The SPJ Story

As told by Dr. Mark Flegg

The story of the Structured Practice Journal is, to a pretty large extent, the story of my quest for a better way to practice my own instrument, the trumpet.

My first experiments with a practice journal date back to the mid nineties. I had just finished up my Master of Music degree at Arizona State University, and was playing a one-year appointment as Second Trumpet with the Tucson Symphony. I’d been taking professional auditions for about a year at that point, with mixed results. I’d made semi-finals in a couple of regional orchestras, and had won the Tucson position, but also had several really lackluster audition performances under my belt as well.

I knew I needed to be more effective and organized in my practicing. So, as my year in Tucson wrapped up and I began preparing for the next wave of auditions, I started keeping a practice journal.

I’ve moved a dozen times since then, so I don’t have that original journal any more. I remember it was pretty basic, just a lined paper notebook. I wrote an entry every practice session and outlined what I did and basically kept track of my excerpts for upcoming auditions. Beyond that, I don’t remember much, but I did succeed in winning the Principal Trumpet job with the Flint Symphony the day after I moved from Arizona to Michigan, which left me feeling pretty good about the benefits of journaling.

I kept written practice journals, of and on, for about the next 15 years. I started experimenting with different formats around 10 years ago. When I started teaching at the college level, I began experimenting with having my students keep practice journals, both to help them, and to feed my growing thirst for knowledge about journaling. I started making forms for journal entries, and worked on ways to make the entries easier to refer back to later.

That was the big frustration for me with paper journals. I felt I was putting useful information down on paper, but there just wasn’t any efficient way to retrieve that information later. While just the act of writing things down was helping me to remember what I’d done a little better, I knew that if I could just see my recent entries more quickly and easily, I’d get so much more value out of the effort of keeping the journal.

Eventually, I started moving my practice journals to the computer. Over time this evolved into a complex set of Google Documents… one document for each item I was practicing, and index documents to help me keep track of the bigger picture. At this point I was doing a few major orchestral auditions per year, along with around 250 freelance services. There was just so much repertoire on my plate at any given time, that I was having a hard time keeping up with it all. Invariably, I would arrive at rehearsal feeling well-prepared, only to realize that I’d missed one piece on the program (usually the one we were rehearsing first, of course) or skimmed past one important passage. I got caught “with my pants down” more times than I’d care to admit.

I knew there had to be a better way. I also knew that using a computer to help with organizing a journal just made sense. I started searching for a solution, scouring the interwebs looking for computerized practice journals. I did find a few, but when I looked at the details, they always turned out to be more practice logs than journals, aimed more at younger students than at professionals looking to up their game.

Practice logs are very popular in the music practice world. I can even remember keeping a practice log in 5th grade. Every week I’d write my practice times on a little form, have my mom sign off on them, then turn them in to the band director for my grade. I suppose this is useful for the band director. It gives them something to measure and report on, and maybe it even helps encourage the kids to practice a little more than they otherwise would. But in terms of improving the quality and retention of musical practice, I see no benefit.

At this point in my career I didn’t really have a problem with how much I was practicing. I just needed to practice more efficiently and effectively.

I decided to take the project on myself, and create my own computerized practice journal system. One designed for me, to help me, an advanced player, take my performance to the next level.

But, unlike on TV and movies, in real life you don’t just sit down, bang furiously on the keyboard for a few minutes, and have a finished product working. I’d done some programming in high school and early college, even worked as a programmer part time off and on, but at this point it had been a good ten years since my last serious effort at programming, and in software, that might as well be a million years.

I knew I wanted to do this as a web-based system… it just made sense. I spent a few months researching then-current web technologies, and ultimately settled on using Google’s App Engine to host the “back-end” software, which I’d write in Python. I then spent about a month learning as much Python as I could, until felt I had enough understanding to get started.

Then I started coding. I was fortunate that I already had most of the core design of the application figured out based on the years of work refining my journals that I’d already put in. By May I had a bare-bones working practice journal in place! It was not polished - basically just text with no style whatsoever, but it worked! (see image to the right)

I started using it for my own practicing in May of 2014, and have continued to this day.

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