Practice 201: Setting Goals – The How and Why

In my post on the importance of the Practice Journal, I spoke about the need for setting goals for each practice session before actually beginning the practice session. This is because the first step in learning any skill-based art, craft, sport or language is knowing how to be an effective goal setter. Goals frame the road map to success. Goals tell you where you are going, how to get there, and what stops you're going to make along the journey.


One important note about goals: All goals should be specific. Non-specific goals such as “to get better” or “have fun at” do not have objective-enough criteria to judge success. Non-specific goals can also be more difficult to achieve, because there is often no clear path to achieving them.


Step 1: Set Long-Term Goals


When you first decided to do your endeavor that requires practicing, you had in mind the end result. You pictured yourself singing in front of a crowd, playing sports on a team, or taking a trip to another country and showing off your newly-honed language skills. These are types of long-term goals. Most long-term goals should take between six months and a year to accomplish. Some may take longer.


A long-term goal is, naturally, something that is going to take a long time to accomplish. If you have that mindset going into it, you will be mentally better prepared for all the small steps it takes to get there. The long-term goal is the current destination, or end point, you have in mind on your road map to success. Set this goal (or multiple long term goals) as an end to a particular chapter in your journey (not the end of the entire story – we are ever learning). Do not make this goal impossible; however, make this goal challenging.


For example:


Beginning musicians: (1) Be able and confident to play in a recital by the end of the semester or (2) Be able to quickly recognize note names and types and clap/play rhythms of medium complexity.


Intermediate musicians: (1) Audition and join a community group/band or (2) Learn a particularly difficult song.


Advanced musicians: (1) Give an entire recital, (2) Be well-prepared for auditions for performance opportunities/scholarships, (3) Increase repertoire for upcoming season.


Step 2: Set Medium-Term (Intermediate) Goals


After your long-term goal is set, the next step is to set some medium-length, intermediate goals. Think of these intermediate goals as landmarks on your road map to success. If your long-term goal is the destination, the medium-term goals are the places of interest along the way. These types of intermediate goals give you something smaller, yet still challenging to shoot for. They are checkpoints to make sure you are still headed in the right direction to meet your long-term goal. Intermediate goals should be accomplishable within six weeks, but no sooner than three.


When you set your intermediate goals, make sure they are specifically part of the solution for reaching your long-term goal. If you have intermediate goals that do not coincide with the objective of your long-term goal, it will make reaching your long-term goal even longer! A good way to make sure this happens is to make a list of what you need to be able to do to accomplish your long-term goal. Most of those things will be good starting places for intermediate goals.


Here are some good medium-term goals using a long-term goal above:


Beginning Musician:

Long-Term Goal: Be able to quickly recognize note names and types and clap/play rhythms of medium complexity.

Intermediate Goals: (1) Be able to recognize note names in the bass clef within three seconds. (2) Be able to clap rhythms using quarter, half, eighth and dotted quarter notes and rests at a slow pace. (3) Be able to recognize note names in the treble clef within three seconds.


Step 3: Short-Term Goals


The last step in the goal-setting process is making short-term goals. You will have far more short-term goals than any others. On your road map to success, if the Long-Term Goal is the destination and the Medium-Term Goals are the landmarks, then the Short-Term Goals are the actual roads you travel on to get to those places. These goals should be able to be accomplished in a week or less.


Short-term goals are fantastic ways to plan a week of practicing. Your instructor most likely gives you an assignment for the week during a lesson or class. Use short-term goals to form a plan to tackle that assignment. Think of that assignment as a mini-intermediate goal that you are going to break into smaller segments and master. If you record your lesson or took notes, you already have many exercises from the lesson to use in your practice sessions. Setting goals to practice those specific exercises and for what you are using them is vital to your growth as a musician. These short-term goals are the ones you place in your daily Practice Journal. Place Long-Term and Medium-Term goals at the beginning of the journal.


Using the above examples, here are applicable short-term goals to use for practice:


Beginning Musician:

Long-Term Goal: Be able to quickly recognize note names and types and clap/play rhythms of medium complexity.

Intermediate Goals: (1) Be able to recognize note names in the bass clef within three seconds. (2) Be able to clap rhythms using quarter, half, eighth and dotted quarter notes and rests at a slow pace. (3) Be able to recognize note names in the treble clef within three seconds.

Short-Term Goals: (1) Practice bass clef note-reading flash cards. (2) Practice treble clef note-reading flash cards. (3) Practice musical math worksheets. (4) Slowly practice dotted quarter note and eighth note rhythms with a metronome. (5) Do timed note-reading worksheets. (5) Count-sing the rhythms of the piece I am working on.


As you can see, this method is very straight-forward and simple to use. It takes a little bit of extra effort, patience and thought. The rewards for that extra work far outweigh the little bit of extra time it takes to complete. Making goals also takes practice. The more you do it, the better you will get at knowing what goals are too difficult to achieve and which ones are too easy. If you need help setting goals, your teacher will be able to help you.


Using good goal-setting practices in combination with the Practice Journal will have you making excellent progress in no time.  You will have more efficient and effective practice.   Every goal you accomplish is like your own personal trophy.   When you accomplish a goal, you know you have put in the hard work to earn the satisfaction that comes from success.  You have the tools to be the best you can be. All you need to do is use them.



Practice makes permanent, so no excuses, only excellence.