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Musicians and GTD

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  • Musicians and GTD

    I was wondering if there are any musicians in this forum and how you are applying GTD to learning and performing music. I am well beyond the "learn an instrument" phase. I have been playing guitar for over 20 years and am part of a band that plays out 2-3 times a month on the weekends. We have 50 songs on our set list and are typically learning 3-5 new songs. I am also taking advanced guitar lessons and beginning vocal lessons. I have a small library of other musical instruction material (books, video, magazines) to improve technical aspects of my playing, learn music theory and new styles of music. My musical interests range from the rock cover songs we play in the band, to electric and acoustic blues and jazz.

    Even before GTD I was a big list maker and since using GTD for the past 3 years or so, I have been thru a few iterations of integrating my song lists and other musical goals with GTD principles. I have tried treating songs as Projects and breaking things into Next Actions but it seems to get cumbersome in my MS Outlook implementation.
    I have read Barry Green’s Inner Game of Music and Jack Grassel’s Power Practicing concepts. Each musician/author proposes ways to approach practicing which are compatible with GTD, including goal setting and journaling.
    In my latest incarnation I moved my Projects and Next Actions out of Outlook and into Excel Spreedsheets.

    Currently I have set up the following lists:
    Music Projects Workbook with the following Worksheets
    Cover Dolls - Band set list - including our 50 or so songs we perform as well as songs being introduced. I use a status indicator for Learning, Performance, Rehearsal, Someday/Maybe (songs I may suggest)
    Misc Songs - Songs I want to learn outside of the band - Jazz and Blues Standard, Obscure Instrumental Guitar music
    Lessons - Songs or concepts I am working on in my lesson
    I've allowed some soft edges to appear between Misc Songs and Lessons. Meaning songs may move from a lesson into Misc Songs or I may place a Lesson Song in Misc Song List

    In this workbook I use keep track of the last day I played a song and the next time I may want to review it; creating a virtual tickler file

    Music Projects - Magazine, Book Video - for Instructional Material That I want to play thru and review occasionally

    I also have MS Outlook based @Agenda's for both music teachers and band. I have created MS Outlook Project entries as place holders to remind me to review my detailed lists. This is also and entry in my Weekly Review. I've also created 20k, 30k and 40k views of my musical roles and goals.

    In trying to work thru this my goal is to create a system that I can trust, is easy to maintain and review, and allows me the greatest flexibility while forcing me to focus on learning new things and reviewing my existing repertoire. I am trying to apply many of the concepts from David's books and cds, a past coaching session with Meg and the discussions on this forum. As Meg and David have suggested I may just need to go up a level or 2 and clarify my roles and goals. From there maybe a "diet" is in order. Some of my discomfort with my system is I do try to take on more than I have time to explore and learn completely. Maybe moving more songs and things to a someday/maybe list would help simplify things and allow me to focus and learn a few songs and concepts more deeply.

    If I were to define this research foray into a project and successful outcome it would be to find different perspectives on how to keep current and fresh on playing music and learning new songs and concepts. I would appreciate any comments from others, musician or non-musician

  • #2
    Well, I'm still a GTD newbie, and only very recently have begun applying GTD specifically to my music practice, but I didn't want your thread to go completely unanswered, because it's a good topic, so here's my two cents for what they're worth...

    I'm a lot like you in terms of experience: the whole 20+ years playing, semi-pro weekend-band thing, but having other music goals above & beyond that, and I play guitar as well. And like you, I was a list-maker long before I ever heard about GTD.

    What I'm doing, and it seems to make sense for me, is just to treat my music goals and projects exactly like any other goals and projects in my life. So at the 50,000-foot level I have "be a lifelong student of the guitar", lower down I have "learn jazz fingerstyle guitar", and at the runway level I have "learn bars 21-24 of Martin Taylor's arrangement of Danny Boy". The Next Action is always "practice"!

    At the 50,000-foot level I have separated out "guitar" from "music" because studying guitar is an independent life pursuit, apart from whatever gig, band, recording, etc. project I may have at hand. It's easy to let that pursuit get swamped by the urgency of the other projects.

    I have invested a lot of time & mental energy into clarifying these goals (and I'm not done yet!!) -- it's useful for me because it helps me focus on what I should be doing and not doing -- like you, I have lots of instructional materials piled up & it's easy to get distracted by them. It's feels good to be clear on why I'm working on a specific piece or technique, how it relates to higher-level goals, so my energy doesn't get scattered.

    I'm journalling too; I used to keep a weekly guitar practice sheet but now I'm journalling each project separately (just a note in my Palm) so that I can track it to completion. It's humbling, how little you can really get done in a week -- but if you focus on it, you really get it done!! I find journalling makes you really work very consciously (omit that finger from the Em chord, bend the wrist at the Gmaj7/B chord, make the thumb go under the other fingers here...)

    Finally,if you haven't read it yet, I highly recommend Kenny Werner's Effortless Mastery. You'll find a lot about how to raise your playing to the highest level by focusing on a very few things and truly mastering them, through patience, discipline and focus. Great stuff! I also enjoyed ZEN GUITAR by Philip Toshio Sudo, which you night want to check out. Good luck!


    • #3

      I just wanted to thank you for the posting about using GTD as a musician. I'm a professional musician, formerly a performer, and I wish I'd known about GTD back when I was a freelancer! Now that I'm doing more teaching and composing, I have been using GTD but not in such detail as you describe. It's very inspiring, and I think I will find ways to customize it for myself based on your recommendations.So thanks again! Valerie


      • #4
        Mike, thanks for the great reply! I have Zen Guitar in my stack o' books. I'll dig that back out.


        • #5
          Mike, I wanted to explore more of the details of how you organize and connect your various levels of goals with projects. I have ordered the Effortless Mastery book that you mentioned. It sounds like you have found a way to make that connection between the 30k-50k levels down to the runway. I would be curious to see some more specific examples from your system.

          When you say you have "learn bars 21-24 of Martin Taylor's arrangement of Danny Boy" at the Runway level, is that the Project you have defined? Or is it “Learn Martin Taylor’s Arrangement of Danny Boy”? Do you simply have a Next Action is always "practice" or is it "Practice - Danny Boy", "Practice - Freebird", Practice - songname" etc?

          What format was the weekly guitar practice sheet? I used to use a matrix that I borrowed from Grassel's book. I had 7-10 areas of focus as rows & the days of the month across the top. I checked off when I touched one of those areas. The areas included - band songs, slide guitar, practicing scales, playing magazine instruction. I used a journal as well as setting long medium and short range goals. I've read suggestions from Dan Crary & Barry Green (Inner Game) of defining project down to he measure(s) where there is a difficult passage. However, I have not successfully disciplined myself to follow that journalling regularly in the last 10 years. I did some pretty significant journaling with my guitar practicing in the early 90's and it was all paper based. Now I don’t feel like I am capturing as much with electronic tools as I did with paper and pencil.

          My next actions should or could be stored in @home or @pchome as appropriate. In the past I attempted to use more categories at the Project level and the task level using: ProjectsLearnMusic, ProjectsFunMusic, ProjectsRehearseMusic, @studio, @studiolearn, @studiofun, @studiorehearse

          @studio may be the most effective to separate from other @home NAs

          I have not been that granular with NAs to identify the next step on all projects, like “learn bars 5-12 of Django”. It sounds like that may be the way to go. Right now my instruction material lists as well as song lists are in spreadsheets. The songs that I have listed as projects are songs that I really want to focus on. Previously they were not on my Outlook list, just in the spreadsheet list. As I work thru this transition it seems logical to put these types of songs in Outlook as projects. For the band set list I keep the majority of songs just listed in the spreadsheet with the rolling date of when I last practiced it. In my lessons we may work on gig song trouble spots or chord melody arrangements or theory of how to use chords and scales. I’m trying to find the best place to track this. Sometimes we hit a topic in my lessons then move on and we don’t revisit it the next week, usually because I didn’t practice it and find a way to reinforce it.

          Any insights you or other musician's could provide would be helpful



          • #6
            OK, well, bearing in mind that I'm a GTD newbie and that my own way of applying GTD to my music practice is still evolving...

            I'm using LifeBalance software(Win/Mac/Palm), which allows you to create hierarchies of tasks. At the top level I have my life areas of concern: Self, Family, Work, etc. including "Guitar", which gets its own top-level category separate from Music. So I guess that's the "50,000 foot level". The verbose name for this level, more of a Franklin-Covey role/value type of label, would be: "Be a lifelong student of the guitar" but "Guitar" is good enough for me.

            Next level down I have a heading called "Jazz", which I should probably call "learn to play fingerstyle chord-melody solo jazz guitar in the style of Martin Taylor". I have a lot of instructional videos, books and CDs of Taylor's stuff to learn from. This will probably be a decades-long activity for me (the first arrangement of his that I learned took me almost a year!) So the next level down is "Always have a Martin Taylor piece going". I have other goals in the "Jazz" area too, such as "listen to Django Reinhardt" or "Subscribe to Jazz Guitar magazine" or "All Blues for Jazz Guitar (Ferguson)" (an instructional book I want to work through).

            Next level down I have "Danny Boy - learn" and under that the aforementioned "learn bars 21-24" which is my NA. I try to get the NAs down to something I can accomplish with a week's practice. That seems like the right level of granularity to me.

            Inside each task in LifeBalance is a "Notes" section, which is where I'm doing my "journalling" for each NA. Just notes about specific issues. Some examples cut-and-pasted:

            7/12 working out open fingerings bar 23
            7/15 can play thru (haltingly)
            7/19 can play thru fairly smoothly except the fast scale run
            7/20 from memory, at tempo. Almost done.

            My context categories are just @Studio and @Guitar.

            What I like about this approach is, it makes you to think about what "done" really means, and not move on to the next NA until it's really done. Kenny Werner's ("Effortless Mastery") definition of "done" would be "when you can play it perfectly, every time, without conscious thought or effort". He talks about the trap we fall into where, once we can play something through correctly once or twice, we call it "done," but we have never fully absorbed it and internalized it, so we're walking round with lots and lots of music we can sort-of play but not really at the level of mastery. He says (paraphrasing) "the great musicians master a very few things, and then they make a whole career out of playing those very few things!" So it may take me a ridiculous amount of time to master those 4 bars, but then I'll really have them!!

            I used to use a paper weekly guitar practice sheet that I made up, which had headers for each area I wanted to focus on (technique, repertoire, theory, etc.) and the week's "lesson" in each area, as well as a practice log area. But my experience was a lot like using a Franklin planner: week after week, copying my to-do items over from one week to the next. And if I worked on something for several weeks (as I usually did), I couldn't easily see all my notes in one place.

            So the implementation wasn't perfect, but the essential idea -- have a plan, review it weekly, track progress all the way to "done", focus on goals -- put me miles ahead of where I had been before, which was more like "buy an interesting book or video, goof around with one or two exercises in it, play them half-assedly, get bored, repeat." Or "take a lesson, get distracted by some upcoming gig or recording project, forget the lesson, repeat".

            I read Barry Green recently but have not yet incorporated his ideas into my work. I'd be curious to hear about your experience.

            Sorry for the long reply, but it was a long question!!


            • #7
              Wow. Just read thru this thread. It's kinda creepy to see the similarities among the previous participants and... me! I've been semi-implementing GTD now for several months, and need to get more focussed w/ it.

              Anyway, I'm also semi-pro / weekend warrior / classic rock cover band / exploring jazz / etc. etc. and a long time list maker w/ songs. My cover band plays over 100 rock tunes, and I've got hundreds of candidates on the list. Also, I have tons of sheet music in books, fake books, and binders (xeroxed - dont' tell!!!). I put all the songs in a spreadsheet (everything from Led Zep to Bach) with LOTS of headings:

              Set #

              Checkbox columns for: band, electric, keyboard, acoustic, harmonica, accordion(!), jazz, unplugged, solo, vocal.

              Sheet music book checkbox columns for: Lyric book, Guitar Tab Book, Piano Book, etc., etc.

              I can sort or screen the spreadsheet for a set list or for a table of contents for my various books.

              Can cut and paste portions to send around to band mates, etc. as needed.

              Rock On!

              - BG / Atlanta


              • #8
                Mike, when I first implemen the Inner Game Goals and Journal 12 or 13 years ago, I kept it paper and pencil. While I did forward uncompleted things to subsequent weeks, the act of getting things down in writing was very powerful. I didn't always review it weekly but I did practice on a regular basis and use the journaling feature sporadically. I'm working from my memory of 10+ years. That time when I started doing this is when I made great progress from being a plunker on guitar to beginning to explore playing out with other musicians.

                It seems after I migrated my paper and pencil goals to a pc, the goals somewhat stagnated, the lists became a little stale. I did refine some of the longer range goals, made some more clear and actually attained some of my goals. Some actually made their way into my 20k, 30k and 40k focus areas. I currently don't have strong links from the runway to the longer range goals. During some periods using the Inner Game goals, especially when I put into a word doc, I would create a stricter hierarchical outline. I've tried to revive the journaling process for practice but it does become spread out across pages and you don't see a complete picture of progress (or lack there of) on a particular piece.

                I am 50 or so pages into Mastery book and his message about the inner critic seems similar to Greene's. I do see the logic in the mastery concept you related from the book. I see the logic but I still have 1 foot in the other camp of "buy loads of instructional material; learn it partially, blah, blah...” . I'm looking forward to reading more implementing some of the ideas.

                I'm going to experiment with Life Balance a little. I always want to do this better. But just now looking back at my old goals/journal, it is pretty rewarding to see my 5-10 year goals from 1993

                Join a "weekend"/working band - accomplished in 1996 and maintained since
                Make professional quality home recordings - accomplished in 99 and maintained since
                Ability to play in a variety of styles (blues, country, rock, and jazz) - accomplished - but I can now drill into more specific areas as you have shown examples

                I really like your idea of journaling at the Project notes area. That is something I can do currently in Outlook. I haven't been as consistent in using a separate Outlook Note for this. But using the note section of the project would be perfect for the weekly review.

                I have used 2 types of practice pages with past effectiveness. I abandoned them at some point and I don’t recall whether it was because they ere loosing effectiveness or more practice goals and focus changed. The first was a simple paper calendar of 6 weeks in duration. I just wrote down the length of time I practiced and sometimes the songs I worked on. The other was the monthly grid that I picked up from the Grassel book. I simply checked off if I played/worked in that area. These were more areas of focus. Both were supplements to the goal setting and journaling. I've used other ways to track progress with various levels of success. The ones that took too much time have dropped by the wayside. I am realizing that there is not one best way to do this, whether it's music project, personal or work. Using the GTD framework seems to very effective and flexible allowing one to weave in other “practices” such as the Effective Mastery or Inner Game concepts.

                Sorry, another long post, but I hope it’s helpful to others.


                • #9
                  Hi guys,

                  I just wanted to let you know that I found this thread extremely interesting. I haven't a musical bone in my body, but I'm in what you might call the "advanced instrument learning" stage of learning a couple languages. I feel like there is some common ground in that some of my "projects" are really skills to master rather than a product that is "complete" at a particular point in time. I hope you'll continue to post about your progress.


                  • #10
                    Getting to "doing music"

                    This one's really intriguing. Although no longer a practising musician, I was a very serious student and semi-professional performer for many years. My first reaction on glancing through these posts was that a lot of energy and no doubt time was being spent on developing quite sophisticated and involved sounding systems to apply to music-making and musical development. I instinctively wanted to call out and say: just go and practise; just go and make music.

                    So my observation would be: unless you're making music at the computer, trying to maintain a computer-based system (GTD or otherwise) might take up unnecessary time you could devote to the music. It was interesting, and unsurprising, to see that several writers felt their paper-based journals – past or present – were more useful to them.

                    And even with a paper-based system, based on my own experiences, I'd preach simplicity all the way.

                    I kept a notebook for lesson notes, which were either jotted down at the time or which I wrote up soon after as a way of cementing the lesson in my mind. These were mainly general notes and pointers for overall practice strategy and technique.

                    Anything specific to a piece of music and all the really detailed stuff was marked or noted on the sheet music itself. You could describe those as my "Next Actions" I guess.

                    And my piles of sheet music and current scrapbooks were, in effect, the physical "lists" of what I was working on in lessons or preparing for performances. Those list-piles tended to be:
                    *music for the grade/diploma exam for the year;
                    *music for my uni recitals;
                    *music I was rehearsing in orchestra;
                    *music for any chamber music projects I was involved in;
                    *music that I liked to play for fun; and
                    *a rapidly rotating pile of music that I would just sightread a few times then return to my collection (for sightreading practice and general familiarisation with what was out there for my instrument).

                    Music that I wanted to look at but hadn't borrowed or purchased would be noted in my lesson notebook, but once I had the sheet music in my possession then it either went in what was effectively the "Someday/Soon" section of my bookcase (as opposed to the main part of my music library), or it went into the relevant pile if I was going to begin working on it immediately.

                    So basically written lists were kept to a minimum. Writing and planning was restricted to the lesson notebooks and annotations on the sheet music. I'd discreetly date the sheet music too: when I started work on it and scheduled/completed performances.

                    In my view general practice routines for music don't really need to be converted into a complicated and time-consuming system: you warm up the body and the instrument, you do the "technical work" that will equip you with the flexibility and technique to play the music, you practice the individual pieces that are current for you (with differing approaches according to where you're at with them), you wind down at the end with something fun that you just love and have mastered. That fundamental "schedule" is stable for a lifetime of musical practice – in the same way that the professional ballet dancer begins every class with pliés, just like a five-year-old beginning dancer.

                    When it comes to musical practice I would consider it a closed system of its own. The only aspect that needs to be integrated into a whole-life GTD practice is scheduling the time to practise and to go to lessons/rehearsals/performances. The rest of it can be managed and tracked with a simple notebook and with the music in its physical form.


                    • #11
                      This is all very inspiring. I'm combining a commitment to music (community chorus, guitar learning, and aspiring songwriting) with commitments to quite a few other things, so GTD is helping me to keep in touch with what I'm trying to do. I treat musical projects and next actions the same as any others. My projects lists (current, later, and SDM) are divided by roles, so there is a Musician category in each. Later Projects has a long lists of songs to learn and artists to check out, and possible songs to write, as well as various other ideas (ask this person if he wants to jam sometime, try online lessons from this site, etc.). Next actions has things like "record background chords for riff practice for these songs" and "practice words to this chorus song," and "transcribe this song for chorus director."

                      My guitar practice (as opposed to group jamming) isn't regular enough, and you all have inspired me to be a bit more conscious about it. Thank you!

                      Do Mi


                      • #12
                        Thom, thanks for resurrecting this old thread. In the last 2 years I have cycled back and forth from pure paper-based systems to more top heavy lists in Outlook, Excel and now the web app Todist. I have resisted the temptation to revive my old access and excel based systems. Although, recently I was considering a way to incorporate MS Project. Thankfully, I stopped that and just realized I was trying to do too much too quickly. With 1-2 hours a day for playing there is a limit on what one can accomplish.

                        I realized that I start leaning towards a magical tool solution (did the Beatles write that?) when I have over-committed or am over loaded. In the last 6 months I have retired from the weekend band endeavor. But I over committed on personal music projects; by trying to learn 5+ songs all at once and learn some new techniques - fingerstyle playing for instance.

                        Regardless of what type of GTD like lists I am using I have returned to the journal and note taking. There is a huge benefit in this. The musical journaling is a consistent theme with other well known teachers (via dvd) - Pete Huttlinger, Dan Crary, Stephan Grossman and many others.

                        I do find making some kind of list and/or literally stacking up everything that I think I want to work on helps with the reality check. This is good for a weekly or monthly review. DA mentions this in the book and or cds with regard to personal reading. Simple song lists can be very effective in allowing you to assess where you are.

                        My current GTD implementation uses Todoist. The list making offers many levels of hierarchy and many formating options. It allows to me to go into as much detail or as little as I feel is needed. I use this to supplement my paper based practice journal

                        Your suggestion of just go and practice; just go and make music is well founded and similar to the Frank Zappa entitled cds - Shut Up and Play Yer Guitar.


                        • #13
                          Thom Wrote:

                          In my view general practice routines for music don't really need to be converted into a complicated and time-consuming system: you warm up the body and the instrument, you do the "technical work" that will equip you with the flexibility and technique to play the music, you practice the individual pieces that are current for you (with differing approaches according to where you're at with them), you wind down at the end with something fun that you just love and have mastered. That fundamental "schedule" is stable for a lifetime of musical practice
                          But what individual pieces should I work on? What technical work should I be doing? Here's where GTD comes in for me -- it helps me connect up today's practice session ("master bars 12-14 of xxx") with my life goals ("learn to play jazz fingerstyle guitar") and success criteria ("be able to play it correctly every time, effortlessly"). As a dedicated amateur musician, I only get a small amount of time to practice; I want to make sure I'm practicing the right things. It's all too easy for me to get distracted by other stuff.

                          I have a great tendency to dabble in this or that area of guitar (which is a very broad field) but just to skim the surface and never really dig into a specific area. I also have a tendency to learn something halfway and then move on to the next thing. I find the thinking that goes into GTD -- setting goals and success criteria, and connecting them to daily actions -- helps me stay focused.

                          But yes, my practice routine is very much as you describe: warm up, technical work, new repertoire work, and review of mastered pieces. The GTD thinking is what happens before the practice session!


                          • #14

                            yea, for workout music, you basically need hard-hitting euro-dance music.... nothing else does the job really. Search around on iTunes for "euro club hits" or check this link: