Practicing in Dive Bars

Having a son in the music business, and watching his career grow from the sidelines, has been an enlightening experience.  Unlike the court reporting profession, where court reporters are a rarity, musicians abound.  Despite this disparity, musicians and court reporters share a common challenge:  both have a high mountain to climb to achieve success.  I thought I’d share my son’s experience.  Perhaps it will inspire you in your court reporting journey.

Jay got his lucky break working at the famed Medieval Manor dinner theater in Boston as one of two minstrels.  He spent countless hours learning the script and practicing the accompanying music.  With the Medieval Manor gig as his mainstay on weekends, Jay continued writing songs and honing his guitar skills during the week.  He made dozens JayPsarosof calls a month to get gigs around town.  Night after night he would lug his equipment from one dive bar to the next for meager pay and hopefully a meal.  He would sit in a dark corner and play his heart out until closing time.  Sometimes people would listen; many times they would not.

Over the years, the dive bar gigs took their toll.  He grew impatient and discouraged.  Despite his exasperation, Jay pressed on, all the while increasing his repertoire and improving his skill.  Slowly he started to find his own voice in the crowded field of musicians.  His fan base started to grow as did his confidence.  He made some good connections which led to better paying gigs in nicer venues, more recognition, and some critical acclaim.

Incredibly, amazing opportunities started coming his way.  He was asked to co-host the first ever Levitate Music Festival featuring the Original Wailers and has since opened for Ziggy Marley, Boz Scaggs, the Mavericks, Daughtry, Los Lonely Boys, Lisa Loeb, and others at beautiful venues.  These are the gigs he always dreamed of and the gigs he lives for.

Jay’s modest success didn’t happen overnight.  It was ten years in the making.  I remember the night he opened for Ziggy Marley, psyched beyond words, only to play the next night in a dive bar for less than a handful of people.  The difference couldn’t have been more glaring.  What he realized, however, was that his Ziggy Marley gig, and all the other notable ones, would not have been possible without the grind of playing in those dive bars night after night after endless night.  It is where he honed his act.  In hindsight, it was valuable practice time, an opportunity to improvise, make his errors, learn from them, improve, and try out new material.  Jay still grinds it out every night, as the thrilling opening gigs don’t come along every day.  He is never satisfied, always pushing through the drudgery and preparing for the next unknown opportunity.

So how does Jay’s experience mirror yours, the court reporting student’s?  Practicing days on end is your dive bar experience.  Embrace it all, the ups and the downs!  This is the foundation on which your future success will depend.  Continue to work through the inevitable disappointments and set your goals.  Practice, make your mistakes, evaluate them, adjust, and improve.  The dividends will come if you continue to hone your act.  You can’t hit the “big time” as a Registered Professional Reporter without paying your dues.


It will happen to you.  You will be reporting a difficult deposition, struggling with the accent, the speed, or the subject matter, and the lawyer will say, “Miss Reporter, can you read that back.”  The attorney assumes that you heard it, understood it, and wrote it all down.  But what if you didn’t?

There are three scenarios on readback:

  • You hit it out of the park.  You got every word and are reading back confidently, loudly, and clearly.  It is so satisfying to successfully deliver on a specific request.
  • You will have the majority of the requested question or answer, but there are some messy outlines or maybe a dropped word or two.  You are unsure it will hang together when you read it aloud.  If you are called upon to read back under this type of circumstance, my advice would be to take a few seconds to scan your screen quickly and read the passage to yourself.  Sometimes you just missed a small word that makes all the difference, or perhaps you misheard a word but it suddenly becomes clear.  In any case, read back what you have and let the chips fall where they may.  If your readback of a question indeed fell a little short, the attorney may choose to repeat, rephrase, or strike it altogether.  If you were asked to read back an answer, it is possible that the attorney didn’t understand it either and will ask the witness to repeat it.
  • You missed so much of the requested question or answer that it is impossible to reconstruct it in a few seconds.  You were going to interrupt to ask for it to be repeated, but you were asked to read back before you got a chance.  In cases like this, you can say, “I’m sorry.  I didn’t get that.  I was just going to ask you to repeat it.”  They will most likely oblige.

Readback isn’t restricted to Q&A.  As reporters we are often asked to read back colloquy.  Sometimes these exchanges are quite heated, and readback can be challenging.  They are just as vital as the questions and answers, however, as the attorneys are stating their objections and are preserving their positions for the future.  You have to be prepared to read back colloquy, too, and sometimes the exchanges can be quite lengthy.

Keep in mind that all reporters have had trouble reading back at some point.  There are so many variables that make our job difficult.  Some attorneys understand what we are up against, and some don’t.  Some care and some don’t.  You will be forgiven if it is a rare occurrence.  If you continue having difficulty, however, it will not go unnoticed.  Your agency may receive a call requesting a different reporter the next time, or you may be dismissed and replaced with another reporter that very same day.

Sometimes the reason for the readback is simply to satisfy the attorney that he has a reporter with the requisite skills.  If an attorney suspects he is dealing with a newbie, he may ask the reporter to read back random questions or answers early on to gauge whether or not the reporter is equipped to handle his case.  He would prefer not to wait until receipt of the transcript to determine if there is a problem.

So how can you increase your chances of reading back successfully?  Don’t be a mindless writer.  It only makes sense that if you pay attention and try to follow the testimony, you will have some context and point of reference from which to draw upon, and your chances will increase that you will be able to read back without error.   Also, if you make a habit of looking at your screen while you are writing realtime, you will be able to identify your misstrokes and make mental notes of what words those misstrokes should be.  Lastly, not to be overlooked is the obvious:  speed.  It is a given that the faster you can write the less you will drop and the cleaner your notes will be.

As a student, the more you read back, the better off you will be!  Practice reading back aloud everything you take.  Pretend you are at an actual deposition and see if your readback will make the grade.  Not only will it force you to confront your writing issues and improve your skill, but it will be a good exercise in learning how to keep your composure under pressure.  This will pay off in the long run.  Reading back is one of the benchmarks upon which attorneys will judge you.  Make it your moment to shine.


Training to become a court reporter is so grueling, it’s no surprise that feelings of despair can become overwhelming and the desire to quit can get stronger with each passing day.   If you find yourself in this predicament, you have to stop and reassess.  Make a deliberate effort to push the negative thoughts and feelings out of your mind and dig deep to find a renewed sense of purpose.  Many have come before you, feeling as you do right now, and have found a way to succeed.  You can do it too!  Remember:  This is a marathon, not a sprint.

I am reminded once again of the following quote by the basketball legend Michael Jordan“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career.  I’ve lost almost 300 games.  26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winninMichael Jordan2g shot and missed.  I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life.  And that is why I succeed.”

I find these words so inspiring because he actually kept track of the shots he missed and the games he lost.  Who does that?  What he doesn’t mention in this quote is that he won six NBA championships, was named the NBA Finals MVP six times and its Most Valuable Player five times.  He also doesn’t mention the fact that he is a two-time Gold Medal Olympian and the recipient of the 2016 Presidential Medal of Freedom.  He has other accolades too numerous to mention, and, oh, he has a hugely successful sneaker line too.  Good thing he didn’t let failure define him.

So how did MJ succeed?   His next quote might give you a clue:  “The minute you get away from the fundamentals – whether it’s proper technique, work ethic or mental preparation – the bottom can fall out of your game, your schoolwork, your job, whatever you’re doing.”

This is so true.  If you are not progressing as you should, you need to critically assess the three items mentioned above and identify in particular your weaknesses so you can form a plan to eliminate them.  All three are integral to your moving ahead.

Regarding your technique, it always helps to return to the basics when you are stuck:  deliberate incremental practice, emphasis on error-free writing, and readback.  Maybe you need to lower your speed to gain your bearings again.  Is a review of your theory in order?  Are you tackling those tough phrases or just letting them pass by?  I firmly believe that spending two hours working on writing an error-free, difficult one-minute take is far more valuable than spending two hours working on a five-minute take and settling for mediocrity in doing so.

Regarding work ethic, are you committed to a daily practice regimen, a minimum of two hours outside of class, even more if possible?  This takes enormous self-discipline, especially on weekends and holidays.  Making excuses can be a slippery slope.   Don’t allow yourself to skip or shorten your practice sessions.  If anything, you should be doing all you can to increase your practice time.

Lastly, evaluate your mental preparation.  Are you practicing without interruptions or distractions?  Are your electronic devices turned off and put out of reach?  Are you in the zone when you practice, giving it everything you’ve got?  It takes time to develop the mental stamina needed to concentrate for the interminable five-minute testing takes.

Despite your setbacks, try to stay positive.  Keep at it.  Don’t look too far ahead; you’ll  get overwhelmed.  Just concentrate on gaining a couple words per minute a week, and eventually you will get there.  You will drop many words and fail many tests along the way, but one day you will “be like MJ” and find sweet victory.


I was waiting in line last Sunday ordering a bagel.  The three people behind the counter were going about their duties, tending to each custom order.  As more people entered the shop and joined the ever-growing line, the staff seemed unfazed, going about their business at their usual pace.  Apparently they saw no need to speed things up to accommodate the sudden rush of business.

Can you imagine, in your role as a court reporter, operating at only one speed:   slow? Can you envision the words coming at you in quick succession, piling up one after the other, but, no worries, you keep moseying along at a snail’s pace?  Needless to say, as court reporters we have no choice but to step it up and shift into a higher gear.

Sometimes the pace at a deposition is steady, but many times it is not.  Testimony can come at you in fits and starts; it can wax and wane.  Getting into a rhythm can be difficult on days like these.  Things may be quiet speedwise, and then all of a sudden someone objects and they’re off to the races.  It is your job to adjust to whatever the speed may be:  If the pace is slow, you have to stay on your toes for the inevitable and unpredictable uptick.  If the speed is fast, you have to hang on until things slow down enough for you to catch your breath.  The more speed you have in the bank, the more adept you will be to take on whatever comes your way.

This brings to mind an assignment I shared with a fabulous colleague, Jane Williamson, RMR, CRR, on a daily copy years ago.  She would write; I would edit, sitting in the same room.  I noticed that whenever things got contentious and the pace picked up, she literally dropped her head and went into high-speed mode.  It scared me at first — I thought she had fainted! — but I noticed that she did this multiple times throughout the day.  It was such a strong visual manifestation of her bearing down, going into a deeper level of concentration, and ramping up her speed.  I mentioned this to her afterwards, and she was unaware that she was even doing this!

Of course you may not physically react as she does, but you do have to switch gears mentally to be able to dig deep and perform at a higher level.  Your current practice routine is a good indicator of how you will fare in challenging situations like this.  If you do your best to hang on even when it seems impossible, you will have a better chance of success.  This is the mindset you need to be able to perform optimally.  Contrast this with a more lackadaisical approach to your practice sessions, and I think the results will become obvious.  A complacent mindset will generate inferior outcomes.  Put another way, you will not be able to go into full-speed mode when needed if you do not train yourself to do so while in school.

Unfortunately, reporters cannot be like the one-speed-fits-all workers at the bagel shop without suffering serious consequences.  When called upon, there is no option but to step it up and deliver.

What Court Reporting Students Can Learn from a Future Neurosurgeon

We placed an ad for rental of a small office in our suite that was answered by a Harvard Medical School student who needs a quiet place to study for his upcoming exam.  Our space is conveniently located close to his apartment and MGH.  He needs the office for three months, October through December, his examination falling on December 30th.  He is already quite accomplished, having previously earned a Master of Health Science degree from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health before deciding to go to medical school with the goal of eventually becoming a neurosurgeon.

I think everyone on our staff would agree that having him study in such close proximity to us is an eye-opening and inspiring experience.  We have had many enlightening conversations about his family, his past work history abroad in Tanzania and Afghanistan, his research, what led him to pursue a career in neurosurgery, and the intense competition he faces in trying to secure one of only a few coveted residency positions nationwide.

Gabriel Sneh
Harvard Medical student and future neurosurgeon, Gabriel Sneh.

His study routine is one for the record books.  His focus, dedication, and resoluteness are off the charts.  He spends just about every waking moment reviewing the minutiae of every system in the body and taking practice tests, never scoring below a 90.  He studies between 70 to 75 hours a week, even on weekends.  In three months, that will amount to almost 1,000 hours of study!  After he passes his exam, he has seven years of residency ahead of him.

During his limited breaks, he has patiently and completely answered our various medical questions, such as the difference between a punctured/collapsed lung; what a herniated incarceration is; and the various types of stages and grades of cancer.  (We considered it good practice for him!)  Further, as an aside, it has not gone unnoticed that he takes good care of himself.  He eats no sugar, processed foods, or gluten.  He gets his required rest.  His stamina is impressive as is his energy level.  I am sure these choices have factored into his success so far as well.

“How do you stay motivated with such a grueling road ahead of you?” 

This all got me to thinking about court reporting students.  I asked him the most obvious question:  “How do you stay motivated with such a grueling road ahead of you?”  He explained that, although his eye is always on the prize, he doesn’t look too far ahead.  Looking too far ahead can be overwhelming, so he sets an aggressive agenda for each day and does not waver from accomplishing his daily goal, which is answering about 250 to 300 test questions per day.  To become eligible for a neurosurgery residency, you need at least a score of 240 on the exam, a score he already knows he can attain.  He wants to do better because he knows he can.  He knows he is capable of learning much more, so he is pushing himself to excel.  His goal is to achieve the highest score ever recorded on the exam, and we think he just might do it.

So what can we learn from him?  Think about his rigorous studying philosophy and see how it can be incorporated into your personal practice regimen.  Could you realistically find more practice time in your day?  Do you set daily goals and do all you can to achieve them?  Do you push yourself to the limit, rejecting mediocrity and aiming for excellence?  Are you committed to making court reporting your life’s work and doing all you can to be the best court reporter you can be?  What better time than the upcoming New Year to adopt these standards as your own.

All of us will be sad to see “our” med student leave.  It has been an awesome experience getting a glimpse into his world and bearing witness to the enormous sacrifices that he is willing to make to reach his goal.  He is not only an exceptional student but also one of the finest human beings we have ever met.

Congratulations, Gabriel Sneh, on your accomplishments so far and all the very best as you continue your studies.


Does writing on your steno machine come easily to you?  Are you passing tests fairly frequently and progressing ahead of schedule, well ahead of your peers?  If so, you are what I would consider a “natural” writer, and you are in the minority.  I know several reporters who breezed through school in as little as a year and a half.  One reporter I know passed her 260 Q&A before graduation.  Wow!

If you are one of the students in the majority, struggling to stay afloat day after day and fighting to stave off the feelings of self-doubt, you may find comfort in knowing that grit can sometimes be more important than raw talent.

I define “grit” as mental toughness, an intense resolve to succeed and the tenacity to focus and persevere despite the obstacles and distractions around you.  There are many examples of people who accomplished great things through sheer determination.  James Earl Jones overcame severe stuttering to become a famous actor;  Stephen King’s first novel was rejected thirty times, but he is now a prolific author whose books have sold over 350 million copies; and Walt Disney, despite having only an eighth-grade education and almost no formal art training, built an empire where dreams really do come true.

As a court reporting student, grit is what will propel you forward, one word per minute at a time.  Set your goals, put in as much quality practice as you can, and eschew excuses.  Do this every single day.  Remind yourself of what drew you to court reporting in the first place, and let that motivate you to dig in and press on.  It will be difficult and will require every ounce of self-discipline you have, but in the long run you will succeed.

Every working court reporter still relies on grit to make it out there.  Attorneys’ expectations are high.  There are many demands placed on them by their clients, and those demands get passed on to us.  It is our job to deliver.  The finest court reporters produce transcripts of the highest quality on time all the time no matter what.  They offer realtime services often under less-than-ideal conditions, multiple iPads at a time, some clients receiving live feeds in remote locations.  They produce daily copy of high-profile, high-stakes trials that go on for weeks.  Their raw realtime is projected on large screens in packed convention halls or on television screens across the nation, such as for the recent raucous presidential debates.  How much true grit does that take?

So cultivate your true grit!   It is never too late.  If you embrace it, it is a mindset that will take you to a higher level.   Just ask the majority of court reporters who were once in your shoes.  True grit got them through school, and true grit gets them through the most difficult and demanding of assignments as certified working professionals.


I came upon this article by Adam Dachis.  In my opinion, it describes perfectly how you should go about your practice sessions and why.  He’s writing about piano practice, but this certainly applies to court reporters.  The bottom line:  Perfect practice makes perfect.  Stop practicing until you read this.  Teach yourself to practice the right way.  Take Mr. Dachis’s advice to heart and let his words guide you from this point forward.  Good luck and happy practicing!

How Muscle Memory Works and How It Affects Your Success

by Adam Dachis

Muscle memory is not a memory stored in your muscles, of course, but memories stored in your brain that are much like a cache of frequently enacted tasks for your muscles. It’s a form of procedural memory that can help you become very good at something through repetition, but in exactly the same way it can make you absolutely terrible at that same thing. Here’s why.

If you’re practicing a song on the piano over and over again, the idea is that you’ll continue to improve. “Practice makes perfect” can be an accurate phrase because the more you do something, you build up that procedural memory and your brain can quickly instruct your muscles to carry it out. That muscle memory doesn’t judge whether you’re doing good or bad, however, and so if you practice a song poorly for hours on end you’re going to be really good at making the same mistakes over and over again. This is not only bad because you’ve wasted your time learning to be bad or mediocre at a task and may see all this work as a failure, but because you didn’t necessarily have to fail at all. When you repeat mistakes again and again, you build a muscle memory with those mistakes. That makes those mistakes even harder to overcome later. This is one reason why the saying “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is often true.


The key to building good muscle memories is to focus on the quality of the quantity. We’ve often heard, probably from Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, that 10,000 hours is the magic number to make someone an expert. It’s likely that this is the case when you practice well, but if you carelessly build procedural memory over and over again you can just end up being really good at repeating your mistakes. When you practice, take it slow at first. Going back to learning to play a song on the piano, don’t rush to learn the entire thing. Break the song up into parts and concentrate on learning one part really well. Practice that section slowly until you’ve got it down, then speed it up little by little until you can play at full speed. More broadly, when you want to learn to do something well, break it into small parts and take each part slowly until you’re able to do it very well. Take breaks. Be patient. The more you rush the big picture, the more likely you’ll be to develop muscle memories that are difficult to reverse.