Setting Goals for your Music – Why You Should be SMART [repost]

This is a re-post of an article I published last May. As it’s a New Year, I thought this might be a good time to share it again.


Goal settingNo matter what it is you’re learning, setting yourself a target is essential. You need to know where you’re going to know how to get there. It’s one of the main reasons why schools have a curriculum – there’s so much information in the world, so a curriculum gives teachers direction, and creates targets.

Most young learners come to learning music with the same expectation as in school. We learn things, and then we take exams to prove it. Young students are also used to teachers setting the pace and direction. Some will come in knowing they want a career in music, but many are happy with moving from one target (usually graded exams) to the next with no long-term goal in mind.

For adult learners, however, musical targets can be a huge problem! Private teachers often struggle with students whose targets that are far too ambitious “I want to go from nothing to Grade 8 in one year”, or who flounder when things get tough because they have no goals and “just want to play for fun”. Both of these extremes usually end up with the student giving up.

I first came across the concept of setting SMART goals on my gap year, where we were challenged to set ourselves personal goals for the year beyond completing the course. Although I didn’t manage to achieve all of mine, simply making the goals meant that I made more careful choices about how behaved and what I did with my free time.

While “SMART” goals are a bit 1980s Yuppie, they are effective, and I encourage my students to set goals annually that match more or less to these criteria:

S is for Specific – The “just play for fun” student quickly falls at the first hurdle. Playing for fun isn’t very specific. Exams are, of course, very specific. However, specific could be something like “I want to learn to sing “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Miserables” or “I’d like to reach a top Bb”. If you’re coming into music with a loose goal like “singing for fun”, try to define what you mean by fun right now. Is singing in a choir fun? Or is “fun” singing solos for an audience?

M is for Measurable – Goals also need to be something you can know you’ve achieved. There’s a chasm of difference between “I want to climb a couple of mountains” and “I want to climb Ben Nevis, Snowdon and Scafell Pike” [the highest mountains in Scotland, Wales and England respectively]. The first one is fairly specific, but it’s not as easy to measure.A signer might say “I want to improve my vocal range”, which is a specific goal, but “I want to have a solid Bb” is even clearer.

A is for Attainable – Attainable is where our “I want to get to Grade 8 in a year” goal fails. While it’s very specific and measurable, it’s not realistically attainable. Even in singing, where a student might very well start with Grade 5, a year is not going to be enough time to develop the skills required to pass at Grade 8. It’s a bit like saying “I want to run a marathon in one week’s time”. Even a professional athlete makes decisions about what races they’re going to run months or years in advance because they know it takes time to prepare. A goal like “I want to be on (or, worse, win) the X Factor” is also going to fall down on the attainability. You might be talented enough, and you might have allowed enough time, but it’s still statistically unlikely (and why would you want to be on a show like that anyway…?).

R is for Relevant – Relevance is not normally a problem for musical goal setting, but it is important to keep your goals connected to what you’re doing. If you’re studying singing, make sure your musical goal is related to singing, not playing the piano!

T is for Time-Bound – Ideally, time-bound should mean you give yourself a deadline. The “grade 8 in one year student” has given themselves a great deadline, even if it’s completely unrealistic! Sometimes, time-bound is “by Christmas” or “in two years’ time”. Time-bound can also be a little less specific. I have goals which have are “soon”, which translates to “somewhere in about the next three to six months, maybe”. I do have a sense of time, but it’s a bit vague. Depending on what sort of person you are, you may find fixed deadlines more or less helpful than vague ones. Usually more driven people are ok with vague deadlines, while naturally reticent people respond better to more concrete time restrictions!

If your goal meets all these criteria, it’s a great goal, and your teacher should be able to help you get there. Not every goal is achieved, of course. Some change before we get to the end. That’s absolutely fine. I once heard someone point out that “you can’t steer a ship that’s not moving” (Think about it. It’s absolutely true). Of course, if you never reach your goals before you change them, you might want to think about why that happens.

Goals are great. Everyone should have at least one. Why not have a think about what goals you could set for your music, and let me know in the comments below?

If you’re a teacher, keep an eye on the blog, as I hope to post later in the year about the resources I use to help my students set their own SMART goals. You can follow me on Twitterlike my page on Facebook or get posts delivered by RSS feed.

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