What would musical success look like for you this year?
I’m guessing that like the rest of us you have made some New Year’s resolutions, and that being a musician, some of those resolutions are about your musical growth. Whether it’s about doing more practice or learning a special piece or taking more frequent lessons, there is always a way we want to improve and grow musically.
But over the last few years, I have finally given up making resolutions, not because I don’t believe in setting goals, but because I find that the way in which we make resolutions leads more often to failure and disappointment than to success.
I am, however, a strong advocate of goal setting, although I have gained a new perspective on that as well. I am convinced that dream goals are important. Dream goals are those big pie-in-the-sky goals that make us smile when we think of them. But dream goals can also feel daunting just because they may seem too unrealistic.
For a musician, there are three steps to success, to making those musical goals a reality. They are more focused than dream goals and more sustainable than resolutions. All they require is a little thought and 15 minutes a day.
What is the next step in your climb toward your overall goal? If your goal is to play a recital program, then your stair step goal might be to choose an “anchor” piece and learn it. If your dream goal is to learn a particular piece to a “performance ready” stage, then your stair step might be to be able to play the whole piece beginning to end at a slow tempo. If your goal is to have more fun making music this year, then perhaps a stair step goal for you would be to find a group in your community to join and play with regularly or to schedule monthly musical evenings with friends.
Your stair step goal should be one that you feel confident of achieving within a couple of weeks. We aren’t looking at the top of the staircase, just at the next step in front of us. And once you have successfully made it to that step, you can easily identify and begin working toward the next one. This one step at a time approach will lead you to your goal more quickly and easily, with less frustration, precisely because you will get to that step quickly and because you know you can get there. While your eventual destination may seem far away each step will get you closer and before you know it your goal will be only one or two stair steps away.
Everyone knows that a stool needs at least three legs to support you securely, and your success and growth as a musician depends on your continued growth in three key areas: technique, repertoire and musicianship. In simple terms, your technique is how you make music, the physical requirements to play your instrument or sing. Technical work is never “finished;” it is a continual process of “staying in shape” and “getting to the next level.” Virtuoso musicians do regular dedicated technical work to ensure they are performing at their top level. And if your technique isn’t as reliable or as fluid as you would like it to be, then you will need to stretch yourself. The second leg of the stool is repertoire, the music you play or would like to play in the future.
Technique and repertoire is all most musicians practice, leaving their musical stool with only two legs. They neglect the third leg of the stool, musicianship, which is the craft of music. It encompasses music theory and history and understanding of musical terms, styles and idioms as well as specialized skills like sightreading and improvisation. As you develop your musicianship skills, you will find you learn music faster, retain it longer and understand it at a deeper level. Working on your musicianship doesn’t have to be complicated or difficult. Paying attention to key signatures, composers and the musical terms in your music is a good start, and a little extra work on reading rhythms and practicing sightreading will help too. And if you know you need extra work on any or all of these three legs, be sure to seek out resources to help you: lessons, workshops, books, courses, etc. You don’t have to do this alone.
The two steps above are only as good as this third crucial step. You have to take action. Goals give you a reason to act and a direction. The three legs of your musical stool will support you on your journey, but your success in achieving your goals is dependent on your taking action. I must caution you, though, to resist the temptation to be too ambitious. Don’t resolve to do two hours of practice a day, especially if your schedule or stamina won’t easily accommodate it. Even if you are a faithful “everyday” practicer, setting an action goal that is too big can lead to disappointment if you fall off the wagon.
What I suggest is this: consider your stair step goal and identify what you can do in 15 minutes that will help keep you making progress toward that step. Then make that 15 minutes a promise to yourself that no excuses you will do that 15 minutes every day, or five days a week if you like to take weekends off. Set a time that you know you will have available and do those 15 minutes. In my Practice for the Finish Course, we call this your “Promise Practice.” If you have more practice time on a given day, that’s a bonus, but even if your day completely falls apart, you will have done the 15 minutes that will keep you on track. That’s how you achieve your goals, not with a huge, herculean effort but with steady, focused work.
Are you ready to achieve your goals this year? If you are, I would like to help by offering you a free, one-page “Success Steps” chart where you can keep track of all three of these steps. You can fill it out and put it on your music stand so you have a constant reminder of what you want to achieve and how you are going to achieve it. You can request the Success Steps Chart here. I know one musician who gives himself a gold star for each day he does his Promise Practice.
Wouldn’t you love to fill your page with gold stars too?