Collecting and Analysing Practice Data

Wednesday, 3 June 2020

Over the past few weeks, we have shared a number of ways to structure, revitalise, and stick to your practice routine. One key part of practice though, is analysis and correction. This is a common feature of language learning apps, which can:

  • Show you how many times you have practiced (including ‘streaks’)
  • Collate the words you have learned into a bank and reveal how many times you recognised those words, used them successfully, and when you last practiced them
  • Show your progress over time – very satisfying.

These apps, however, decide the route you should take on your language learning journey. This is great, but with so many disciplines, genres, instruments, and technologies (as well as rapid and expansive changes in music over short periods of time, by comparison to language), musicians are often responsible for creating their own syllabus or goals.

In this article we will explore three ways of measuring your practice, and how to extract the data and turn them into measurable results.

1. Practice Diary

This seems fairly straight forward, but I am still surprised at the number of people who don’t keep a physical, visual log of what they do. In many circumstances, I think people don’t know how to keep a practice diary, so here are some guidelines on what is (and isn’t) in a practice diary:

  • Goals – I usually dedicate the front page of my practice diary to my S.M.A.R.T. Goals. This way I can refer back to them when designing a routine, and add to it and revise it regularly
  • 2x 3-month-to-a-page tables – I do this so I can track streaks of practice on a topic, dividing each month into days or weeks. TIP: I use a different coloured pencil to annotate each goal. If I work on all of my goals in one day, there’ll be a rainbow box!
  • Journal – the most common error with journaling I see is people being too specific (and that is why they usually stop journaling). The key is to mark down the important parts of your practice, like tempos, exercises, and the specific passages/studies/ideas you worked on. I use a variation on the bullet journal method for this. You can time your practice sessions and add that in, describe how you felt overall about the practice session (monitoring your physical or mental fatigue) or take data from one of the other two methods and add that in as you see fit.

At the end of each week, month, and three-month period, I will tally and map out the exercises I did, how long I did them for, and mark any details I might find necessary or interesting so that I have an ‘at-a-glance’ style of data. Of course, using software like Google Sheets, Microsoft Excel, or Apple Numbers in conjunction with any additional word processing software can be used, I have a preference for a hard copy.

Practice Data Example 1 shows the time spent on individual areas of practice and the total time spent on practice each day of the month. It also shows streaks of these exercises. The chart titled Effort, shows how much of the total time dedicated to each area of practice per session.

2. Audio Recording

Keeping audio of your practice sessions can give you an irrefutable rendition of your abilities; it’s very confronting! Here’s a few reasons to record your practice sessions:

  • Pick up common mistakes or traits
  • Able to better know the piece by studying yourself playing it along with the score
  • Accurate realisation of your tone and time feel
  • An accurate record of progression over time

Comparing your recordings from week 1 day 1 of an exercise and week 2 day 7 of an exercise can be very inspiring, too. We know how recording can be a good practice tool, but how can we use that information to improve our practice?

When listening back to a recording, note the areas you regularly make a mistake on the score. Mistakes aren’t just missed notes or fumbles, they’re also things that improve the exercise of piece overall; regularly check in on dynamics, articulations, rhythms, etc. to ensure you’re remaining loyal to the intentions of the exercise or composition.

Using the data from your Practice Diary, and comparing it to your recorded audio, you can also compare how much time you put in, and what areas improve as a result. Does your tone improve? Have you memorised the exercise? Is the performance of the piece concert ready? Does how you feel about a practice session accurately represent the results? I know musicians who have also kept food journals (usually for other reasons) and noticed that sodium, water, alcohol, and spicy foods have an impact on their practice sessions and performances.

Apps like Yamaha Cloud Audio Recorder has made it really easy and convenient to record and upload reasonable quality recordings straight to your online storage site. However, you can spend a little more to get more accurate representations of your tone, particularly in ensemble situations; consider a Yamaha Pocketrak recorder, or a simple interface/mixing console combo like the AG Series Mixers.

3. Video Recording

Video recording often has the benefits of audio recording too. There are benefits that video recording brings that audio alone doesn’t bring, but there’s also advantage to having two separate mediums and treating them differently. Video recording can reveal physical ticks and unnecessary physical movements.

  • Do you take your hands away from your instrument when you make a mistake?
  • Do you take your eyes off the conductor too often?
  • Is your breathing shallow?
  • Do you reset your embouchure before a high note?
  • Is your bowing the same as the rest of the section?

These are some of the questions you can answer by looking at video footage of yourself during practice and rehearsal sessions. Because most video footage also includes audio recording, you can see the physical movements you make when you make a mistake.

Sometimes audio quality isn’t the best on video, so I would suggest noting in your audio recording where you felt you did well and having a look at the video to see what you did right (did you take a bigger breath before that phrase, is your posture good, for example). Video footage at different angles can also reveal smaller technical details, like you finger technique, embouchure, and posture.

Comparing it with data from your practice diary, you can see whether you fatigue, or reset during a piece or exercise. I found my posture used to slump further into an exercise, and I fixed it by standing up during the exercise (which made it feel more like a performance). Noticeably, my stamina improved as I was able to breathe deeper into my lungs, oxygenating the blood and ensuring that I wasn’t playing longer phrases with a little oxygen in the tank.

How often to use each method

As a rule, I update my practice journal and record audio of myself playing my instrument daily. I video myself when I feel there’s a problem with an exercise or passage and the audio/journal combination isn’t revealing anything detailed. I don’t usually listen back to all my audio, but I will listen back to sections I repeatedly have trouble with and compare the recordings from several days. I will note where it goes wrong, and if I can figure it out, why.

If I think there is something the recording isn’t able to capture, I will then spend some time video recording myself playing the exercise over the next week. Video takes up a considerable amount of drive space, so I limit how much video I take. I also like to delve back on video and see if any physical issues reappear (basically, do I get lazy). This helps make any changes I make measurable and accountable, and hopefully permanent.

Can’t you use this time spent analysing to practice your instrument?

The answer is yes, but, I would rather reflect and change how I practice then do more of the wrong practice. If I keep struggling with the same problems over and over and never change, or change the wrong things, it’ll take longer to make the necessary improvements. So, if I spend 20 to 30 minutes recording and analysing my practice to make the necessary adjustments which I wouldn’t make without those tools, I could save a lot of time and increase the longevity of my musical career by avoiding repetitive strain injury (RSI – which requires physiotherapy and sometimes time away from the instrument to heal).

Consider using any or all of these techniques to take your practice to a new level. By using these analysis techniques, you’ll be able to make consistent and measurable improvements to your practise as a musician.