How I supercharged our lesson notes

Note taking in lessons using tablet

Since lesson notes are really the essential link back to the lesson as you practice during the week, I’m on a constant quest to do a better job of capturing all of the detail from the lessons. It’s like taking notes in school with the added twist of trying to capture the nuanced use of the body to make good music. I’ve written before about how I approach taking notes from a content perspective; but I’ve changed things up and use technology to capture more detail and nuance in our notes.

Saving trees while doing it better

We had notebooks full of lesson notes, daily practice plans, reminders, photocopies of scores. It was too much paper. It would be a shame if so many tries had to give up their lives for good music! So I began experimenting with taking notes on an iPad. I’m happy to say that it’s not only possible but in someways preferable. Not only does it save paper but there are other advantages:

  • You can mark up a fresh copy of the score each week. With complicated pieces the scores gradually accumulate a “patina” of markings and it’s easy to get lost in a sea of fingerings, bowings, dynamic markings, notes about articulation, cues, etc.
  • You can insert photographs into the notebook. It’s easy to snap a photograph of something that teacher has demonstrated and clip it into the notebook. Integrating the handwritten notes with images in this way is really effective.
  • You can integrate audio into the notebook. I’ve used this when I’m still making notes about one instruction while the teacher has moved on to another item. I’ll tap the record button and capture the audio so that I can process it later.

Although there are a lot of hardware and software choices, there are many ways to do this. What I’m describing is not necessarily what’s best. It’s just what I do.

Hardware and software

I use an iPad Pro for the note-taking platform. It’s the large format tablet and is ideal for displaying musical scores. I’ve performed using it a few times; and it’s a great experience. Because it’s nearly the same size as a sheet of paper it also feels the most natural to write on using a stylus. Speaking of styluses, the Apple Pencil is the stylus to use on the iPad Pro. It has a relatively small diameter like a normal writing instrument as opposed to some of the third-party styluses on the market. For iPads other than the Pro, There are many other styluses that are compatible with the iPad. I’ve only used a few but the finer-tipped styluses feel less “clunky” to me.

Virtual lesson and practice notebooks

For software, there is a wide variety of notebook applications. I’ve tried many of them, finally settling on Noteshelf. Among the things that I like about Noteshelf is the ability to use custom note papers which is key to how I use this method.

Using Noteshelf as a lesson note application

The first order of business is to setup one or more notebooks. I chose to create one notebook per month and then stack them by year. If you have multiple students, I suppose you go have a separate notebook for each child. Whatever division works for you.

Noteshelf papers

For taking ordinary notes, one of the standard notepapers will probably work fine. I’ve been experimenting with creating my own formats for note papers designed for this purpose with prompts for me to capture information unique to lessons. For example, I have a lesson note paper that reminds me to focus on goals for the week, questions that I need to ask the teacher, schedule changes, etc. It also includes a musical staff that I can use to annotate exercises, practice spots, bowings, etc.

Custom lesson note paper in action

If you would like to download the paper that I use, you can find it here: Lesson note paper. To use it in Noteshelf, just download it on your iPad and follow the Noteshelf instructions for installing it as a custom paper.

If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, you can create your own custom papers to use for lesson notes. It’s really the ideal way to organize the template you are using to record information in a way that fits with the unique structure and flow of the lesson. There are several steps[1]but it’s not difficult.

Using the annotation staff for bowing instructions

Using scores as Noteshelf papers

To most accurately capture instructions about specific passages, having the score as a note paper is indispensable.[2]

There are several ways to get a copy of the score to use as a custom Noteshelf paper:

  • You can scan pages from your copy of the book if you have access to a flat bed scanner. Or if you don’t have a flat bed scanner, I believe that the copying machines at FedEx Office locations will do this if you bring a USB flash drive.
  • You can download pdf’s of the old versions of the Suzuki books. I found all of the old books on Scribd. But beware of the differences between the old editions and the new. Many bowings have changed. In a few cases, actual notes have changed, too.
  • You could take a high-resolution photograph of the score. It’s tricky to get a straight-on photo without casting shadows but if you can arrange to have two lights shining on the page from either side, you may get a good image.

Snanning is probably the best way to get a good image to use as a custom paper.

Once you have an image of the score in your photo library, just follow the Noteshelf instructions for getting it into the application as a custom paper.

A score from violin Book 4 marked up with Noteshelf

Tagging notes

One of the features of Noteshelf is it’s ability to tag pages. My daughter’s teacher has a wealth of unique descriptive terms that she uses for bowing patterns (“Orchid bowing”) or other items she wants to emphasize (“RSM” or “Rose-smelling moment”). (The latter means take a little rubato.) I can tag those notes accordingly so they’re easier to find.

Daily notes

One of the aids to daily practice for us are our daily notes. We write out a plan for the day so that we make sure to cover what we need in a goal oriented way. We keep the daily notes in the same notebook as the lesson notes so that we can easily refer to them as needed during practice. It also acts as something of a journal of her playing that we can go back to and review later.

Getting started with using the iPad as a note taking platform is a little more work than simply taking notes on lined paper, but it has been worth it for us.


Teachers vary in their comfort level with technology in the studio; so it’s probably a good practice to ask about using any form of technology beforehand. Our studio teacher was interested to see how I was annotating the scores and taking notes. She even asked for advice about types of styluses to use.

I take a few minutes at home before we leave for the lesson to set everything up in the notebook. Having the right pages ready to go means less to do once we get situated in the studio. Getting setup for the lesson means having the custom papers we’re likely to use in the lesson, usually the lesson notes sheet, and the sheets for the current working pieces or anything being prepared for performance that the teacher is likely to request.

Some children, I imagine, might be distracted by having an iPad in use during the lesson. In that case, pen and paper may still be the better choice. Since we don’t really use the tablet for anything other than utility tasks, it wasn’t a problem for us. It goes without saying that answering emails and text messages should be avoided.

Finally, devices are prone to playing sounds at the most inopportune times! Just make sure the volume is turned off. It even be beneficial to turn on the “Do not disturb” mode to avoid any distractions.

Too much trouble?

At the end of the day, it’s really about how to capture the most accurate record of what the teacher wants the student to work on. I’ve developed a system that works for us because with a little investment in setup time, it makes my job as practice parent easier to accomplish in a more thorough way. But if it’s overwhelming to deal with this much technology, just refining your lesson note technique and having your own copy of the music in front of you is most of what you need to be successful.

  1. To create a custom paper I use Pages on Mac OS X but Word or other word-processing application would work just as well. After laying everything like I want it on the page I export the content to PDF. The next step is to size the page to fit the exact dimensions that Noteshelf wants. Currently, the application wants paper dimensions of 1472 x 1848 pixels with a 120 pixel non-writable bottom border. I do the resizing step in Photoshop by creating a document of that size and Place... the PDF in a layer in that Photoshop document. In another layer, I place a rectangle that is 1472 x 1728 pixels and align it to the top. Then make that layer semi-transparent so that it acts as a guide to where the non-writable bottom border will be. Then in the content layer, I can adjust the size and positioning of the page content using the guide as a reference. Finally, once everything is adjusted, I turn off the visibility of the guide layer and export the document as a JPG image using "File > Save for Web..." Then I email the JPG image to myself so that I can save it to the iPad photo library. If you don't have Photoshop, other image editing software should work fine.

  2. Of course, you can do this without using the iPad by scanning and printing, or photocopying the original score. Either way, I've found it nearly impossible to accurately record the instructions without having the score in front of me; and once the child is working closely with the score, it will often be up on the music stand instead of in my lap.