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How to take better lesson notes

Suzuki parents take notes during lessons. That’s the edict that practically all of us were given from the very first lesson.

Great! But how?

What’s important, of course, isn’t how well you take notes during the lesson but how well you’re able to translate those notes into a plan of action for the week. Nonetheless, your notes are a key step - the written artifacts that you take with you.

Mindfulness

No matter how hectic the day, how frustrating the traffic was on the way to the studio, or how many things are left on your to-do list, putting that aside for a moment will give you better awareness of what’s happening in the lesson. Sit in a spot in the studio where you have a good view of both your child and the teacher. In a way you’re physically modeling the “Suzuki triangle” of teacher-student-parent, right? The more aware you are as an observer, the more useful information you will take home.

Structure

Your teacher has a plan for the lesson; and more likely than not, it unfolds in pretty much the same way each week. You can make your work of note-taking easier by coming up with a sheet with headings that mirror the same structure. For example, our studio teacher begins every lesson with tonalizations. So the first heading on my sheet says, “Tonalizations:“. Beneath each heading I have a few blank lines to write about what tonalizations she did in the lesson (key, position, etc.) Next comes scales; so there’s a heading for “Scales:” with blank lines that follow. For the repertoire, you can leave a separate blank line for the names of the pieces to be played in the lesson. Your teacher may have a different order; but more likely than not there’s a structure. Taking advantage of the structure by anticipating it will help you in two ways. First, you’ll be able to get more details on the page because you don’t have to worry about writing the headings. Second, and more importantly, it serves as an outline about what to look for. In other words, having a structure is a prompt or cue.

Struggles, accomplishments, assignments

I look for three elements to write under each heading: struggles, accomplishments, and assignments. A struggle is something that your child needs more work on. It will probably be obvious from the week’s practice; but this is a good time to summarize the trouble spots during the lesson. If you’re unsure, a clue is when the teacher stops the student and asks to repeat it. There’s a struggle.

To find the accomplishments, listen for positive comments. Or simply write down what you think is going well. Although we focus on the barriers (and in learning an instrument there are many) it’s good to put it perspective by capturing the progress in a written way.

The assignments should be easy to identify during the lesson. As a dutiful parent, your ears will perk up when you hear “This week, I’d like you to…” This is your cue to pay close attention. What measure? How many times? What does a successful repetition look like? If it’s not clear ask for clarification at an opportune moment. This is really the link between good notes, good practice, and progress.

Writing in code

You can write faster and take better notes by having a predictable system. Since I’m looking for struggles, accomplishments, and assignments, I have a code for these elements:

  • ✖︎ something that needs more work. A struggle.
  • ✔︎ something that’s going well. An accomplishment.
  • ★ something to work on this week. An assignment.

If I happen to remember a set of different color pens, I’ll use those too; but usually I’m not that organized.

Just like in college, you’ll find other ways of shortening how much you have to write. For example, don’t write “major” and “minor”; just right “M” for major and “m” for minor. Abbreviate like crazy. It’s not “play it in fifth position”; write instead “→ 5th”.

Just one more thing

Things always crop up that don’t fit neatly into the usual structure of the lesson. Reminders about performances that are coming up, decisions to be made about pieces, etc. This is why I leave room on our lesson sheets with a big category of “Other”.

Reflect and summarize

If you’re like me, you will have a dense page of writing, a jumble of struggles, accomplishments, and assignments. And a lot of it is in code. When you have a moment, it’s helpful to tease out the assignments from the mix so that you can plan practice for the week. This transitional step - from lesson notes to practice plan is another subject entirely. Maybe something for another post?

Lesson notes are an indispensable for being intentional as a Suzuki parent. It’s the extension of the teacher’s plan into the home practice room.

Written by:

Alan is the main practice partner and accompanist for a young violinist.