Binders are great because you can easily remove old material and insert new material as your needs change. I recommend that you get a one-inch or larger binder with a flat-sided ring, capable of holding at least 200 sheets of paper. You will be surprised at how fast your binder fills up, and the flat-sided ring holds the pages better (the holes don't rip as easily). You need tab dividers. Office Depot has a little set of eight tabs with inserts that can be easily formatted, printed, and costs a mere $.96. You also need a hole-punch. All of the above can probably be obtained for under $30.00.
The first thing I recommend you do when you get home, is to sit down at your computer and make a title page for your binder. Binders usually come with a plastic cover that you can insert a title page into. The more official and important-looking your binder is, the more likely you are to use it. My title page simply says "Brad Howland – Practice Binder" in big letters with a nice, decorative border around the edges.
Open up the tab dividers and follow the instructions to print headings onto the inserts, or write by hand if that is easier. Your first tab should be labelled:
You should put under this tab copies of any and all exercises you collect throughout your musical career. For example, I have a couple of different sets of warm-up routines that I put into Finale and printed. There are also hand-written exercises that I received from various teachers during past lessons, and certain exercises for other instruments I found over the years and liked.
Label the second tab:
Music in Progress
Here's where you put copies of any music you are working on at the moment, which can include chamber music for upcoming recitals, audition repertoire, or music assigned by your teacher for you to practice.
The articles section includes anything inspiring you read about playing your instrument or performance in general. In my binder I have a copy of David Leisner's article Six Golden Rules for Conquering Performance Anxiety, which I find helpful to review before concerts and will probably use for the rest of my career. It's there in my binder when I need it.
Under the calendar tab, put a schedule of your concerts for the upcoming year, plus a monthly calendar. Calendar's are easy to make on most computers—Microsoft Works has a template that does the job nicely. I roughly plan when I will practice important works on the monthly calendar, writing the practice dates on it in pencil.
I needed a projects tab to keep track of whatever musical ideas I am working on. For example, one project I have on the go is to record another CD with the Pacific Trombone Quartet. I wrote down a set of tasks that need to be done to accomplish this goal, and then prioritized them A1, A2, A3, B, or C.
The crazy ideas tab simply contains blank sheets of paper. Crazy ideas are those thoughts that come on the spur of the moment and just beg to be written down somewhere. They haven't quite made it to the status of a "project" yet. One crazy idea I jotted down is that my trombone quartet could apply for a gig on a cruise ship, just for fun.
I haven't really started this final tab yet, but I wish I had started it 25 years ago. I intend to write down thoughts about specific pieces that come up and seem to help during performance.
For example, when I was a second-year student at the University of Victoria, I played Brahms Symphony No. 1 with the university orchestra. It's a delicate excerpt because you have to sit on stage for three movements doing nothing, then play a high A cold. I struggled with it in rehearsals, but shortly before the concert a teacher I admired (Richard Ely) told me to "put a cup full of air through the horn." I did, and got the note.
How many other pearls of wisdom came my way over the years, which I soon forgot? I hope to keep track of them from now on, in a systematic way, with my handy-dandy practice binder!
Brad Howland is the Principal Trombonist of the Victoria Symphony Orchestra.