Dr. Flegg's Structured Practice Method

Structured Practice Method User Guide

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Structured Practice Method

Dr. Flegg’s Structured Practice Method is, at its core, an approach to musical practice that helps musicians practice more effectively. The concepts underlying the SPM are drawn from Dr. Mark Flegg’s decades as a professional musician and educator.

Structure

Most musicians have a lot of music on their practice stand at any given time (for example, as I’m writing this paragraph, I have 5 completely different concert programs that I’m performing over the next 7 days, plus several additional programs over the coming month. I also need to maintain and improve my fundamental skills on the instrument - Yikes, I need to go practice!). For most of us, we simply cannot put in enough practice hours to touch every piece every day.

Many musicians attempt to solve this by putting everything in a stack and simply cycle through the whole stack as they practice. Whatever is on the top of the stack is the thing they practice. When they finish, the current item goes on the bottom of the pile, and the next thing is there, ready to go.

This works reasonably well, but it doesn’t take into account the fact that some things are more important than others, or more urgent (my lesson is tomorrow!). Or, certain things need to be done every single day, while others work better rotated every 2 or more days. Obviously we could do better if we kept track of everything on our stand, its importance, how often we want to practice it, and track what we actually do so that we stay as close to our intentions as possible. But the administrative overhead of this level of organization quickly becomes a nightmare which could easily take up half of our time!

The Structured Practice Method website takes care of all this recordkeeping and organization, providing the structure of your daily practice sessions so you can use your valuable mental energy for working on your music.

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Method

Methods of practice are as individual as musicians themselves, so for the most part, the Structured Practice Method leaves this to the individual to decide for themselves what to do with a particular musical item. A computer program can’t possibly know the ins and outs of every instrument and every player. That said, there are some basic principles and practice techniques that are widely accepted, and that the SPM can help facilitate.

Chunking

Chunking refers to the process of breaking difficult challenges up into smaller pieces, or chunks, working on them individually, and then putting them back together. This is well-known as one of the most useful practice techniques out there, and current scientific research supports the idea. Education and neuroscience researchers have discovered over the past few years that the human brain is best at absorbing new information in small pieces. The Structured Practice Method supports chunking through the use of Sub-Items, which can be used to identify and work on “chunks” as needed.

Reflection

“We don’t learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience.” - John Dewey

Reflection refers to the process of, well, reflecting on an experience (like practicing an etude) and thinking about it’s meaning and what can be learned. What did you do? Did it work? What else did you notice? The process of reflecting and thinking deeply has been shown again and again to give a huge boost to our retention of information and skills.

Every time you practice something with the SPM, you finish by reflecting on what you just did. Just the act of thinking in this way and writing the thoughts down has an important and beneficial effect on learning, but SPM takes it a step further and makes those reflections instantly available the next time you practice that item. Reviewing your reflections from the last session on a particular passage or piece further enhances the learning process.

True, deep reflection during practice is not always easy. Sometimes we’re tired, or in a rush, or just plain don’t feel like it. But the rewards of reflection far outway the effort required. Try it for yourself!

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Goals and Self Instruction

Once you have spent some time reflecting on your practicing, you’ll very likely come up with ideas you want to try next. Writing the ideas down in the form of goals or instructions can be incredibly valuable. How many times have you had a great idea about how to tackle a musical challenge, only to forget all about it by the time you practice that item again? SPM never forgets what you tell it. When you enter your goals and instructions for next time in the Structured Practice Method, it remembers them for you so that you can become your own best teacher.

As with reflection, setting goals and writing instructions for yourself requires effort. Deliberate, methodical, structured practice is challenging. But the rewards of faster and longer-lasting improvement to your music far outway the effort you put in. Plus, the reflecting and goal-setting parts of your brain are like muscles… the more you use them, the stronger and better they get!

For Teachers

Dr. Flegg's Structured Practice Method is a great support tool for the applied music instructor. It was designed primarily for the college applied studio, but can be a powerful tool for anyone with motivated students who need to learn the art of practicing.

Teacher functions are available to all SPM subscribers, including trial users. There is no extra cost for using the teacher functions.

Connect With Your Students

The educational features of SPM begin with making a connection between the teacher and student accounts. Teachers can either send an email invitation to their students from within the webapp, or a studio sign-up page can be set up at no cost (simply use the contact us form to request this).

Students can be connected to any number of teachers. For example, in a studio with graduate assistants, student accounts can be connected to the GA and the primary instructor.

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Communicate

Once connected, students are able to "flag" practice notes for their teacher's attention. Teachers can reply to these flagged notes, as well as create new notes for the student to read. These notes can either be a general note, which works like email, or be tied to a specific practice item.

Guide

Teachers can view their students' accounts, create new practice items, and edit existing practice items. This allows teachers to alter the priorities and structure of the students practice sessions and guide them to better results.

Report

Teachers can see statistics for their students. How many times did the student practice their scales over the course of the semester? What was the average time spent on fundamentals each day? These statistics are quickly available with just a few mouse clicks.

Organize Lesson Assignments

Keeping track of the multitude of materials you assign your students can be a daunting task. Not with the Structured Practice Method. From any practice item's practice page, or from the Manage page, you can create Assignments for your students. Students then get an entry on their Main page showing all lesson assignments, so they can easily review their materials. There's also a View Assignments page that lists all assignments from a given teacher in detail. This page is great to have up on the screen while teaching!

The Website

The SPM Website is a tool which supports and facilitates practicing using the Structured Practice Method. It’s possible to practice the SPM way without the website, but the website makes it infinitely easier. It’s hard to keep track of every single thing you’re working on, where you left off last time on each one, what your plan of action is for next time, which item you should get to next, etc. etc. etc. Computers are so good at this kind of task… they really are better suited to it than we humans are. So why not let the computer take care of the mundane stuff so you can focus on your art?

The Structured Practice Method website relies on two very important concepts: Practice Items and Practice Notes, which are explained below. Understanding these ideas and how to work with them in the SPM system is key to getting the most out of the site.

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Practice Items

Practice Items in SPM represent any item you want to practice. Rather than have all of your journal entries be General notes, you create practice items to represent everything you are practicing. You can then have your notes attached to the specific item that they relate to. This way, whenever you practice your F-sharp major arpeggios, you’ll have all your notes relating to the F-sharp major arpeggio right at your fingertips. No searching! This also enables SPM to track how often you practice each item you’re working on and prepare an intelligently sorted daily list for you to follow while you practice.

To help keep your workload organized, Practice Items are “nestable.” In other words, you can have Practice Items inside other Practice Items. For example, you could have a Practice Item called “Fundamentals.” Inside that, you could have “Scales,” “Slurs,” “Finger Drills,” etc. You can nest practice items up to six levels deep.

Creating Practice Items

From the Main Page, in the Practice Items Panel, click the button labeled "Click here to add a practice item." You'll be taken to the form you see here.

Create Practice Item Form
The Create Practice Item Form

In the left column of the form, you’ll see fields for the Title, Description and start date for the practice item.

The first field in the right column is Level of Importance. This field tells SPM how important this item is within all of your practice material. This value is a key factor in SPM’s nightly preparation of your daily practice list. In fact, it is the single biggest factor in our sorting algorithm. In general, your daily list will be sorted mostly according to importance. Level one items will almost always appear before level two items. If you neglect an item for a while, it will gradually rise to the top of your list, but items will generally stay within their importance level until the neglect is fairly pronounced.

I recommend that at first you leave just about everything at the default importance level of 3, with the exception of perhaps a warm-up routine and daily fundamentals (In my own practice, I have my warm-up set at the very highest (top) level, then my daily fundamentals at level 2, and just about everything else is at 3). If, after using the system for a while, you find you need to make adjustments, it’s very easy to change levels.

The other right-column field, “How often this will appear on daily practice list,” is important in two ways: First, it determines how often this item will show up on your daily practice list. If you tell SPM you want to practice this item every four days, for example, when you practice it and mark it as finished, SPM will not put it back on your daily list until four days have elapsed. Secondly, SPM uses this in its sorting algorithms. If you say you want to practice an item every other day, but you’re only practicing it every three days, it’ll start rising higher in your list. If you have been practicing it every day, it’ll start falling below other items that haven’t been getting the attention they deserve.

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Practice Notes

Practice Notes are, as the name implies, written notes that relate to your practice. The vast majority of your practice notes will be attached to specific practice items (entered on the items’ practice pages), but it is also possible to enter general practice notes from the home page (see General Practice Note Panel for instructions).

Creating Practice Notes

Practice notes for a specific item are entered on that item’s practice page (see The Practice Page).

A good practice note will be part reflection and part planning. The best time to enter a practice note is immediately after working on a particular item (or sometimes in the middle of working, if an important idea comes up!), when your memory of the experience is at its freshest.

Reflect on what you just did as deeply as you can. This is not easy! Don’t settle for “I practiced the 8th notes.” Instead go deeper… “I worked on the 8th notes at 63 bpm, focusing on keeping the notes connected. Had some success but still need more work on it. I think my left hand may be tensing up.” Imagine you are your teacher. What would they say?

Once you have your reflections noted, move on to planning, using the Goal or Instructions for next Session field. What would you like to do with this the next time you practice? Should you focus on a particular aspect? Have a tempo in mind? Be as specific as possible. Whether the next time you look at this passage is later today or a week from now, I guarantee you’ll never have a better understanding of what just happened and what the next step should be as you do right now!! Don’t assume you’ll remember the details. You probably won’t.

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Assignments

Assignments in the Structured Practice Method represent lesson assignments, or lesson notes, in private or applied lessons. Assignments can be created by teachers for their students, or individuals can create their own assignments if their teacher isn't an SPM user.

All of your active assignments appear on your Main Page, and on a special View Assignments Page for each teacher you have assignments for. Only one active assignment can exist for each Practice Item, so you can't have conflicting assignments about the same thing from different teachers.

Your most recent few assignments for any given Practice Item will appear on that item's Practice Page IF it has an active assignment.

Creating Assignments

Assignments are created using the Create/Update Assignment Page. This can be reached from the Practice Page for the Practice Item you wish to assign, or from the Manage Page.

If there is already an active assignment for a Practice Item, you will only be able to update that assignment if you created it. In this case, the Create or Update Assignment button will simply not show up.

The Main Page

Whenever you log into the Structured Practice Method website, the Main Page should be your first stop. At the top of the screen is the SPM logo and menu bar. Below that will be information about your free trial, as well as any other messages from the system. The main body of the page consists of a two-column grid (one column on small devices) containing various panels.

Practice Items Panel

At the top left of the Home Page you will see the Practice Items Panel. Practice items are anything you practice. They can be containers of other practice items, full pieces of music, exercises, snippets, or snippets of snippets. At the bottom of the panel is a button which allows you to create new Practice Items.

Suggested Practice Item

If you click on the Suggested Practice Item, you’ll be taken to the practice page for that item. When you finish practicing it, you’ll be automatically taken to the next item on your list for the day. This will continue until you have completed working on all of your practice items for the day. This is the recommended method for practicing with SPM. Let the computer handle balancing your practice workload for you. It’s very, very good at keeping track of what you’ve been doing and balancing that against how you’ve prioritized all your practice items. If you always practice the suggested item, you will always be practicing according to your own priorities!

The Practice Items Panel
Today's Practice Items

If you feel you need a little more autonomy, that’s what Today’s Practice Items and All Practice Items are for. Today’s Practice Items shows your complete list of items scheduled for today (just click anywhere in its box to see the list), sorted by the SPM algorithms based on your priorities, frequencies, and actual history. You can look ahead to see what items the Suggested Practice Item will be serving up, or pick and choose your own order.

Assigned Practice Items

If you active lesson assignments that either you or your teachers have created, they will appear here, organized by teacher. Practice Items in these lists include the due date for your convenience. There is also a button to take you to the View Assignments page for that teacher.

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All Practice Items

This is the list of all your active practice items. From here you can get to any of your active practice items, regardless of where they are in your rotation.

General Practice Note Panel

Below the Practice Items panel is the General Practice Note panel. Use this panel to enter practice notes that do not relate to a specific practice item.

There are two timers in the upper part of the panel. On the left is the Elapsed timer, which records how much time has elapsed since this page was loaded. This is the timer which records your practice time in SPM. It can be paused, so if you want to leave the page open while you take a phone call or have a break, you can keep your practice time accurate. When you submit and save a practice note, the elapsed time is saved along with it, and added to your daily practice time total. You must enter a note and click submit below in order for your elapsed time to be saved in the system. If you do not enter a note or press submit, your time will NOT be recorded. On the right is a countdown timer (not available on mobile devices). This simple timer can be set to count down and sound an alarm after a specified period of time. It can be useful when you want to limit the amount of time you spend on a particular item, or to let you know when your break is over.

Next is an entry blank for typing in your general practice note, and a date field. You can click on the date field and “back-date” the note. That way you can enter previous days’ journal entries if you’re unable to enter your note while you are practicing (for best results, always use the SPM while you practice, entering notes as you proceed). Notes can be backdated up to three days into the past.

The General Practice Note Panel

If your account is connected to your teacher's SPM account, you will also have a toggle switch to flag the note for your teacher to read, sort of like an email message.

General practice notes are similar to entries in an old-fashioned paper journal. They’ll be date and time-stamped, and will record the elapsed time, but they won’t be attached to a specific practice item.

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Blog Panel

At the top of the right column you'll see the blog panel, with the latest post from the Structured Practice Method Blog. This will appear if the latest blog post is less than a week old. From here you can click through to read the full post and the rest of the blog.

The Blog Panel

Practice Stats Panel

The Practice Stats Panel shows informative statistics that SPM gathers as you practice. The average practice time can be calculated over a period from 7 to 30 days. Settings for the panel can be found in the Personal Settings page under the Account menu.

The Practice Stats Panel

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Recent Practice Notes Panel

The Recent Practice Notes Panel shows several of your most recent practice notes, sorted from newest to oldest. It's purpose is to give you an overview of what you've been up to most recently, at a glance.

For a deeper look into your past practice notes, use the form at the bottom of the panel to see all of your notes, along with some statistics, for any date range you specify.

Practice Note Color Coding

If you are a teacher or student, notes that have been flagged will have color-coded headers. Orange indicates that this is a note flagged for you; Green indicates that it is a note from you; Teal indicates that it is a note flagged for your student from a teacher other than you. Unread notes have a solid color header, while previously read notes have a colored stripe at the top of the header.

Recent Practice Notes Panel

Commenting on Practice Notes (For Teachers)

If you have student accounts connect to your account, when "Driving" your student's account, the practice notes panel will show a Comment Icon on the right side of the header for each practice note. Clicking this icon will reveal a comment form from which you can write a comment on the note which will be flagged for your student to read.

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The Practice Page

The Practice Page is where you go to practice any individual practice item. To get to an item's practice page, simply click on the title of the practice item anywhere it appears, whether is the Suggested Practice Item, an item on today's practice items list, or in the Practice Notes Panel.

If an item is nested below another item, the title will list all the items in the chain, separated by double colons (::). When you click a nested title, you will be taken to the practice page for the specific item you clicked on within the title.

Current Practice Item

When you click on either the Suggested Practice Item or an item on one of the practice items lists, you are taken to the practice page for that item. At the top left of the page, you’ll see a panel containing information about the item you’re practicing.

Current Practice Item Info Panel

The panel shows the full title of the item, including all nesting. In this case, I’m practicing “Stravinsky Petrouchka (1947 edition) – 1 m. before [134] – [139].” This item is nested inside another item, “Orchestral Excerpts (2 per day).” Nested items are separated by “::” in the title. Clicking on the name of any of the items within the title will take you directly to the practice page for that item, so it’s easy to move around within your nested practice items.

There are buttons for editing the current practice item, and for adding another practice item nested under the current one (a sub-item).

Finally, anything you’ve entered in the description field for the item is displayed below the title. In this case, I’ve used the description to remind me where I can find the music for this passage.

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Practice Note Entry Panel

The Practice Note Entry Panel is one of the most important parts of the Structured Practice Method Website. Be sure to read the section of this guide regarding Creating Practice Notes for instructions on how to write good notes to get the best possible results.

The Practice Note Entry Panel is similar to the General Practice Note Panel on the Main page, but with several enhancements that relate to being attached to a specific Practice Item.

First of these enhancements is the Goal for this session window. If you've practiced this item in the past and typed something into the Goal or Instructions field, it will appear here, at the top of the panel. It's a great idea to get into the habit of always reading what's in this window before you begin practicing!

The next items down from the goal are the Elapsed and Countdown timers, and the Practice Note Field. These are identical to the ones that appear in the General Practice Note Panel on the Main page.

The Goal or Instructions for next session is where you type in your goal or instructions for the next time you practice this specific practice item. If you previously set a goal, it will be pre-filled with the old goal for your convenience. If you leave the field blank, no goal will be stored.

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Practice Note Entry Form (Top Half)

Next down is the Instructions Box. This is where you tell the SPM Website what to do with the practice item after you press Submit. There are several choices:

Continue Practicing This Item
Selecting this option means you would like to continue practicing this item. Your practice note and elapsed time will be recorded and you'll be returned to this same page to start a new note. This can be useful if an interesting observation or idea occurs to you that you want to remember, but you're not done practicing yet. Or, you might use this if you need to take a break, but want to pick up right where you left off when you return.
Delay This Item for n minutes
Selecting this option will cause this item to disappear from your list for the amount of time specified, at which point it will return. This can be used if you're working through your Suggested Practice Items, but something comes up that you would rather hit later on. It is also great for interleaving your practice. This is a technique where you practice items in quick bursts and cycle through them all two or more times.
Practice Note Entry Form (Lower Half)
I am finished (or want to skip if note text is blank) practicing this item for today
This option is the default, and is usually what you will want. SPM will record your note and elapsed time, then remove the practice item from today's list. It will then schedule the item to appear again after the number of days you specified in the item's How Often This Will Appear on Daily Practice List field.
I do not want to practice this item any more (de-activate)
Selecting this option will record your note, goal, and elapsed time, then de-active the music item, which will cause it to be removed from ALL practice lists on the Main page. SPM will ask you to confirm your choice when you select this option. Although the item will be gone from your practice lists, you can still bring it back at any time from the Manage page.

 

Finally, below the instructions box, you'll find a toggle for sending this note to your teacher (if your accounts are connected), followed by the Back-Date field and the Cancel and Submit Buttons. These all work identically to their counterparts in the General Practice Note Entry panel on the Main page.

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Practice Notes

If you’ve practiced this item in SPM before, you’ll see a panel to the right showing your most recent practice notes for this item and its sub-items. You can use the “See more notes:” form at the bottom of this panel to display more notes, and practice statistics, for this item and its sub-items. This panel is basically the same as the Recent Practice Notes Panel on the Main Page, but the notes are specific to the Current Practice Item and any items nested below it.

Practice Stats Panel

Below the notes panel will be your Practice Stats panel. This is the same as the Practice Stats Panel on the Main page.

The Teacher Functions Page

The Teacher Functions Page, accessable from the menus at the top of the page and in the page footer (look for the graduation cap!)

Unread Messages from Students

The first thing you will see at the top of your Teacher Functions Page will be your unread notes from your students, if you have any. If you have unread practice notes from your students, the graduation cap icon next to the Teaching item on the menus will turn red, and the number of unread notes will be listed next to it.

Each message has a grey header, showing you who sent the note, when they sent it, and the subject (or practice item) the message relates to.

Beneat the header, you'll see the message itself, a "Mark as Read" button, a "View in Context" button, an area to type a reply, and a "Send Reply" button.

The "Mark as Read" button will mark the message as read without sending a reply. The message will disappear from your unread messages panel.

The "View in Context" button will take you directly to the student's account on their Practice Page for the practice item the note relates to, or the Main Page this is a general practice note. From there you can view the student's practice history for that item and perhaps gain a better understanding of the nature of the problem they're experiencing. You can reply to the note directly from this page, without having to return to your Teacher Functions page.

The Unread Messages Panel

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Students Panels

Below the unread message area, you'll see separate panels for each of your students.

Each student panel lists the student's name and email address at the top, followed by a statistics box. The statistics box header is color-coded to help you see at a glance how recently your student's last login to SPM ocurred: Teal for today, Olive for yesterday, Yellow if it's been 2-3 days, Orange for 4-9 days, and Red if they haven't logged in for 10 or more days.

Inside the statistics box you'll see handy at-a-glance information on your student's practice habits.

Below the statistics box, you will see buttons to Remove Student, View Assignments, and Drive Student Account. The Remove Student button disconnects the student's account from your account. Their account will remain active, and all of their information will remain intact. You just won't be able to drive their account or exchange flagged practice notes with them any more.

The Student Panel

The "View Assignments button takes you to the View Assignments page, where you can quickly review all of the currently active assignments you've given your student. You can also create new assignments for your student from this page.

The "Drive Student Account" button takes you directly to the student's main page, and allows you to interact with their Structured Practice Method account. From there you can enter practice notes for them (notes created by you will not count toward their practice statistics), create and edit practice items and assignments, comment on practice notes, and view practice notes and statistics.

Whenever you are driving a student account, you will see a panel at the top of every page reminding you that you are in drive mode. The panel contains convenient buttons to take you directly to the View Assignments Page, Student Notes, Create New Assignment, and Exit Drive Mode.

Studio Sign-up Page

This is the page where your students sign up for spm and register as your students. You create your custom page and custom URL by selecting "Studio Sign-up Page" from the Teaching menu.

If a student already has a subscription to the SPM when they arrive at your studio sign-up page, they won't need to create a new account. It will register their existing account with your studio.

You can use your own image for the sign-up page, write a welcome message just for your students, and select a custom address for the page. You can then send your students to this page, where they can sign subscribe to the Structured Practice Method and register as your student. If you have registered for one of the discounted studio subscription plans, your students will automatically be subscribed under the same plan when they use this page.

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Create/Update Assignment Page

Clicking the "+ New Assignment" button will bring you to the Create/Update Assignment Page. Depending on the context from which you clicked the button, you may see a listing of previous assignments for the specific practice item you're assigning, or a blank form allowing you to create a new practice item and assignment all together.

Every assignment is attached to a practice item. A good way to think about the assignment text is to imagine an "old school" notepad used to write down notes and assignments. The assignment text would be the notes about this assignment for today's lesson. This could be instructions regarding what to do in the coming week, OR a recap and grade on the previous week's work.

Editing Assignments

You can also get to this page by clicking the "Edit Assignment" when it is available. This allows you to change the most recent assignment text and due date for a currently open assignment. This can be helpful if you want to clarify something you've written, or just update the due date on an item.

View Assignments Page

On this page you will see a list of assignments on the left side of the page, and statistics relating to your student's practice activity as it relates to the assigned items on the right.

Below the assignments list and statistics panel is the lesson history area, which shows recent lesson notes grouped together by lesson, from most recent to least. Each lesson panel shows the date of the lesson, the notes from the lesson, and an inset showing assignments that were outstanding but weren't covered during this lesson (open assignments).

This page is visible, and looks the same, for both student and teacher. So, any time between lessons either of you can easily see what's coming and how they're doing with their preparation.

Example Recent Lesson Panel