Updated: Jan 7, 2020
One of the problems we have as musicians is a plateau in development and drive. It’s happened to almost everybody I know in one way or another, and it’s one of the most frustrating issues to deal with. Over the years I’ve found that the most common reason for a plateau is a lack of clearly defined goals.
Let me make a very clear distinction, practice goals are not the same as dreams. Dreaming big is, of course, an incredibly important part of the journey, but your goals should be more immediately achievable than dreams. Dreaming of playing concerts in every country in the world is different than having a goal of playing at Wigmore Hall. Playing at Wigmore Hall might be a big goal, but there are actionable steps you could take to try and make it happen. Which takes me to my next point.
Over the years I’ve learned that the most efficient (there’s a buzz word from a previous post) way to utilize goals is to break them down into three categories: Short-term, medium-term, and long-term. The actionable steps mentioned above are how you tie your short-term and medium-term goals together to achieve your long-term goals. That is an efficient use of goal-oriented practice.
These are goals that you can set and achieve in a single practice session, day, or week. For example, “I want to increase the tempo of mm. 30-50 by 10 BPM by the end of this session.” Or “I want to have my left-hand fingerings and bowings written in for this entire sonata by the end of the week.” Those are all goals that you can set to keep your attention to a max for a very specific period of time.
These are goals that you set and achieve in the next few weeks or months. I find these the hardest to identify and execute because they can be somewhat vague unless you have a clear idea of your near future. For me, it looks something like “In the next three weeks I want to contact 40 concert presenters/teachers/venues about booking recitals for the next season.” Or, “I want to give my first public performance of this piece in 2 months.” Those are both goals that can’t really be achieved in a short amount of time (I supposed one spend an entire day writing 40 presenters in one sitting but come one, who REALLY wants to do that?) but with enough focus and a clear plan it’ll eventually get done.
These are the really fun ones, the goals for months or years down the road. As a young student, my first long term goals were to play in Europe, play in Ghana, record a CD, and get a doctorate in music. As a bit of a side note, to remind myself of playing in Europe I printed a picture of the Eiffel Tower and secured it to the inside of my guitar case. Every time I opened the case, I saw that picture and gained a bit of inspiration to work my butt off that day. As of this writing I’ve played in Ghana and Europe several times (I actually have my first concert in Paris scheduled for under a year from now, looks like that picture paid off), I recorded my first album as a senior in college, and now I’m less than a year away from being Dr. Taylor. Now, there were a multitude of different factors that have led to these ‘successes,’ including a TON of failures by the way (new post topic maybe?), but one of the things that really helped along the way was having clear and achievable goals.
Edit (1/7/2020)* A good long-term goal should always have a risk factor. If a long-term goal doesn't risk failure in a significant way, then you won't find the motivation to achieve it. As of this edit I've held a doctorate for about a month, this goal of mine had a very high risk factor. I contemplated dropping out of the degree at several points due to various personal and professional issues, but, like any good long-term goal, the only person who had any say in my success or failure as a doctoral candidate was me. That, among many other things, provided the motivation necessary to continue through to the end. So, as you design your goal oriented practice strategies, what long-term goals do you have that are personal to you but also risk failing if you don't commit to it 100%?
At some point in my student’s time with me I have them sit down and record these three categories of goals and without fail, there is a dramatic increase in practice time, efficiency, and drive in each student. While just getting goals on paper is a great start, you’ll eventually want to see each step as a milestone to hitting that long-term goal. Here’s a practical example. My daily efforts in improving specific aspects of my pieces (short-term) led to a string of successful concerts over the years (medium-term) which led to me being invited to perform in Carnegie Hall for the Aaron Shearer Foundation (long-term). Was playing at Carnegie with the Shearer Foundation a specific goal of mine? Not necessarily, but a long-term goal was to have certain high-profile performances as a milestone and this is one of them.
It’s not magic, it’s a lot of hard work. But if you can set these goals for yourself and stick with it you’ll see a significant amount of improvement in your playing, drive, and dedication to the art.
Thanks for reading, let me know your thoughts when you get a chance.