The Importance Of Musical Goal Setting

Oct 04, 2022
Christopher Maloney, music educator and founder of Practice Warriors offers a visualization exercise for musicians to understand the importance of goal setting.

Let’s start out this article with a simple question: How do you know you're making progress, if you don't even know where you're going? 

Think about this for a moment. Let’s say you’re going to take a car trip.  You get all your supplies, fill up the car with gas, pack a bag, get in your car, start the engine and begin your journey.  You start driving and driving until someone asks you “hey, where are we going anyway?” To which you reply, “I don’t know.”

You would never do all the preparing for a trip without knowing where you were going, would you? I mean, how would you even pack for the trip?  If you didn’t know you were going someplace cold, how would you know to pack a coat?  If you were taking a trip to the ocean, how would you know to take a bathing suit? 

I mean, you would never do this, right?  

So why do you do this with practicing music?

What do most people do when practicing music? They practice their scales, their arpeggios, their rudiments, their technique, their reading, their repertoire. In a sense, they are preparing for their trip; their musical journey. They also practice what they are told, without truly knowing why they are learning it or where those skills will take them.

But wouldn’t knowing where you were going on your journey help you with your preparation? Help you with knowing what you should focus on? Knowing what was important and what wasn’t? Knowing what you should be spending your precious time on?

Just like setting a destination for a trip is so important, so is setting a destination for your musical self.  In other words, you need to set musical goals!!

The Importance Of Goal Setting

I'm not going to spend much time explaining the benefits of goal setting in general, because it should be pretty common knowledge.  However, when it comes to studying music, I find that not many people use this very important barometer for tracking progress.  People just say “I want to get better”.  That's great, of course, but how will you know when you've arrived at “better”.  And once you get to “better”, won't there be another “better” ahead of you?  

So judging your progress can be challenging for people who want to be better musicians.  I think goal setting can really help people relax into their process, track their progress, and give little benchmarks of achievement.  

What's Your Dream?  

It's really important, and quite fun, to think about your ultimate final goal/destination as a musician.  What is it?  Have you even thought about it?  Is your ultimate goal to play Carniege Hall?  Is it to rock the local Open Mic nights?  Form a band with your friends?  Tour the world?  Make an album?  Play your favorite songs by yourself?  What is the be all-end all for you when it comes to playing music?  

The examples I listed are quite varied.  Tour the your favorite songs alone.  There's no right or wrong answer, and no goal is less-than anything else.  It's what YOU ultimately want to achieve as a musician.  Maybe it's a few things.  I think it's a really good idea to figure out what your final destination is.  Your goals and desires certainly could change as you progress on your journey.  But, if you don't have an idea of where you're going, you'll never really know if you're truly making progress.  

Look, the sky's the limit here.  When you close your eyes and picture yourself as your fully-formed musical entity, what do you see?  What are you doing?  Who's with you?  How do you sound?  What kind of music are you playing?  What skills are you demonstrating? Visualization can be VERY useful to help you figure out the ultimate goals for your playing and, therefore will let you know what specifically to work on along the way. 

In fact, try this right now.  Yes…NOW! Close your eyes and visualize your fully-formed musical self.  Be as specific as possible, and really see yourself. When you’ve got this vision in your head, write down everything you see, hear and feel.  Go!

That's Nice, But...  

Yes, now you can see the “new you”.  You can see the mountain top.  You can see your ultimate goal.  There you are.  But, you can't just teleport yourself or drink some magic potion to become your ultimate musical self.  You've got to take specific steps to get you on your way to being a great player.  

At this point, it's all about the SMALL steps you take to get you where you want to go.  Major goals and accomplishments are always achieved by small tasks.  Climbing a mountain begins with the first steps. Therefore setting small and immediate goals are vital for your overall success.  You want to create regular weekly goals that are more simple, more realistic, more achievable and, therefore, more useful in the long run.

Want to be a great soloist?  It starts with learning your scales, arpeggios or rudiments.  Want to play fast?  Great! It starts with playing correctly at a slow speed?  You want to work backwards from your Big Goals and set very simple and specific goals to get you moving in the right direction. 

The cool thing about goals is that they can be modified.  Sometimes you set a goal that's really easy to accomplish, and you reach it in shorter amount of time than you thought.  Sometimes, you don't realize how challenging something can be, and you underestimate how much time you actually need to accomplish that goal.  That's fine, and it's all actually part of the process.  Modify and adapt, baby. So, know that any specific goals you set for yourself and the time frame for achieving those goals can fluctuate while you are working towards them. 

And, by the way, you should always give yourself a little reward when you accomplish one of your goals.  Positive Reinforcement.  You'll be putting forth a lot of effort to finish some of your objectives, so give yourself a little treat when you do so.  It can't ALL be work, can it?

 Time for you to do some more work.  You’ve already visualized yourself being your new musical you, yes?  Good.  Now, take a moment to write down the things YOU think you should practice to eventually bring you to those goals.  What specific steps, skills and exercises do you think you'll need to accomplish these goals?  

Now, some of you may go “How the heck should I know?”  And I get that.  This is why it’s so important to have a private instructor to help guide you on your journey.  It’s also good to be a member of a group or website that’ll give you resources and videos to help you set your practicing goals (like our own Practice Warriors site, which you can try for FREE for 14 Days…shameless plug alert!!). 

Look, there are certain musical skills that everyone needs to have regardless of your goals.  You have to have strong technique so you can play your instrument well and with a good tone. You need to have excellent time. Having said that, there are certain things that may need more attention based on your goals.  

For example, if you want to start your own rock band where you compose your own songs, then you should focus more on music theory and learning song structure rather than reading music notation. If you want to play classical music, your time would be better served learning that specific repertoire rather than studying afro-cuban rhythms. Wanna learn the blues? Maybe focus more on the blues scale rather than the dominant-diminished scale. Wanna play in your local chamber group? You’d better focus more on your reading chops than your improvisation chops.   

I know this may be more challenging, but now it's your turn.  Think back to your ultimate musical you.  You got it?  Now come up with some shorter term goals or things to work on that will give you the first steps towards that big goal.  You can always later run these by your instructor (or by us here at the Practice Warrior site).  

Remember, you won’t know if you’re making progress if you don’t even know where you are going. Figure out your ultimate musical goals (think big!!) and then work backwards to see what shorter goals will help you get to your destination.  

Good luck.  Enjoy the journey.  You got this!

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