9 Strategies for Improving Faster By Using Practice Notes

Practice notes can be a powerful way to improve your playing much faster. Let's talk about some basic strategies on when and how you can use them to make faster progress today.

by Tarun

Creator, tuneUPGRADE

Ever feel like you practice your instrument but don't make progress as quickly as you'd like? Many times this is because you aren't practicing efficiently - which typically means your practice isn't focused and directed towards the things you should be working on most.

One simple way to help with this is to start writing practice notes. By doing this, you can improve much faster, as it helps to shape your practices to be focused and directed towards the areas where you need to improve.

Whether it's a new song, an exercise, or a technique you're trying to nail down, read on to learn about how to use practice notes most effectively in order to progress much faster, and to see 9 strategies on writing practice notes that will help improve you playing.

1. Write Practice Notes - Always!

This might seem obvious, but what most people gloss over is that you should be writing practice notes during every single practice session.

My favorite time to write them is after I'm done practicing something I'm working on, so that I can capture all the details about what I just practiced. Form the habit, and in no time you'll be capturing your notes like second nature.

Reflecting on your practice daily will help you recognize what you're improving on, and more importantly, what needs work.

2. Know What To Capture

So, what are you supposed to write about? The key thing to capture is the areas that still need the most work.

If you're working on learning a song, break it down - if it's on sheet music, number the measures. If it's a song with a verse/chorus/bridge/solo structure, capture that structure, and note down - how great are you at each area? What tempo are you at with each? Which parts are ready to go, and which aren't?

If you break up what you're working on in sections, and capture which sections still need work - you'll be able to measure your progress and see meaningful change!

Here's an example of practice notes for the song Hey Jude by the Beatles:

Overall: Work on rhythmic pattern before starting to get the feel down. Play along with the song at 75% speed.

Verse 1: Performance-ready!

Verse 2: Up to speed, but work on the transition into the Chorus.

Chorus: The quick chord changes under "hey Jude, refrain,..." to the end of the line need work. Focus on these earlier on in practice.

Verse 3: Chords are fine, but lyrics need to be memorized.

Chorus: Last line is unique in this chord and still needs work.

Verse 4: Performance Ready!

Outro: Performance Ready, but remember to really have fun with this! Mimic the feel of the recording.

3. Review your notes before you touch your instrument

Ok, you're all fired up, and looking forward to jumping into playing Fur Elise. You start right at the beginning, and it sounds glorious. And then, what's this...it's the bridge! This bridge just never seems to come together. But the beginning sounds great...maybe go back and play that again?

I guess you forgot to check your practice notes - which told you the bridge needs the most work. When you review your notes before you touch your instrument, you will jump to an area that needs the most focus, earlier on in your practice, while you have the most energy and focus.

Plus, the harder parts are the ones that'll take the longest to improve! You could have the first ten bars mastered for months before you get the bridge down - but if you review your practice notes, you'll know it needs work - and you can jump right to it.

Going back to our Hey Jude example above, if I review these before I sit down at the piano or pick up the guitar, I'll know that I should practice the rhythmic feel up front, set my recording to play back at 75% speed, and start partway through Verse 2, and spend the most time in the Chorus.

4. Capture the positive, too!

Capturing the positive will help you see that you are making improvement - leaving yourself encouraging notes can really help you keep your motivation up.

Have great session that mastered a part? Mark the date and what you did well!

The Hey Jude example above shows what the overall progress on a song might look like, but capturing a small updates each day about the work you've done on a song can be really encouraging, for example:

August 4th: Sightread and understood the song structure. Noted the key. The verses are basic, but the chorus has some fast transitions that will probably need the most work.

August 7th: Can play through the whole song at 50% speed! The Verse is simple and performance ready, but the Chorus will still need work - but was able to keep up with a metronome for the first time on it today.

August 10th: This is really coming together! I recorded myself and listened back today, and my practice notes have been updated.

5. Leave yourself instructions to give yourself variety

Let's say you have a warm up exercise to play through all your major scales, and the last 5 days you started on C, and went around the circle of fifths (or fourths, for you jazz musicians out there). Or you're a guitarist, and you always play the same 5 positions, in the same order.

Once again, you're hitting a pitfall where most of your focus will be on the first things you practice - getting great at those first few, but possibly struggling on the later ones.

So - leave yourself instructions for next time! Here's an example that I have in my own practice notes from working on an exercise where I'm trying to find every note on the fretboard of my guitar:

For this exercise, play along with a metronome, and work your way down the strings, finding each note on the string in the circle of 4th:

C F Bb Eb Ab Db Gb/F# B E A D G

Tomorrow, start on the Bb - the span from Bb-F# needs the most work.

6. Capture specific plans for specific problems

When I pick up my guitar and have a song I'm playing with a tricky chord transition, I'll leave myself a practice note reminding me to practice that pesky E7 to F barre chord transition that I know will trip me up. This way, before I practice the song, I can get my fingers warmed up and transition back and forth between the two, so I'm more prepared to tackle it when it comes up.

And of course, if I'm following strategy #2, I should even practice the section it's in before tackling the whole song!

Here's an example from my own notes when learning Friday I'm in Love by The Cure on guitar:

Transition from A to Bm to G needs work. Before starting the song, spend a minute transitioning quickly from A to Bm to G and back again.

Similarly, here's a piano example from my notes learning Can't Help Falling In Love by Elvis Presley:

Transition from Em to B7 in the Chorus is shaky. Write out a specific fingering pattern to transition between these and practice before rehearsing.

7. Index the resources that help

If you're working on learning how to read sheet music, capture the website that has that trainer that'll help next time you come back. Struggling with a tricky part? Note down the timestamp in the track you're learning to where it is, or the location in that YouTube tutorial that covers it in depth.

Next time you come back, you'll spend less time hunting for the thing that helps (or worse, forgetting about it!), and more time focused on learning. Tricky fingering on a passage, or chord shape? Write out the fingering.

Here's an example I have from working on Somewhere Over the Rainbow / What a Wonderful World by Israel Kamakawiwo'ole, referencing the timestamps in a YouTube video that I have been learning from, simply just referencing the timestamps in the recording for each part:

Intro [0:00]

OTR Verse: [0:40]

Chorus [1:30]

WAWW Verse [2:15]

Bridge [3:05]

8. Capture Extra Musical Details

What's the key of this song again? I forget, is this in Drop D tuning? What did that little improv section sound like in the recording I listened to? What emotion should this convey? What was that perfect amp setting or piano patch to get the tone I wanted?

Practice notes are your place to capture anything extra about a piece. Capturing these things can help your understanding of music theory, help you expand your skills, and help make sure you're not just playing what's on the page - but you're also focusing on your musicality.

Here's another example from my notes learning Island in the Sun by Weezer:

Key is Em. Verses should have a relaxed feel, whereas the bridge ("We'll run away together...") should kick up the feel to a higher energy, but then remember to have a more relaxed feel after this section ends.

9. Take a Moment to Reflect

If you're still not making progress, take time to reflect upon why. Examine the strategies and approach you've been using. What's working? What's not? Is it time to ask for help from others? By now you should have a good sense of what you've been trying - what areas you're struggling with.

But maybe you just can't get that chord transition, or that area up to speed. This is one of the hardest parts of learning an instrument - trying to figure out what to do next when you get frustrated. If you're following all of the above strategies, but you're still not making progress - it's time to take a step back and get some feedback from others, or re-examine how to approach a challenge.

And of course - when you DO figure out your next step - capture it as practice notes. :)

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