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.

What Money Can’t Buy

Court reporters spend a lot of money before they can even begin working.  They need a reliable machine for starters plus a laptop, software licenses, service contracts, and various ancillary supplies such as business cards, exhibit stickers, batteries, and extension cords.

All these items can be replaced almost immediately should disaster strike, but there is ONE item than cannot be purchased anywhere, in a store or through a vendor.  Without it you are back at square one.  Aside from your skill, it is your most valuable asset as a working court reporter.  What is it?  Your personal dictionary.

There are horror stories out there about court reporters who have lost all their equipment through car accidents or other natural disasters and, along with it, their personal dictionaries which resided only on their laptops.  This has rendered them essentially dead in the water, unable to immediately resume their daily duties and earn the income they are accustomed to.  Sadly, this situation could have easily been prevented if only they had backed up their dictionaries.

The conventional wisdom is to back up your personal dictionaries as often as possible, at least once a month, more often if you are just starting out.  Think of all the entries you make on just one assignment, especially if you are at the beginning of your career.  All that labor needs to be preserved and protected.  For even greater insurance, it would be wise to back up your dictionary in multiple ways, such as in the cloud or on a couple of thumb drives.  Then you can store one of the thumb drives in a location other than your office or home, such as a relative’s house, for safekeeping.  The more times you back up and the more places you can store your backups, the safer you will be.

This advice also applies to backing up your jobs.  I not only back up my jobs before I even leave an assignment, but I also back up after each editing session in case my laptop ever decides not to start up again.  The thought of being unable to retrieve a deposition or hearing for an attorney is frightening, so that alone is worth going the extra mile to protect my files at all costs.

Learn from those who have lost it all.  Save yourself the pain and avoid any serious repercussions and damage to your reputation.  Consider it a vital investment in your professional career.  Stop what you are doing and back up your dictionary right now.  Back up, back up often, and back up in multiple places!

Test Anxiety

We’ve all been there.  The nerves, the shaking, the sweaty palms.

Taking a skills speed test is unlike the usual testing experience.   When you take a written exam, you have the benefit of mulling over an answer and going back to the question at a later time.  If an essay is required, you can take a few minutes to formulate your thoughts so you can respond in an organized manner.  Although there is a time limit, you have flexibility in the way you can use that time.

When you as court reporting students are taking your skills tests, you have no such luxury.  You need to be spot on at that very moment.  You need to write every word, hit the right keys, and keep up the seemingly relentless pace.  You have only so much time to transcribe.  And as if that weren’t stressful enough, the pass rate is not 70%.  It’s 95%!  It’s no wonder that test anxiety is a major issue for so many in this field.

There’s a lot of advice out there on what to do to mitigate test anxiety; for instance, get plenty of rest the night before, eat a healthy breakfast, and engage in deep breathing exercises.  Some believe exercise helps to calm nerves; some believe in meditation.  Positive mental rehearsal is another technique used by many as a means to enhance positive results.  All these suggestions have merit, and they’re worth pursuing.

Unfortunately, there is no foolproof solution to calming those test jitters.  What works for one person may not work for another.  Each of us has to find our own way in this regard.  One thing is for sure:  Anxiety comes with the territory in this profession.  Even when you are out in the working world, there will be times when your anxiety is through the roof.  You must find a way to deal with and overcome what can sometimes be a crippling fear.

On the other hand, I personally find that a little anxiety can actually be a good thing.  It gets the adrenaline going and keeps you on your toes.  The trick is to find that balance where you have just enough anxiety to propel you forward but not so much that your feelings of panic and dread sabotage you before you even get started.

For those of you who are prone to having test anxiety, the best advice I can give is to be prepared.  This means putting in as much meaningful practice time as you can.  Write cleanly, expand your vocabulary, build your dictionary.  Read back everything, examine your errors, and correct them.  Hone your concentration skills so you can eliminate distraction.  Keep a positive attitude and get rid of negative thoughts.  If you are stuck at a certain speed, consider that a temporary situation and resolve to keep on trying.  Even though you may have failed at your last testing attempt doesn’t mean you won’t succeed in the long run.  If you are practicing in an efficient and deliberate manner, even though you may think you are not making progress, you are.  You’ve passed tests before.  You’ve already had success!  You just have to pass some more.

Test anxiety is a part of every student’s learning experience.  It’s normal.  It’s sad that for many of you the anxiety is heightened because you haven’t passed a test for months, because you have no other financial options, or because you can’t run away from your obligations at home.   But don’t give up!  The good news is that there are wonderful job opportunities waiting for you when you graduate and become certified; and once out in the working world, the anxiety you feel today will dissipate as you gain more experience.


As if Q & A dictation wasn’t hard enough, with only an attorney and witness speaking, now comes multi-voice dictation which adds one or two additional speakers to worry about.  At just about every deposition you will attend in the future, you will need to be able to identify at least one additional participant, so having a system in place to accurately identify speakers is vital.  This is especially important when you have multiple attorneys arguing, sometimes at a quick pace and often interrupting each other.  It is easy to get confused, lose your rhythm, and drop.  We’ve all struggled with this.  Thankfully, it is a skill that becomes easier with practice.

Some schools rely on tape for multi-voice dictation where the voices introduce themselves at the beginning.  I’ve heard of lone instructors changing their voice to designate a change in speaker.  Some schools have actual speakers giving live dictation in front of the classroom, which I think is ideal, as I prefer a visual frame of reference.  My school back in the day used a rigged contraption with lights on it, and my teacher would switch a light on to identify which “person” was speaking.

The reason I prefer a visual aid is because that is the way my speaker identification system is set up.  This system is based on physical placement.  It only matters if the person speaking is on the left or the right.  So if someone on the left is speaking, I will hit certain keys on the left.  If someone on the right is speaking, I will hit certain keys on the right.

As an example, let’s say you have four speakers in front of your classroom situated like this:

Speaker (left)   Questioner (Q)   Witness (A)   Speaker (right)

Your dictation will be in Q&A format until the speaker on the left interrupts.  When that happens, I hit SKWRAO.  When the speaker on the right interrupts, I hit EURBGS.  This eliminates precious seconds trying to remember a name, if he’s the plaintiff’s lawyer or the defendant’s lawyer, if he is conducting direct or cross, or any other identifier.  It allows you to react immediately based on a visual cue

When you become a reporter, one day you will be faced with multiple people seated around a conference table.  Consider the seating diagram below for nine additional participants besides the questioner and the witness.  The same principle applies.  There is no need to commit their names to memory.  You only have to assign them a “token” to keep track of them.  I have put the appropriate token next to each person based on their seating placement.

*For the questioner, I will write SKWRAO when he speaks in colloquy.  He is assigned that first token.  If the witness speaks in colloquy, I write WEUT/WEUT.

Counsel  SKWRAOT          Counsel  SEURBGS

Counsel  SKWRAOL          Counsel  TEURBGS

Counsel  SKWRAOP          Counsel  PEURBGS

Counsel  SKWRAOF          Counsel  HEURBGS

Questioner SKWRAO        Counsel  EURBGS

                                    Witness  WEUT/WEUT

(Reporter sits here)

If there is a person sitting at the far end of the table, opposite me, I usually hit the whole keyboard, which is also my designation for a judge.

Notice the pattern.  For the people on the left, your core bank will always be SKWRAO.  You will only need to add the F, P, L, or T, assigning them in order as they appear down the table.  The same applies to the people on the right.  Your core bank will always be EURBGS.  You will only need to add the H, P, T, or S, S being the person furthest away from you.  I hit my tokens twice because I am less apt to mistake it for a word.

There will be times when there will be more people than you have tokens for.  At that point you will have to become creative and assign other identifiers for people, such as what they’re wearing, or come up with other tokens using the upper banks, STPH and FPLT.  The scenario noted above, however, will be more than adequate for the majority of the time.   This system has worked very well for me over my career.  Try it and see if it works for you.

If you are practicing multi-voice dictation by means other than visual cues, it is definitely harder, in my opinion; however, this system can still work.  Just mentally assign each voice a token.  I think a left or right token is an easier option than writing a name, for instance.

Identifying speakers in multi-voice dictation certainly adds another layer of difficulty, especially when you are pushing for speed.  The key is to not overthink it too much and hit the token the second you hear a different voice.  There will be times when you hit the wrong token.  Be alert during the editing process to any comments or objections that seem out of place for that particular speaker.  Let context aid you in choosing who the correct speaker should be.  Obviously, the faster you can write, the more time you will have in your reservoir to be able to correctly stroke a Q, an A, and any colloquy that is interspersed throughout the dictation.

As much as you may be struggling with speaker identification now, there will come a time when you will be confident in your abilities to accurately identify everyone in a room.  You will actually welcome seeing many lawyers at a deposition because each lawyer represents a potential sale.  One reporter from this office got called out on a last-minute assignment and ended up selling 21 copies!  (Thankfully, not everyone spoke.)

So, as always, keep practicing.  “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” – Seneca

Tips for Passing the Q&A

I think it is safe to say that the Q&A leg is the nemesis of all court reporting students. Students learn early on that it is a long and grueling road trying to reach the 225 wpm goal required to pass the RPR.  I’ve mentioned in previous blogs how consistent and mindful practice will imbed the correct brain-to-finger connections essential to gaining speed and accuracy; but that aside, I thought I’d share with you three tips to help you on testing day that you may not have considered.

First of all, it may seem contrary to everything we are trained to do, but it may be a good idea to actually DROP during testing.  Sometimes you just can’t hold on.  If you cut your losses and immediately move on, you won’t dig yourself into a bigger hole trying to catch up, all the while writing unintelligible strokes.  The errors will add up quickly.  The “dropping” is easy; it’s the resumption that’s difficult to do, as it may be hard to get your rhythm back.  However, if you can stay calm and execute this strategy as the words are flying by, it may work in your favor.  Of course, if you do this throughout the Q&A take, you are not quite there yet and it’s time to regroup and practice some more.  This advice regarding dropping does not apply to your practice sessions, however.  Ultimately you will not gain speed if you don’t push yourself to the max when you practice.

My second thought would be to brief on the fly.  I still remember my first attempt at the CSR.  The street name “Furnace Brook Parkway” came up a few times.  This was long before briefs were even talked about – we wrote everything out back then – but if I’d had the benefit of this knowledge and had come up with a brief on the fly, I would have turned five strokes into one, sparing myself much anxiety and energy.  Briefing on the fly may not come easily to you, but try it during your practice sessions so you become accustomed to doing it.  If you can come up with a brief one or two times during a test, it might just be enough to get you a passing grade.

As an example, try the OIG brief.  I use this as a suffix on my right hand and use an initial sound or letter on my left hand.  So for “Furnace Brook Parkway,” a great brief would be FOIG.  The trick with any brief, though, is remembering what it stands for, which is especially challenging during a testing situation.  A word of caution:   Sometimes you will come up with a brief for “Norwegian Cruise Line” — NOIG, for instance — but the dictation may also include “Norwegian Cruise Lines” or “Norwegian Cruises.” Alternatively, you could just stick to NOIG for “Norwegian,” which would be a big timesaver in itself.

My last tip would be to transcribe your take even if you think you may not have passed.  You may have gotten more than you think you did!  For a 95% pass rate on the RPR exam, you are allowed 57 errors on the Q&A leg at 225 wpm.  It’s always useful to know what your score was, if you missed a passing grade by ten errors or 20.  Unless you think you absolutely blew it, it’s worth the effort and always good practice to transcribe.

Hopefully you will have enough time to carefully proofread your take.  Familiarize yourself with NCRA’s Grading Guidelines and what constitutes an error.  It is also important to pay attention to the content/story line when you are proofreading because doing so may provide clues that will aid you when transcribing.

It is not uncommon to be stuck at a certain speed for a long time and for months to go by before you pass another test.  Everyone hits a wall at some point and discouragement sets in.  You can’t break through, though, if you don’t keep trying.   “Never give up, for that is just the place and time that the tide will turn.”  –  Harriet Beecher Stowe

Tips for Passing the Jury Charge

Most reporters agree that the jury charge is the easiest of the legs to pass. The reason is because it is the one take that is made up of dozens of phrases that are common to that leg and are repeated throughout the dictation. So at the outset you are at somewhat of an advantage because you can already anticipate some of the language that you will hear. Furthermore, since jury charges are basically the same format-wise, that is, a judge reading instructions to the jury, the dictation is narrower in scope which I have always found to be less intimidating.

The key to passing a jury charge is to use one-stroke briefs for the common phrases found in jury charge dictation. There are several briefs out there for “preponderance of the evidence,” for example, but choose a brief that immediately makes sense to you, one that you can adopt and remember easily. If it conflicts too much with your theory or if it causes you to hesitate when the words are flying by, that will defeat the purpose of using it!

What is also tricky about jury charge briefs is, as always, the little words.  Take this sequence:

*beyond a reasonable doubt

*beyond all reasonable doubt

*beyond any reasonable doubt

*beyond every reasonable doubt

There is a one-stroke brief for each of these phrases, but you will have to commit each specific brief to memory to avoid being charged an error for writing the wrong one. You cannot afford to be tripped up during test time. They may be “little” words, but they carry the same weight as every other word on test day. Not to be overlooked is the big difference in meaning between the four phrases.

Of course the great benefit of jury charge briefs is that they can buy you valuable time. Just when you think you can’t hang on any longer, you will hear “beyond every reasonable doubt.” You can hit it in one stroke, and you’ll be back in the game. Briefs can give you breathing room, a chance to catch your breath if only for a valuable second. Briefs can really make the difference between a pass or fail.

Check out the links below. I found them after doing a Google search. Pick out the briefs that you like and practice them until you own them. If you don’t like a suggested brief on the list, don’t use it. Look for another one or create one of your own. A brief has to make sense to you for you to retain it. The third link contains common words and phrases relating to jury service which you may find helpful.

If you frequent Facebook, check out these sites:  STENO BRIEFS, The Brief Exchange, Steno Briefs for court reporters, and A BRIEF a day keeps the doctor away. Fellow court reporters are more than eager to share their briefs with you.

Additionally, your software can help you.  For example, Stenograph’s Case CATalyst has Brief It.  You write a phrase often enough, and Case CATalyst will suggest a brief for you.

NCRA’s website also has a section called “Jury Charge Dictation Materials” which you can use as practice material.  Here is the link:

Incorporating jury charge briefs in your practice regimen will be your ticket to a pass on your next test, but you will have to know them inside and out so you can write them correctly without thought or effort.

Tips for Passing Literary Tests

Between literary, jury charge, and Q&A dictation, the literary was always my favorite leg in school.  I loved the challenge of tackling dense material.  And since it was favored by me, I tended to do well on my literary tests.

I remember consciously making an effort to include literary practice from a book.  Sometimes taking a break from dictation on tape is a welcomed change.  I had a medical textbook put out by NCRA back then which included chapters on each system in the body:  skeletal, nervous, respiratory, digestive, muscular, cardiovascular, etc.  I would write from each chapter, concentrating on correct fingering, not on speed.  If I had trouble with a certain word or group of words, I would practice them until I could write them without error.  I would read my notes to see if there were any flaws or mistakes.  As time went on, I could write the chapter quite comfortably.  Because of this, when I was presented with nontechnical literary for testing purposes, it did not seem as difficult.

If you do not have such a book, there is plenty of material on line for you to use.  Just print up a few articles and write away.  Besides medical material, choose material in other subjects as well, such as chemical, engineering, or environmental.  The supply is endless!  If you can concentrate on one full article a month in a different subject area, think of all the new vocabulary words you will be able to add to your dictionary, not to mention the exposure you will have to the many disciplines you will most likely encounter in your court reporting career.

As an example, I found the article “Wiping Out Gut Bugs Stops Obesity” by Kerry Grens in the November 16, 2015, issue of The Scientist from a simple Google search and found this sentence:  “Inhibition of this signaling impairs antibiotic-induced subcutaneous-fat browning, and it suppresses the glucose phenotype of the microbiota-depleted mice.”  This is obviously a difficult passage.  If it is way beyond your abilities, look for material that is less dense and more manageable.  The main point is that there is great free practice material out there for whatever level you are at.

To get you started, email me at, and I will send you some medical chapters from the NCRA textbook, now sadly out of print, for you to practice.  They are not as difficult as the example above, but you will still find them challenging and very interesting.

Another hint:  You can also carry the articles with you so that if you have spare time – in a doctor’s waiting room, for example, or on the commuter train – you can practice the fingering without your machine.  Though not as effective, it is still a good way to forge new pathways between your brain and fingers, new pathways that will soon become part of your everyday writing arsenal.

Try including this method of practice in your routine and see if it brings you success.  In any event, it is far better to test your writing abilities during your quiet study sessions than when you come face to face with an expert witness some day.