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The next tip in the series based on Dan Coyle’s book, The Little Book of Talent, starts to get into the ideas of how to practice, and sets you up to start your regular practice schedule. If you missed the first 2 articles to start the series, please go and read those first.
 
There is a common saying that states, “What gets measured, gets managed,” which means that unless you can measure and track progress, you will not make any real motion forward and risk meandering or hitting a plateau because you are not sure what to work on or how to improve. If you do not know where you have been and where you are now, then you cannot steer the proverbial ship toward any meaningful destination. While there will be much focus on how to actually practice further along in the series, the first step is to prepare to measure and take notes. Of course, you can choose to take notes in what ever format is convenient and easiest for you, but I strongly recommend a physical notebook (as opposed to an online note) that is kept with all of your practice materials and instrument. Part of the reason for the physical recommendation is that you may wish to convey an idea with written music or drawings or sketches. 
 
This all begs the question, “Exactly, what notes am I supposed to take?”. The beauty of having a notebook to track your practice sessions, is that it becomes your personal road map to mastery. Each session builds upon the last and as your skill level increases, so does the level of detail in each practice. Generally, you want to take notes on at least these 3 criteria:
 
  1. what you practiced
  2. any trouble spots you encountered
  3. what you will practice next time
Of course, the more detailed you get with your notes, the more set up you will be for your next practice session, and that is the main point with having a notebook. However, If you start with these 3 basic ideas, then you will have enough to at least keep track of your progress. As Coyle puts it, “Results from today. Ideas for tomorrow. Goals for next week.” Follow this simple method and you will always know where you are and what to work on, therefore, you will always be making progress.
 
Next, we’ll explore some more in depth approaches with the notebook using some of Coyle’s tips further along in the book.
 
Tip # 22: Pay Attention Immediately After You Make A Mistake
 
Coyle writes that we have a very small window to catch our mistakes (0.25 seconds to be exact!) and he stresses throughout much of his research that one of the key differences between masters of their craft and amateurs is the ability to hone in on mistakes and ruthlessly correct them. He also writes that people have a choice, either ignore the mistake all together or pay attention. It is extremely easy to just let most mistakes slip by with a thought like, “Well, that wasn’t perfect but it sounded good enough.” The “good enough” part is exactly what you should avoid!
 
Train yourself to pay attention to your mistakes and then bring them squarely and clearly into focus in order to work on them. This is where the notebook comes in. For a deep, focused practice session, you will write down or indicate where you made the mistake, what the mistake was and dissect the reason(s) for it (were you playing too fast, the rhythm wasn’t quite right, you hit the wrong note on the 3rd beat, your hand had trouble stretching, etc.) the more detailed and examined your reasons for the mistake, the more you will be able to correct it. Practice intently while listening for mistakes and then document it in the notebook. Take corrective action to fix the mistake and write that down in the notebook. If you reach another part with a mistake, stop and make note of that for the next practice session. We will explore more in depth with more tips related to how to practice and how to fix mistakes in a future article, but start the habit of noting your mistakes now. 
 
Tip #39: Practice Immediately After a Performance
 
This next tip goes hand in hand with noticing your mistakes. Right after a performance, you know what felt right and what went wrong. Coyle suggests getting that notebook out and jotting down those rough spots from the performance while they are fresh in your mind. That way you can go back to correct the mistake during your next practice session. I would caution to note these down and then forget about them to enjoy the afterglow of your performance. Your friends, family and audience members will respond to your overall mood after a performance and they will be excited for you – so go enjoy good company after a nice performance and leave the work for later – just make sure you wrote down your thoughts and observations!
 
Tip #29: When You Get It Right, Mark the Spot
 
On the flip side of your mistakes are the times when you just nail the execution. It just feels right and sounds great. When that happens, take out your notebook and jot down a few points: what did it feel like, what were you thinking about while performing it, what did it physically feel like to play it. etc? This is most important after you have identified a mistake and worked on it until you hit a perfect execution of that musical passage. You should freeze and make notes of all the sensations as mentioned above and take as clear a mental picture of the action as possible and incorporate the ideas above. This then becomes your new starting point for practicing. Repeat that for the rest of the practice session until it becomes automatic. Again, we will go more in depth with how to develop a practice routine with future tips in the series. 
 
By now you have a good idea about what it might take to really put the effort in to learning an instrument. In the upcoming article, we will go in depth and explore how to practice, define deliberate practice, learn how to structure a practice session, and learn some techniques for correcting mistakes and attain your goals on the guitar. I love hearing your feedback and ideas about the topic. Please leave a comment below and share with any one you know who is learning an instrument.