Note Taking Strategy

Melanie Drake said: Aug 17, 2014
Melanie Drake36 posts

I wanted to share my new note taking strategy with teachers and other parents in case it’s helpful to anyone. It’s such a simple (and obvious?) idea but it seems revolutionary to me at the moment.

I’ve been a Suzuki parent for six years. For six years, I sat through lessons and took notes sequentially on loose-leaf paper in binders. At each lesson, I would draw a line on the paper and start taking notes from the lesson. Of course, the notes fall into two main categories: information specific to a piece, general information (exercises, scales, etc.). At home practice, I would reference the notes from the previous lesson, especially on the first day of practice following the lesson. For the most part, notes from previous lessons were not referenced again. This has worked fine, but did I really remember everything from all of those lessons?

I only recently realized that my note-taking strategy was probably less than ideal. My new strategy involves the following steps:

1.) I made a single-sided copy of the books (hopefully not breaking a law in the process). Since many book one pages include two songs, I was sure to include just one song per page.
2.) I put the pages into a binder such that each piece has an adjacent blank page for notes. (The blank page is just the back of the previous page in the binder. The first song needs an extra blank page before it.)
3.) I went through all of my old lesson notes for the book. If a note pertains to a specific piece, I hand copied the note on the page adjacent to that piece. (Not surprisingly, I found a few things that I had forgotten.)

1.) During practice, I reference the notes and music for each song that we review. Before my son plays a piece, I quickly read through the notes/goals for the piece to refresh my memory. Since I also keep a list of measures to work on, I ask him to first practice those measures usually with a goal in mind (e.g., memory). Before he plays a full piece, I try to give him one of the listed goals to focus on.
2.) After my son plays a piece, I may update the list of measures to work on during the next practice session. I may circle measures on my own copy of the music (because I can!).
3.) During a lesson, any additional notes pertaining to a piece are written directly on the notes page for that piece. Again, I can write directly on the music even if the actual Suzuki book is on the music stand and completely out of my view.

So, the notes for each piece consist of:
- teacher directives
- my own assessment from the previous practice session on what needs more work

There are no hard rules about taking notes. You can include whatever is useful to you. The notes are dynamic (i.e., they are modified based on my current assessment) and they include the full history of working with a piece so that I don’t lose sight of the goals.

Since the Suzuki method (or at least our school) requires that even early pieces in each book be maintained at a performance level for the book graduation requirements, I think it’s helpful to have a comprehensive list of goals even for early pieces. Yes, the older pieces must be in memory, but they must sound good too. It’s a tall order, right?

I should say that this strategy is relatively new to me and somewhat untested. In theory, it seems much better than what I was doing before. I have a few other ideas such as using a large post-it note on the notes page for new pieces. Prep work for learning the new piece can be written on the post-it which is later removed once the prep is no longer necessary. I still need a general area for notes and exercises not pertaining to a specific piece. This is just a section of loose leaf paper at the back of the binder.

This method is also helpful because my son will not let me mark his music while he plays. He’s really sensitive about that; at best it’s a distraction and at worst it’s an insult to him. I now have my own copy to mark as I please and to reference in lesson! If I write anything in my notes while he’s playing, I still need to do so secretively.

Also, since I could, I highlighted the various sections of each piece using different colors (A section = yellow, B section = green, etc.) in my copy of the music. This could be a fun exercise for a kid. I think it’s helpful to be able to visualize the form in this way. Again, it’s my personal copy of the music so I can do what I want with it. :)

I’m not sure how this method will scale as my kids progress. Right now, I have kids studying books 2 & 3 and one about to start book 1. I play along with my book 3 guitarist during practice, so I’m not sure how well I’ll be able to apply this new method for him.

My other motive for sharing this is to solicit feedback. Feel free to share other ideas you may have about taking notes and reading/using notes!

Gina Devirro said: Aug 18, 2014
 19 posts

HI Melanie,
This sounds like a wonderfully organized approach for making sure valuable information at the lessons is retained and re-visited during practices at home. I take notes on a blank piece of paper, then transfer the notes to the book once I get home. (My daughter so far has not objected to me writing on her music). Like you, I find the notes written directly on the relevant piece of music (and on the relevant measure(s) of music) is the best way to make the most out of lesson instruction. Your method would save the time and trouble of copying the notes a second time, and keeping the music from looking so cluttered, although I try to keep the notes brief and the writing small. I’m a cellist as well, so I have a good feeling for the concepts the teacher is conveying, and often I can get by with a few words as a reminder for myself. Still your methods are definately something for me to consider. Especially since as she progresses, the lesson instructions will probably become more and more detailed. Thanks for taking the time to post. Gina.

Lenni Jabour said: Aug 18, 2014
Suzuki Association Member
Piano, Suzuki Early Childhood Education
Toronto, ON
9 posts

You are a superstar!!! So great. Thank you for the wonderful idea, I will pass it on to the parents in my studio.

Music is a language of the heart without words. 
- Dr. Shinichi Suzuki, 1898- 1998

Phankao said: Aug 18, 2014
 128 posts

Wow! So much work!

I have a book 4 child for violin. I take notes on a Post-it lined notepad each week. I then paste these sheets of notes hanging onto the ledge of the music stand. I don’t refer to it after that week. We have fresh notes in place the following week. I also do an audiorecording of the lesson, edit it (cut out the casual talk and repetitive sections) and transfer to a thumbdrive for listening and reviewing in the car during drives to school/back. Usually we only need to listen to it 2 or 3 times at most.

Sue Hunt said: Aug 19, 2014
Sue HuntViola, Violin
403 posts

Music can get very cluttered with notes. There are so many different points we need to make: tempo, bowing, fingering, phrasing, form, dynamics, trouble spots etc. I suggest making different photocopies for each category. Here are some suggestions on how photocopying helps focus.

Alan Duncan said: Sep 14, 2014
Suzuki Association Member
81 posts

This is really excellent!

The idea of photocopying is spectacular. Sometimes we have difficulty encouraging our 6 year-old, late-Book 2 violinist to work on bracketed passages because seeing the score in toto on the stand is just too tempting.

As for note-taking I’ve experimented with custom notepaper that has a few staves at the bottom so that I can quickly scribble any finger exercises, rhythmic variations, etc. Easier sometimes to notate it this way than to describe it verbally when it comes up in a lesson.

Having your own copy of the score seems so obvious, I’m not sure why I haven’t already done that. It beats craning my neck trying to read measure numbers!

Laura Nerenberg said: Nov 22, 2014
Laura Nerenberg
Suzuki Association Member
Ottawa, ON
49 posts

I like this a lot.

Melanie: How has it been working since you instituted this new way of taking notes? Have you noticed differences in the quality of your child’s practices?

Sue: I read the text at your link. Do you use Bk1 for sight-reading purposes? Just wondering.

Thanks for the sharing of great ideas!

Sue Hunt said: Nov 23, 2014
Sue HuntViola, Violin
403 posts

I use a copy at least 200% to get parents and children used to the fact that each black blob is a note and that you read music from left to right. They will also notice that when the music sounds higher, the blob is higher on the stave or staff.

Children in book 1 won’t be reading at their playing level, so I don’t ask them to sightread those pieces.

Laura Nerenberg said: Nov 23, 2014
Laura Nerenberg
Suzuki Association Member
Ottawa, ON
49 posts

Aaah—Thank you, Sue.

Melanie Drake said: Nov 24, 2014
Melanie Drake36 posts

Thanks for the input, everyone!

I tried using Phankao’s method of using a large post-it note per child.  This served as a daily to do list.  I liked this method!  I should have done a better job of persisting (i.e., duplicating) some of that info into my photocopies, because those post-its are long gone.  I think I stopped using post-its, only because I ran out.  I need to stay more organized.  I enjoyed reading Sue’s suggestions for photocopying too.  

I have had some time to put my new system to the test.  As I suspected, I do still need a looseleaf section of my binder for general notes on reading, technique, etc.  This isn’t ideal but I don’t see a way around it.  Maybe this is the type of thing that just goes onto post-its.  

Since I play along with my guitarist during practice, I find it easiest to read the pieces from my marked up photocopy.  He’s been working on arpeggios in his latest pieces, so I’ve been drawing colored blocks around some of the chords (i.e., measures).  I worry a little that my marked copy will serve as a crutch for him.  (In my opinion, it’s far easier for a young cellist to intuit their music than it is for a guitarist, but that’s another thread.)

My cellist just had his book 2 recital this weekend, so we’ve spent months preparing for that.  I’m not sure that we did a good job of keeping the goals of each piece in mind, especially during the last month or so.  In practice, he played through his recital pieces while I flipped through the pages of my binder (following along with my marked copies of the music), occasionally providing feedback.  In retrospect, I don’t think I added much value by doing this.  He had his first book 3 lesson and I still haven’t made photocopies of the book.  I quickly realized how I’d been relying on my copies.  I’m guessing that as the complexity of the music advances beyond my understanding (it won’t be long now!) the copies will be increasingly important to me.

My husband is the Suzuki parent of my book 1 daughter.  I enthusiastically made copies of book 1 for them when they started this fall.  I guess I forgot how much preparation is required in starting a new student; he won’t be using those copies for awhile.  :)  A young book 1 student isn’t likely to reference the book during the lesson anyway, so the book should be available to the parent to reference during the lesson.  While I don’t mind at all when our teachers pencil notes in our books, I don’t feel like I should do this.  So, I think having a copy of book 1 will still be helpful.  

I think someone mentioned that this method seems like a lot of work.  Yes, there is some work up front to make the copies.  This is a one time (once per book) investment.  From that point on, I am just taking notes and sometimes turning a page.  This is no more work than what I was doing before.  

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