Monday, February 9, 2015

What is Dr. Flegg's Structured Practice Method?

Just what exactly is Dr. Flegg's Structured Practice Method, anyway? This is a question I've needed to answer quite a few times over the past year. It seems, on the surface, like it should be easy. And yet it's not. Even for me, and I invented it!

Of course, that's not entirely true. I can give you a quick one sentence answer right here:

Dr. Flegg's Structured Practice Method is an online music practice journal system designed to facilitate maximum efficiency and retention.

Woohoo, awesome! Now you know exactly what SPM is all about! Allow me to take a moment to pat myself on the back while you rush straight over to to create your account.

Actually, I'll bet that reading that sentence told you practically nothing about SPM.

The reason for this is that Dr. Flegg's Structured Practice method is something new. People have practiced music (and many other disciplines) in the ways that SPM encourages before, certainly. But SPM is, as far as I know, the first online system designed to make deliberate, structured, disciplined, and most of all, EFFECTIVE musical practice simpler and easier.

When I say SPM is an online practice journal system, people already have an idea of what they think a practice journal is. But SPM is so much more than that!

 SPM is Not a Practice Log

When I was in 5th grade, first starting out learning the trumpet, we were all required to keep a weekly practice log. Each day (assuming we practiced) we would write down how much time we spent practicing. On the appointed day, we'd have our parents sign it (or fake their signature because we got to school and realized we'd forgotten) and turn it in. We got a grade on our practice reports based entirely on how many minutes we'd said we practiced.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but I wonder how useful it really is. Tracking your time spent practicing says nothing at all about what you practiced, or how you practiced it. It doesn't help you remember to make that difficult shift on the 4th measure better. It doesn't help you remember what tempo you were able to play the 16th notes at, etc. etc. All it does is report back to the teacher that you at least spent some time with your instrument.

With practice logs, you could spend an hour a day holding your instrument in your lap (or on the couch next to you), watching cartoons or playing video games or having a snack, and you would get an A++ for this (I know this because I used to do it all the time!).

SPM is not intended to be a practice tracker. I designed this system to help people who already have motivation to practice, but who would like to get more and better results from the time spent in the practice room. I really believe that the amount of time you spend practicing is way less important than the quality of the practice you do. Of course, if you want to play with the Chicago Symphony some day, you're going to need to practice a lot! But a lot of quality practice is much more likely to get you through that audition than a lot of mindless practice.

The Structured Practice Method is Not a Practice Diary

I think when most people think of a practice journal, this is what they have in mind: a notebook in which you write down what you practice. Do a Google search for music practice journal, and you'll find dozens of pre-printed notebooks set up for exactly that. And there's a lot to be said for keeping a practice journal this way (I call this a practice diary).

The act of writing down what you practice does have many benefits. In order to put your practicing on paper in a way that makes any sense, you have to think about what you're doing. You have to figure out how to articulate what went right and what went wrong. It's common sense that doing this will make you a more thoughtful, conscious practicer.

But a week from now, I suspect that your notes from today's practice session will not be of much use to you. When you sit down to practice next Monday, you'll still be relying on your own memory of what you did the last time you practiced the Rachmaninof. It's just that your memory will be a little better because you wrote it down.

I used to keep a paper practice diary. And I even flipped back through it occasionally to see where I was on particular things. But it was a pain. I constantly missed entries and worked things at the wrong tempo, or missed an insight I'd had, because I got frustrated flipping through the pages. In the end, I found I did get some benefit, from thinking about things more and remembering them better, but I knew there had to be something better.

SPM Applies Structure to Your Practice Notes

With the Structured Practice Method, "journal entries" are attached to specific "practice items." This way, as you practice, your notes from the past several times you've practiced a particular piece or passage appear on the screen when you're practicing that same item again. You don't have to flip through endless pages searching.

Because you know your notes will be there for you to read, you can write them in a different way.

Your Practice Journal Entries are notes to "Future You"

This is crucial. When you practice with SPM, you are writing your practice notes directly to the "You of Tomorrow." You are giving yourself instructions and insights and ideas to make tomorrow's practice session better right now, while everything you just did is fresh in your memory. If something comes up tomorrow and the next day and you don't get to this passage again until several days from now, your notes will still be there, right where you need them. I can speak from experience that this saves an enormous amount of time and energy in my own practice.

Fewer Things Will Fall Through the Cracks

I have to admit, this has been a big deal for me (I suppose that's one reason I created the SPM!). As a busy free-lance professional, the sheer volume of music I perform is often difficult to manage. This is made worse by the amount of fundamentals work that is absolutely necessary in order to maintain and hopefully improve my overall skill on my instrument. I shudder to think of all the times over the years when I've arrived at a gig with all but one crucial part well-prepared. Or the auditions that I've played where I'd practiced so hard on the excerpts, but neglected my fundamentals enough that I ended up a worse player than when I'd started. No more.

By using SPM to manage my practice sessions, I am assured that I will not practice one thing at the expense of another.

And this is, of course, where the amount of time spent practicing rears it's ugly head once more! When I see on my daily practice list that I'm not getting to things as frequently as I would like to or even need to, I know I need to practice MORE. I don't add time to my practicing because I have some abstract number to shoot for. Instead, I spend more time practicing because I see specific ways that it will improve my abilities as a performer. Let me tell you, this is much more motivating!

There is so much more to say about this, but I can see this post is already getting pretty long, so I'll leave it for another day. Stay tuned to this blog for more soon, and in the meantime...

I'll see you in the practice room!

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