Teaching Tools: Top 5 Lists and Practice Logs

By Thomas Furdon

Something I find most helpful in guiding my students while keeping them motivated is “Top 5” lists. I ask all of my students to make top 5 lists while keeping a practice journal. This helps them, and me, realize their goals and set benchmarks while tracking their progress.

All of my students want to accomplish different things with music. There is no one-plan-fits-all method for the individual student. Musical taste is like having a favorite color. It’s one’s personal appeal to that specific color which defines their taste. I feel this is the same with musical taste. I can love a certain shade of green while another can love green in a slightly different shade. We have a lot in common but are still unique.

I ask for a few different top 5 lists. The first is the top 5 songs you want to be able to play. This can help me better understand a student’s taste and style. I can realize what type of approach to take with the student and develop a program that best suits their playing style. We can discuss what it is about those songs that appeal to them, what the current challenges may be trying to play that song and how to approach each one.

Students can choose songs to learn because they like the hooks or like to sing along. Maybe they think the solo is cool or there’s a fun riff, or because they are interested in dissecting a style of composition because they find the harmonic progression to be appealing or just the vibe.

Another Top 5 list is the top five technical challenges. These are great ways to get your playing to the next level.  This is also how I find ways to get my student’s technical ability to advance.

Some examples of technical challenges are Scales, Arpeggios, Improvisation, Strumming patterns, Picking techniques, Sight reading, Applying theory to your improvising and songwriting, Countless others…

The thing to do here is to pick the 5 challenges and prioritize them. Then schedule an appropriate amount of time for each one. For example scheduling 10 minutes on scales and 10 minutes on arpeggios as part of your 45 minutes of practice. If you only have 30 minutes that day scale back a few minutes from your list here and there to make sure you continue to work on that week’s challenges so things don’t get left out. You can take 15 minutes of scales and make it 10 minutes and 15 minutes of arpeggios and make that 10 minutes to create 10 minutes for other points of focus.

The point of the top 5 lists is to create priorities. Students don’t need to focus on all five if the top 3 of those are the priority and therefore require most of their time. Each week as you make progress your top 5 list will change. Number 1 will become number 2 and number 5 may get crossed off and become something else as you learn more and can make decisions based on your accomplishments.

It all comes together when using a practice log by tracking your progress.  In the lesson, I will write on the practice log what we have decided to work on each week. I help with the decision-making process based on their playing level that week and what they’re most excited about. It’s then up to the student to schedule their time so they have accountability and realize it’s up to them to get to where they want to be by achieving their goals.

The top 5 list focuses on the now while realizing the future.  This keeps students excited about their ever-evolving learning process by embracing their excitement of working on what they’re interested now while having something to look forward to in the future. It’s such a pleasure watching and listening to my students achieve their goals and getting excited about taking on new challenges. Being their guide in their musical evolution can be even that much more fulfilling.

Tom Furdon Bio:

Tom Furdon grew up in Southern CT finding his love of music at a young age.  He spent his middle and high school years participating in as many of the ensembles, shows, and music classes he could. During the latter years of his high school career, he broke into the music scenes in New Haven, New York, and Boston as a guitarist in local bands. It’s at this time in his life when Tom first began to teach.

 With his love of music, learning, and teaching ever-expanding, Tom decided to pursue his music degree with a focus on Guitar Performance.  He spent 15 years in Boston performing in various groups while collaborating on writing and recording sessions and teaching lessons.  Since then he has added the electric bass, mandolin, and ukulele to his repertoire of instruments. 

 Tom has settled with his wife in the beautiful northwest corner of CT where they enjoy hiking and biking while focusing on writing and their new home recording studio.

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