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A Guide to Good Notes

No, this is not a post about reading or playing music notes.


However, this entry is about writing notes: Lesson notes, or if you prefer, practice notes.


Nomenclature aside, it is about the notes that you take in order to guide your child's music practice at home. Since these notes will be referred to over the next 6 days until we see our teacher at the next lesson, we had better be taking pretty solid notes to aid us in surviving the week ahead.


Entering my 17th year in the public service means that I get a lot of regular practice at... taking meeting notes. Taking notes during a music lesson requires you to activate different thinking and writing skills though. At times, it is akin to hearing one language being spoken and transcribing it in a different language, involving rapid translation as your pen hits the paper. At other times, it feels like you're writing an instruction manual with a step-by-step explanation on how to execute that very same action that your child is doing before you in class to home practice.


It can get pretty tedious trying to keep up. Focus on penning detailed notes and you may miss out on hearing what the teacher said about the next section. Write too brief a note and you may find your perplexed self trying to recall what exactly this note is about.


Here are some tips on how to have an easier time taking lesson notes:


(1) Be prepared


Yes, Jeremy Irons as Scar in The Lion King sang it right alright. Scar in turn probably stole the line from his mother. And likely his school teacher too. I find it handy to have a dedicated pencil case for the music lesson. This pencil case is mine and mine alone, and is out of bounds to the kids. (In my view, it's totally okay to be selfish in this context when sharing your things means losing those things.) In it are pencils, fine-tip pens with ink in different colours, highlighters and colourful sticky tabs. Some of you may prefer to tap your lesson notes into your mobile phone. I prefer to save my phone for other uses (which I will come to later) and write on paper.


Paper, on some instances during the lesson, refers to the music sheet. I stick coloured tabs on practice spots for the week, allowing me to shift the tabs at the following lesson to a new tricky spot, and I highlight in ink the reminders that are more "permanent" in nature e.g. dynamics marks and tempo marks. Even if you can't read music notation, it is still useful to have the music book on hand and gradually start to recognise parts of what you hear in what you see over time.


(2) Use a template for Lesson Notes / Practice Notes / Practice Assignments


As you can tell, I have trouble deciding on what exactly to term my latest and most fabulous invention: an all-in-one sheet of paper with sections to guide you on writing (as you would have figured out by now) lesson notes, practice notes and practice assignments! (Applause, please.)


I used to carry and switch amongst 3 different lesson notebooks for 3 different kids. Things got messy whenever I forgot to bring a notebook and had to write one child's lesson notes in her sibling's notebook. I've since figured out that a better system is to design and print multiple copies of blank templates that can be used to take notes for any lesson, for any child, learning on any instrument and at any current skill level - and to have it all in a single file. And I've made it look good too! Check out the preview:

Members of Parents Can Coach can download the full template from our Members' Studio online resource page.


Here's what my all-in-one note-taking kit now looks like. Goodbye multiple notebooks.


(3) Ask (and thou shalt note down the answers!)


The last tip is to ask. The first person to ask is - yourself.


"How did the teacher communicate constructive feedback to my child? What was the phrase he used?"


"What story or imagery did the teacher use to illustrate a practice point to my child that made him eager to improve upon that particular tricky part?"


"What game did the teacher play to get my child excited in doing repetitions?"


Or very simply: "What happened in the lesson that made my child smile?"


The next person to ask is the teacher. You could try asking:


"Could you repeat what you just said please, so that I can write that down?"


"What can I say or do at home to help my child with this practice point?"


"Can I take a video of you playing the section that my child is to practise at home please?" (See, this is what I prefer to use my phone for instead of typing on it!)


"How many repetitions should we be doing for this section?"


"Which part of the music score am I looking at for this section that she is playing now?"


"What tempo do we set the metronome at when we practise this piece at home?"


Give it a try and let me know if you found these 3 tips useful. (Especially the practice notes template please, because I really enjoyed creating it for our Parents Can Coach families!)


Later this month, I will be sharing an article by a Suzuki teacher on how to write lesson notes that are truly useful and meaningful in supporting home practice. Till then!


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