Why You Should Always Carry a Notebook

Of all the lessons I've taken with the masters, the most valuable lesson came from my middle school teacher. Here's why you should always carry a notebook.


My parents instilled in me (and constantly reminded me to have) a sense of gratitude for all of the lessons and music trips that they funded during my middle and high school years, which led to a very serious approach to study. My twin (who is currently a full-time LA composer and notebook aficionado) had a trumpet teacher that was always casually speaking wisdom. Dave Faires said only once (as with all great lessons) "Always take your notebook and your horn to everything." All my friends know that I take my horn and notebook everywhere, and they also know how many times it has gotten backstage (which will be the subject of future articles). With over $10,000 invested in private lessons over the years, I can't afford to let any of them go to waste.

Anyway, if you don't take thoughtful notes, you'll quickly forget what was said week to week and will end up wasting time repeating questions, losing value in opportunity cost and lose the lessons that teachers only tell to those that pay attention. It will be harder to see the progress you make and how your perceptions change over time.

I often take lessons with masters on trips or when they visit, such as Victor Goines, Paul Nedzela, Lew Tabakin, Jeff Coffin, Ari Hoenig, Chad LB and dozens more that I may never get to study with again. Taking a lesson and then losing all of that to memory within a week? I couldn't justify that, and so I still have all of the lessons ever taught from each of my mentors recorded on paper.

Split Observation and Study

Most lessons and learning encounters are within thirty to sixty minutes, meaning the time to ponder and understand each element is very limited. Taking good notes allowed me to record my impressions of each idea and move on to more topics in that limited space of time. These observations would include direct quotes, step-by-step processes, summaries and anything I could get down. Then during the week, I studied my notes, relearned parts that had escaped me and returned the following week prepared with questions, insights and a greater grasp of the concepts. Capitalizing on limited observation opportunities and relegating study to personal time increased the breadth and depth of my learning. I found teachers were more willing to impart of their knowledge and experience knowing that I would maximize every piece of it. As a fellow saxophonist said to me after a recent chat, "You have a million-dollar degree from everyone you've talked to."

Answers Need Questions

In addition to recording insights and techniques, I write questions that come in the moment. These are often derived from perceived contradictions or rabbit holes that can't immediately be answered in the lesson. These questions then helped direct me to more carefully observe the phenomena in my teacher's and other musicians' playing until I had found my answer. Without these questions, I would never have known where to look for the answers.

I make lists of questions in my notebooks in easy to find places and continue to frequently review them. Most of the time, each question is answered years later by one small side comment made by my teacher, another student or in a book.  I have also found the reverse to be true. Questions I have now have also been resolved by finding small insights from years in the past. Remember, notes are for your current self and for who you will become. Pay attention and record everything. 

Recording Lessons vs. a Notebook

I would highly recommend recording lessons in addition to a notebook, but not as a substitute. Notebooks by nature require you to process and interpret everything coming in, so they are personalized with insights and feedback not available in the recording. When I record lessons (which I have also been doing for years), I listen back multiple times between lessons and continue to take additional notes. Most phones have recording apps or you can get a specialized device such as a Sony Handheld that I used for many years and is under $30. If you don't take notes in a lesson, be sure to take notes after listening to the recordings. These notebooks got me through a lot (most of my collection is still in storage) and this is my current notebook.

If your students are still on the fence about taking notes, share this article with them and help them learn to take meaningful notes.

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