Time to rethink Practice Notebooks?

Educational Resources

As a child learning the piano, almost all of my teachers used a notebook to write down practice instructions, and more often than not included messages to parents and assessment of progress.

As a teacher I have generally adopted a similar practice, asking each student to bring a simple shorthand pad (or more special writing book) to their lessons. Whether or not they read my notes (and in most cases I doubt it!) the notebook has always been a useful reminder during the lesson itself, and make it easier to track progress towards specific goals.

Quite apart from whether pupils read their notebooks (according to Paul Harris, research indicates that 85% don’t) the use of a basic writing pad can be problematic. I often find that student practice notebooks have been used for other purposes, with pages missing, doodles, shopping lists, inexplicable messages and stains of unknown provenance.

On one occasion a child even brought a notebook that included his mother’s sums working out the cost of her next cannabis order!

So the case for using a special bespoke notebook is a strong one – especially if it incorporates additional information to help students…

So much choice!

A cursory glance at the market reveals it to be a burgeoning one, with notebooks available in all shapes and sizes, and from the highly prescriptive to the more sparse. There are so many to choose from – and given that each pupil has unique needs (as well as generic ones) this is surely a good thing.

Roberta Wolff – whose Music • Me • Piano resources I will be reviewing later in this feature – wrote to me:

“I think that you will see that there are as many different possibilities for practice books as there are teachers and students.”

How true! Among those I have been looking at (and a special thanks to Roberta for giving me the opportunity to look through her collection of alternatives) there is a huge variety, ranging from the somewhat prescriptive Musician’s Practice Planner from Molto Music/Hal Leonard through to the more freeform.

Gail Lew’s Music Practice Record and Assignment Book (Alfred) is the latter, giving little practice guidance at all, but including useful scales charts, blank manuscript paper and theory terms as a glossary at the back.

Some notebooks specifically tie in with methods and other commercial products, for example the Practice & Progress Lesson Notebook in the Faber Piano Adventures series, giving it special appeal to those attached to that method, but perhaps limiting wider use.

The notebooks mentioned thus far are all in “larger than A4” format, the same as most sheet music publications. ABRSM have meanwhile produced practice notebooks that are smaller, around A5 size. The problem with these however – and for me this is a genuine deal breaker – is that they too prominently promote examinations, reinforcing an unfortunate impression that gathering certificates should be the main goal of a pupil’s efforts, a view I firmly reject.

Below I am going to review three other alternatives which represent a varied range of approaches to suit different students and situations. Let’s go…

Enjoy Piano Notebooks

Enjoy Piano is the fabulous website of Sofie Kay, who teaches in Brighton UK. The site includes a useful range of free downloads such as music theory support materials, teacher resources, all supported with a well written blog.

Sofie’s Piano Goals Notebook for students aged 5-12, and her Music Practice Planner for older learners (£2.00 each) are her first commercial products. These are the most freeform of the practice notebooks I have encountered, and as such they are an easy step up from the shorthand pads my students have used in the past.

The two versions have beautiful and age-appropriate covers, with inside contents that are similar. The young player’s Piano Goals Notebook includes theory games on the inside covers, while the more adult Music Practice Planner has a “Theory Cheat Sheet” showing common notation and terms, and a keyboard and notation chart at the back entitled “The Grand Staff”.

Practice GoalsEach A5 notebook includes a front page where the student can write their name and their teacher’s contact details, as well as listing musical goals they hope to achieve. And in both versions, the final page provides space for a Repertoire List, which is a great way of encouraging students to enjoy the music they can play well and expressively, rather than only do using on pieces that are a work-in-progress.

The main lesson/practice pages in the Piano Goals Notebooks include space for the lesson date, the question “goals from last lesson complete?” with “Yes!” and “maybe next time” as responses, complete with smilies. The remainder of the page is completely blank, with two empty manuscript staves at the foot of the page.

In the Music Practice Planner notebooks for older students, the smilies are gone. Each page simply provides space for the lesson date, freeform notes, two manuscript staves and at the foot of the page a spot where the student can add “items to bring to next lesson”. The subtle variety between the two versions reveals that Sofie is an astute teacher, sensitive to the different needs of each age group.

I really like these notebooks and appreciate the flexibility they offer – and I expect to be placing a bulk order soon!

StickersBefore moving on, let me tell you about Sofie’s Practice Incentive Music Reward Stickers, also available from the Enjoy Piano website. As with the practice notebooks, the stickers are a high quality, well thought-out product. Eight different colours, each with different rewards/wording, make up a complete set that young pupils will enjoy collecting over the course of a term (or longer).

The nice touch here is that the stickers reward success in memorising a piece, performing in public, learning a new scale, and so on. And there are blank stickers that teachers can use for specific tasks that aren’t otherwise covered. Highly recommended!

Paul Harris’s Diary and Workbook

Another excellent choice for school-age pupils, The Musician’s Union Practice Diary by Paul Harris (published by Faber Music, £1.99) is one of the more creative approaches I have come across.

The practice diary pages start with a space where the teacher can write the week’s focus, followed by three main boxes:

  • For the teacher: What we did in the lesson
  • What to practise at home: practice connections
  • How has it gone? what went well? Any problems?

There is also space for “general updates”.

I like the way this notebook’s layout allows for reflection, discussion, and potentially the involvement of parents.

However it also provides a good illustration of the point that there are many varied needs. With a layout that starts in the Autumn Term, progressing through Spring to Summer, it wouldn’t fit into the annual plan I have for my teaching practice, which includes more than 50% adult learners, and with lessons throughout the summer holidays.

Another problem for me personally is that the space for teacher comments is too small for the more detailed comments I often write, but your mileage may vary.

MU Practice WorkbookScattered throughout the diary there are additional pages which include puzzles, reinforcement of music theory and scales, and creative activities. These certainly add considerably to the interest that these notebooks offer students, ensuring that they refer to them between lessons. A very smart idea!

In addition to his MU Practice Diary, Paul has produced the MU Complete Practice Workbook, also published by Faber Music at £2.99, which is an altogether different affair.

For each week, the Complete Practice Workbook includes a full-page blank “Simultaneous Learning Practice Map” – essentially a large mind-map that incorporates thought bubbles for such elements as Memory, Rhythm, Improvising, Technique, Posture, Aural, Sight Reading, Scales, Listening and Performing. This is accompanied by a lesson notes page which at first sight appears more conventional, but on closer inspection also includes a strong emphasis on simultaneous learning, creative exploration, and a multi-sensory approach.

The MU Complete Practice Workbook is certainly a “high concept” option, and is arguably the most prescriptive of the approaches I have seen.

Assimilating Paul’s volume “Simultaneous Learning: The Definitive Guide” would be a prerequisite for understanding how to use this workbook, and I rather think the pupil would equally need a good grasp of the methodology in order to make the most of it.

Music • Me • Piano

This brings me, finally to Roberta Wolff’s practice notebook series, which comes in three flavours: Workbook (£7.00), Express (£6.00) and Practice Notes (£5.00).

Don’t let those prices put you off, because what you are getting with these books is a whole lot more than just a practice notebook, as I’ll explain.

Music me piano - Express Cover v2 front page only.jpgI’ll focus on Music • Me • Piano Express first, because it showcases the middle ground in the series, and is apparently the best-seller. The book comes in A4 size, is made of premium quality paper, printed in colour, and has sturdy embossed cardboard covers. It is ring-bound, again to a high quality. The cover and contents are charmingly illustrated by Claire Holgate.

The Express workbooks are built around 42 practice pages, which include boxes for musicianship, technique, scales, arpeggios, pieces (a much larger box), theory, sight playing and “next week”. Each box (except the last) includes small boxes for the days of the week so that pupils/parents can tick off the days). Each page also includes a motivational statement and illustration. You can see sample pages by clicking on the book cover images on Roberta’s website here.

However, these practice pages only occupy as far as page 43 in a 69 page book. The remainder comprises an excellent selection of additional teaching and learning resources that many teachers will be thrilled by. These include a creative rhythm page, a circle of fifths chart (to be filled in by the teacher and student), some truly superb resources for learning correct scale patterns and fingering, an empty glossary of definitions, which the pupil can fill in and create as they learn new pieces and terminology, scales practice charts, blank pages and manuscript paper.

Taken as a whole this is a superb package, which provides many opportunities for integrated and effective teaching and learning, going well beyond the typical scope of a practice notebook.

That said, it’s inevitable that with this amount of content, it may not exactly fit with individual teachers’ priorities. A personal example – the workbook includes a page about “degrees and intervals of the scale” which is rather dominated by pictures of Kodály hand signs. I would like to think that my students are generally inquisitive enough to want to know more about this, but personally I am not a Kodály trained practitioner, so in effect this could prove to be a distraction.

It is perhaps here that the variants on Express come into their own. The Workbook version adds to the content of Express, while Practice Notes limits the additional material.

Music • Me • Piano Workbook raises the page count from 69 to 81 pages, adding in useful introductions for teachers and – importantly – parents. There’s also a well written two page article on “The Art of Practice” and an interesting feature on “Stages of learning”. The appendices at the back add in a couple of blank pages for “Songs and exercises learnt by ear”, which encourages students to notate rhythms using stick notation. And there are 8 pages of blank manuscript.

Music • Me • Piano Practice Notes reduces the content, essentially becoming a little less prescriptive in the process. The focus is mainly on the practice note pages themselves, but this edition still includes the excellent scales fingering charts and blank manuscript pages at the back. To be honest, this is the version I am most likely to use with students.

You can get a really good idea of the layout and style of these books, as well as comparing the versions, by clicking on the book cover thumbnails and exploring the content on Roberta’s website, where you will also find some great free downloads!

Roberta has also produced Music • Me • Piano Practice Notes and My Practice Palette, which take her forensic approach to understanding and encouraging effective practice still further. I will be reviewing them separately in the near future.

In the meantime, I highly recommend teachers check out the top-line product Music • Me • Piano Workbook. Whether or not you decide it is suitable for all your students, the content here is an inspiring illustration of a methodical approach.

Some Conclusions

I’ve already stressed the benefits of using a bespoke, well-thought practice notebook, and by reviewing three contrasting examples I hope I have inspired teachers to consider which will best suit each of their pupils.

Roberta Wolff’s Music • Me • Piano  resources are particularly great for those who favour a more methodical approach.

Paul Harris’s MU Practice Diary is a fabulous and creative resource for younger pupils whose lessons match the typical school year, offering plenty of added value through creative and imaginative activities. His Complete Practice Workbooks will appeal to those who particularly subscribe to his “simultaneous learning” approach.

Sofie Kay’s Enjoy Piano notebooks are a brilliant and high-quality resource for those looking for a more freeform approach to note writing.

All of these are well worth checking out for yourself – I hope you find the resource that best suits your teaching style and your students’ needs!

Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator and writer based in Milton Keynes UK, where he runs a successful private teaching studio. He is a published composer, author, and his original compositions and piano recordings have been streamed by more than a million listeners worldwide.

3 thoughts on “Time to rethink Practice Notebooks?”

  1. Another option to consider is actually just creating one of your own. I did this, creating a PDF file with all the elements I felt were relevant, then placing a small order with blurb.de (blurb.co.uk is the UK equivalent). It took quite a bit of time to do, but I’m really pleased with the result and the feedback from parents and kids has been really good (“you made your own book? Wow!”). There are two particular advantages to this. I think it adds particular value to the parents’ perception of lessons, showing how much you care about getting the lessons right; it also means that your design can change as time goes on because it is relatively easy to update the PDF that Blurb uses to make the book. I have been making notes on the response of the kids to the planner ever since and the next version will have a few tweaks and improvements.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for this thorough analysis! Have you looked at any of the practice apps that are being developed? They are a multimedia replacement for practice notebooks, with some interesting advantages as well as disadvantages. I’m not sure if they’re suited to younger students, but am interested in exploring them with middle and high school ages. Wolfie, Practicia, Better Practice are a few. Thoughts?

    Liked by 1 person

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