (changing rhythms, etc)
- What scales you did, what ones you need to more of, etc.
- What warmups or exercises you are using
When we are very busy in our day to day life, we can sometimes lose track of where we are headed. Your practice journal can be an excellent spot to check in each week and make sure that you are progressing toward your larger goals and deadlines. In addition, when you have finished school and need some guidance on exercises to use, or you need ideas of what to teach your students, your practice journal can help spark inspiration as you review what was assigned to you at different stages of learning.
Although I'm writing this with college students in mind, I believe that these concepts apply to any student (even adult learners!). I have never regretted taking the time to write some notes to myself as a student or an adult.
When you track your tasks, goals and experiences you are actively creating progress.
Whether you are a detailed note taker or record more generalities, the bottom line is that you are allowing yourself the important reflection time that research has shown solidifies what you learn. You are giving yourself space so that your mind and body can connect all the right dots.
In our busy-ness we often forget that it is in stillness and calm that we actually make progress.
Rejection Isn’t A Good Teacher
You’ve heard all the stories about how failures are actually blessings, and how one closed door means another door opens, right?
As musicians (or as teachers, entrepreneurs, performers, administrators…) we deal with rejection a lot. We get told “no” so many times we might even stop applying for scholarships, grants, auditioning or putting ourselves out there at all.
I had an experience recently where a lot of the places I invested my efforts created some really wonderful outcomes, except for one. I won’t get into the details except to say that the rejection letter was terribly written, and for the first time in my career (or maybe even in my life) I felt like I had enough perspective to take it for what it was really worth.
So, what can do we actually learn from rejection?
In order to learn from rejection, we must be willing to learn in the first place. For example, if you make an audition tape, but aren’t willing to have anyone listen to you and give you comments before you record, are you really in it to get better? Or, are you looking for an easy win, praise or recognition?
No matter what type of work you are doing, having someone more experienced that you trust and respect view your work is always a good idea. You don’t have to broadcast your behind-the-scenes to the world, but you do have to be willing to show someone your best effort, even if you don’t think it’s good enough yet. On top of that, you have to stay open to receiving their feedback.
In order to learn from rejection, you have to be willing to try. If you have a million ideas that you love, but you never share them with anyone they will never be rejected. They’ll also never help or impact anyone else.
There are lots of ways to put your ideas into action. For example, you could consider writing down your thoughts (maybe in a blog!), creating an online workshop or a special project for your private studio. All of these things will take you time and effort, but they don’t cost a lot and give you lots of opportunities to receive feedback (make sure that you ask for some from people you trust!).
Most things won’t turn out to be a total flop, but it’s also true that every idea can’t be your best idea. To get to an outcome that is worth something, you have to be willing to share and stay open to the way it is received.
Since we are considering feedback so much, it’s crucial to remember that not everyone will like what you have to offer. Perhaps they don’t like your style of playing, or they simply aren’t interested in the topics that you feel so passionately about. That’s ok.
Here’s the most important part: it’s ok, because you don’t need to connect with everyone. You need to do work you are proud of, that is well thought out and that you care about. Even if someone doesn’t “like” it, we can all respect when someone works hard and puts in the effort on something they are invested in.
So what is the actual rejection teaching us?
* It might be teaching us that we are not at the level we need to be yet.
* It might be teaching us that we could reevaluate our effort - how are we approaching improving?
* It might be teaching us that we did everything we could, but we were not what the committee was looking for (in style, approach, expertise, etc).
* It might be teaching us to seek out more honest feedback in advance.
* It might be teaching us … nothing. Sometimes there are a lot of qualified candidates and we just don’t win the lottery that day.
*** It is always teaching us to go inward. To take an honest look at our approach and the reason we are doing things.***
Our reflection on how we got to the event that we are receiving feedback on and what we know about ourselves is teaching us a lot.
The feedback we receive in advance from knowledgeable mentors or colleagues is teaching us a lot.
But the actual rejection? The letter that shows up in your mailbox or email? That’s not teaching you anything.
What you take away from each rejection letter or “no” you get has very little to do with how it’s delivered.
If you take each of these rejections to heart, assume that the words are truthful and mean something about you and your abilities, then rejection will teach you something - that you are not worthy. It will slip into the little cracks between all the things you’re proud of and start to break apart your confidence bit by bit. It will seep into the way you think about yourself without you even noticing.
Be mindful of how you receive rejection. Be mindful of how you talk to yourself about rejection. It is possible to learn in an intentional way from your own experiences around rejection, but you must be willing to be open.
I have become very committed to my meditation practice over the last year. As with any new or developing interest, this has led me to do more research and reading on the subject, seek out references and examples of how to apply it to my daily life, and of course, to lots of meditating.
I think it’s inevitable that an interest in mindfulness meditation will lead you to some understanding of Buddhism. Buddhism is the inspiration and origin of much of what we think of as mindfulness meditation. Buddhist practices and principles can be traced back to ancient times, and if you’re like me, you might have found through your meditation journey that many are quite useful and applicable to our modern lives.
Occasionally, though, there is a concept that seems un-relatable (or just plain far out). Maybe you have even had this experience in a lesson where a perfectly intelligent and respectable teacher presents a concept to you that just seems out of place for your own playing or practice, or maybe they taught you a concept that you just find weird and hard to do or conceptualize.
Somewhere along my path of growing a meditation practice I ran into the Buddhist concept of Non-Self or No Self (anātman). At first read, it can seem a little nuts:
Non-Self: in Buddhism, the doctrine that there is in humans no permanent, underlying substance that can be called the soul. Instead, the individual is compounded of five factors that are constantly changing.
(Are you wondering how this relates to music yet?)
I didn’t give a lot of thought to this concept initially, because, frankly, it’s a big one. There’s a lot to take in and consider in this view that’s very different from how we often perceive ourselves.
If we look at this concept from the simplest angle we can (which, let’s be honest, is still a bit mind-bending), then it means that each of us are always changing. That while there are things about us that may be the same from year to year or moment to moment, other aspects of us, both big and small, have changed. We are always changing in some way.
Another perspective that might be helpful is that we are not our mind and body, but we do have a mind and body. We are not our experiences or our thoughts, but we have experiences and thoughts. The mind, body, experiences and thoughts we have are always in flux in some way.
Part way through my first year of meditating, I did a guided meditation on the Ten Percent app led by Anushka Fernandopulle that addressed this concept and a little light bulb went off.
(Now we’re getting to somewhere this connects with our study and performance of music!)
The perspective that Anushka Fernandopulle shared gave the example of any mistake we might make, big or small. Mistakes are on not on purpose - if we had complete control over our self then we would never make any mistakes.
There would never be a wrong note, an out of tune note, or a late or early entrance. You would never play badly in lesson you had prepared for. You wouldn’t eat that ice cream at midnight after a gig when you weren’t even hungry.
But there are all of those things, we do play badly sometimes, and we also eat midnight snacks (not for lack of trying to do otherwise).
I’m sure that you can conjure up at least a few situations where you tried your absolute hardest, and things just didn’t come out the way you wanted.
The lightbulb moment for me in the concept of non-self though, was the idea that because things are always changing and malleable, and because we have many parts, elements, experiences and thoughts, we cannot possibly expect to control everything.
Let me repeat that for all the perfectionist musicians, including myself: because all our physical parts, our mind, our thoughts and our experiences are always changing in some way, we cannot expect to control everything.
The next time you play out of tune or miss a note, even though you practiced and prepared as best you could, do not blame yourself for making a stupid mistake. Do not personalize the experience as if you can control absolutely every variable at every moment.
Yes, from moment to moment we are mostly the same, and we do have to make our best effort (or right effort as George Mumford would say), but the lesson to learn here is that we need to release the things we are not responsible for or in control of.
Focus on what you can do with well moment to moment with a positive mindset and right effort and release the idea that we can somehow control the fact, or the ways, that we are always changing.
For those of us who struggle with an incredibly strong inner critic, the pressures of performance and our own expectations, this Buddhist concept of Non-Self at it simplest might provide us with a new perspective.
At its core, Non-Self provides space for self acceptance, self forgiveness, and a path out of perfectionism.
How could you incorporate this view of Non-Self in a healthy way in your practice or performance? I would love to hear about your thoughts and experiences!
The Root Value of Connection
Prior to the era of Zoom, I was incredibly skeptical of online connection. It felt clunky and cumbersome to me to try and get to know people online, and so often it seemed disingenuous.
Don’t get me wrong, I still think that social media is a place where we have to tread carefully with boundaries and awareness, but I do think that not having the option to meet in person forced us into being more sincere in a lot of our online interactions as we all took to different corners of the internet to find comfort and community.
Certainly, we’ve all learned the value of socialization and the longing and loneliness that exists when we are not allowed to gather together. There are also other more subtle lessons about community that I think have come to light.
After completing my 200hr yoga teacher training online, I understood that it was possible to deeply connect with others virtually. The key is to be willing to make yourself vulnerable - to be willing to share openly.
The positive experience of vulnerability in my teacher training inspired me to start blogging again and be vulnerable in sharing my thoughts, methods and perspectives.
It can seem incredibly scary to share online. There are so many people sharing “practice” videos that sound like performances, and beautiful pictures of people and experiences that we feel removed from. We all know these posts are curated, but the more of them we see the more it constantly stays in the back of our minds.
(A note here to say that intention matters. Curated is not always bad - my posts and blogs are planned, but with the intention of sharing something important to me and always staying true to myself.)
Once I started posting and sharing though, I started finding like-minded accounts and people, and realizing I was not alone in my interests, my strengths or my struggles.
It’s very similar to the experience of going to music school and being surrounded by people who are “your kind” for the first time. You find friends who will discuss your interests in depth and connect with you over all the triumphs and defeats of your craft.
Topics like perfectionism, imposter syndrome and burnout come up a lot for musicians, and the neatest part about finding a community of people you trust is that you realize you are not alone in these or other challenges (like those of playing your specific instrument).
When you find people who will return your vulnerability, you find your strengths. You gain the perspective to realize that yes, I struggle with this one thing, but I’m actually doing ok!
Think of it this way: if you sit at home alone and watch “inspirational” Instagram and YouTube videos of people playing, then try to practice and critique your playing you will almost always end up feeling crummy and less than. If you find a group of friends who will listen to each other play in person or online and give both positive and constructive feedback you will feel inspired as you connect over sharing in the difficulties and triumphs.
The internet can isolate us so easily, but if you take control over the vehicle that is available to you for connection you will be both inspired and affirmed.
At it’s core, connection teaches you that you are not alone in your difficulties and you are doing good work.
What new thing could you do to create genuine connection in your life?
There is so much discussion about getting back to gigs after all the shutdowns, and all the feelings, emotions, joys and stresses that are coming along with musicians getting back to work.
The last year and half has been weird, and while my teaching and gig life is springing back to normal and I am extremely grateful, I think it’s wrong to pretend that things haven’t changed at all.
We were given an enormous and unusual (and of course stressful and scary) opportunity to really consider what we do, how we do it, and why we do it.
From my own perspective as a musician who usually wears many hats, I needed that time off whether I wanted it or not. I was burnt out, and desperately needed to address my approach to work. If my hand hadn’t been forced, I probably wouldn’t have taken the time to consider how work was truly affecting my mental health and my overall attitude and approach to life.
Pre-pandemic I was exhausted, running myself rampant because that’s what a good musician is supposed to do (or, that’s what we’re taught a good musician with a good career does). I was musically in shape and mentally out of shape, and had a lot of stress about the meaning of every note I played on stage. (As you can imagine, if something didn’t go quite the way I wanted in a performance, it felt a little catastrophic.)
I was pushing hard for my career without allowing myself the space to focus on where I was going or why I wanted to be there.
Over the time when it wasn’t possible to gig, I spent less time with my instrument and more time with my mind. I started learning how to care for my mental wellbeing, brought my attention back to my physical health, and also refocused on my performance mindset.
Something else that there was space to consider was how I prepared for things - what was my method of preparation? What were my mental habits leading up to a performance?
For me, the answers to some of these questions were tough to accept - it is difficult to see the ways that we are selling ourselves short. But in considering the way I viewed my own ability and value, I allowed myself the space to ask and answer many difficult questions.
The silver lining of accepting that we have put limits on ourselves, created difficulty through unawareness, or that we have been flying blind at warp speed is that by seeing these obstacles and habits they are easier to remove and change.
Now, as we go back to work, we have an incredible opportunity to bring a consciousness of being back to work with us.
We have an opportunity to adjust our habits, to treat ourselves better, and to consciously create our own landscapes.
As an example, consider how many things you said yes to doing before the shut down that you only did because you felt you had to. That’s a post for another day, but generally speaking we are taught to do everything because you never know when you might miss something. At the root of it, I believe this actually leads to a scarcity mindset and causes us to overload ourselves. (This ties into the concept of Essentialism).
To provide entertainment, inspiration and instruction, all of which are healing for most people, is a gift in a career. Perspective on how this fits into the thread of very real and sometimes scary everyday events can only stand to make us more adept at providing what the world, our audiences and our students need.
At this moment, we have a clean slate on which to be intentional about what we do - focusing on only the best places to put our efforts and leaving behind the things that are only good or ok.
Like any change, it will require a concentrated effort of often small and seemingly insignificant daily habits that add up over a long period of time.
As musicians, we tend to catastrophize small events that are imperceptible to others (an out of tune note, getting passed over in an audition) or how we measure up to other people, but this moment has a lot to teach us.
We can and should use our post pandemic perspective to make changes, even small ones, that will help us to be our best selves.
Reflect on your habits - what will you change given all the perspective you have gained?
Hi, I'm Morgann! Flutist, teacher, aspiring yogini, and life long learner figuring out how to create my way through life one crazy idea at a time.