Tag Archives: goals & targets

Why You Need HARD Goals

I’ve written before about SMART goals, but last year, I came across the idea of HARD goals, and it was a bit of a revelation.

What are HARD goals?

HARD goals are big goals. They’re not manageable, or realistic; instead, they’re:

  • Heartfelt – something that you really want to achieve. It’s a goal which you feel strongly about in a way that motivates you.
  • Animated – something that you can imagine achieving. You can really see the day that you’re going to get there.
  • Required – something you feel you have to do. It’s something you need to rather than have to do.
  • Difficult – something that’s beyond your abilities right now, but you are going to go for it anyway.

Think about the great songs from the musicals – none of the big dream songs are realistic, or time-bound. They’re not measurable or specific. They’re big, expansive, imaginary dreams that drive our protagonists forward. Think about Elphaba at the start of Wicked. In the song, The Wizard and I, she describes her heartfelt desire to meet the Wizard. It’s fully of animation with her imaginary conversation. It’s clearly something she feels is required for her future happiness, and it’s definitely difficult! This HARD goal is what drives her through the whole first half of the show (and if you want to know what happens in the second half, you should definitely try to see it!).

HARD goals are what we really find motivating. Why else would humans have climbed Everest, circumnavigated the globe or travelled into space?

Setting HARD Goals

Let’s face it, you probably have a HARD goal or two already. Perhaps it’s a life-sized HARD goal, like wanting to become a professional singer. Or maybe something a little smaller, but no less challenging, like singing in public. One of my HARD goals is to learn to accompany my students on the piano (I’m a first study singer, and only started piano lessons a few years ago).

The first part of setting a HARD goal is to work out what HARD goals you already have. What do you dream of? It might feel stupid, or impossible. It might seem ridiculous. That’s ok. Remember this is supposed to be a difficult goal.

If you don’t already have a HARD goal that comes to mind, try thinking about what you’d like your life to be like in five, ten or twenty years. Where does music fit in? What place does it have? Is it your career? A valued hobby? A way you are volunteering your skills? What kind of music can you play? What qualifications do you have? Are you in a choir? It should provide some inspiration!

Using Your HARD Goals

HARD goals are all about inspiration. They’re the things that drive us forward. Why not write them down? Keep them in your music notebook or on the wall in your room. Keep them in your mind so that when you are struggling to practice, or wondering why you bother, you can remember the goals that make you feel alive.

Our HARD goals can help us to make SMART goals too, and this is what I’m going to talk about next time.

5 New Years Resolutions Singers Should Make

January is that time when we all look at our post-Christmas selves and consider the improvements we could make to our lives. Us musicians are no different. We’re all making resolutions to practice for two hours a day and watch more operas. If you’re one of us, here are five resolutions you should make that you might even have a chance of keeping!

1. I will sing every day

There is nothing more important than singing every single day. Sing in the shower. Sing in the kitchen. Find a secluded section of your walk to work and sing there. Your voice is powered by muscles and muscles need exercise to strengthen them. When you sing, make sure you are singing properly. Think about how you’re breathing. Make sure you’re sending the sound out of your mouth not your nose. Watch for a good clean start to each phrase (“glottal attack”). It doesn’t matter if it’s opera or pop you’re singing – all singing is singing and you can’t go wrong if you’re focusing on technique as you do it.

2. I will join a choir that uses sheet music

Joining a choir is another easy, and vital thing for singing students to take up. Singing in a choir teaches loads of aural skills (like part singing), and technical skills (like blending). It’s really good for combatting singer’s ego as you’re part of a team in a choir and you have to work together to make a good unified sound. If you pick a choir that uses sheet music, you’ll also be improving your sight-reading and music theory skills without having to work at it! Plus, being in a choir is a great way to meet other musical people and make new friends.

3. I will take care of my body

Considering loosing some weight, taking up exercise, giving up smoking or cutting down on your drinking? These are great resolutions for singers. Being overweight can be a serious problem for singers as it puts extra stress on your lungs and respiratory system. Exercise improves lung function, mood and cognitive performance. Smoking is also bad for singers because of the impact on lung function and mouth health. Alcohol causes dehydration, and can result in bad vocal decision making like excessive shouting!

Even if these aren’t resolutions you need to make, resolving to take better care of yourself by eating better, exercising regularly and sleeping sensibly will help keep your instrument in tip top condition ready for exams and performances throughout the year.

Music with CDs and headphones4. I will listen to more music, and more kinds of music

Listening to music is vital for all musicians, and if you don’t do it much, why not resolve to do it more? If you already listen to music, add in another genre or two. BBC Radio 3 might seem snooty and scary, but you’ll hear music there you’d never hear anywhere else. If that’s too big a leap, why not put Classic FM on as you wind down at night? If you already listen to classical music, venture out into BBC Six Music, home of some of the cutting edge of contemporary music. For musical lovers, there’s also Elaine Paige on Radio 2 on Sundays form 1-3pm. Whatever you do, listen often and listen widely.

5. I will focus efforts on learning my words, not just the notes

I don’t know any singer who doesn’t find learning words a chore, and so we’re all bad for leaving it to the last minute. If you’re one of us, why not resolve to learn the words first this year? Make the effort to write out the words over and over by hand. Listen to a recording while reading them to yourself. Record yourself reading the words aloud. Make words a priority this year. It’s our privilege as singers to use words and music together to express stories and emotions, so let’s give both parts equal respect!

What are your New Years Resolutions this year? Do you have any other ideas for good resolutions for singers? Leave a comment below!

 

 

5 New Year Resolutions for Singers
sing every day
join a choir
take care of my body
listen to more music
focus on memorising words

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.

Planning Your Practice – Some Ideas

Practicing is the most challenging part of every musician’s life. Whether we’ve been playing six months or sixty years, we all face days when we just don’t want to sit down and work, or if we do, we don’t want to do what we should be doing. We face many competing demands on our lives too, so even when we want to practice, it’s important to make the best use of the time. As the mantra goes – quality is more important than quantity when it comes to practice.

So if you’re trying to get the most out of your practice time, it can really help to make a plan for what you’re going to do. Here are some of the ideas I’ve seen and tried for planning practice.

Have a routine for when you practice

Clock borderThis is pretty obvious, but if you put practice time into your schedule, you’re more likely to do it. I find after work is a good time – I go right to the piano before I turn on the TV. Other people find first thing in the morning works, or after dinner. Stick to the same slot every day, or at least the same routine of slots every week.

Advantage: You’re much less likely to put off practicing when it’s planned as part of your day.
Disadvantage: Another disruption to your routine can mean practice gets skipped out on.

Have a routine for what you do in your practice session

One of the things which can work wonders is to always go through the same routine when you practice. For singers, this should be a warm-up, vocalised exercises, and then full songs. I usually do my classical repertoire first, and then musical theatre work.  For instrumentalists, it might be that you play your scales first, or that you look at a piece and then play a scale before moving to the next one.

Routine is especially important if you need to practice skills like scales – whether you use a tick chart, a box with slips of paper in or an online random number generator, making some kind of rule about how you practice scales is the only way to make sure you cover all of the relevant materials. This might include studies or vocalised exercises for singers too.

Advantage: You know exactly where to start, so no lost time at the beginning.
Disadvantage: Can get dull and repetitive.

Circle the Date

Plan your practice for the week after your lesson

If you’re quite an organised person, it might work best for you to sit down after your lesson, look at what you need to do for next week and divide it up over the days you have available to practice. For example, you might look at Study A on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and Study B on Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. Perhaps you’ll focus on the A section from Wednesday to Saturday, and the B section from Sunday to Tuesday. Or maybe it’s Bb major on Monday, Eb major on Tuesday, Ab major on Wednesday and so on.

Try these two free printables for planning your practice over a week:

  • Horizontal Weekly Planner with goals – [purchase_link id=”1313″ style=”button” color=”inherit” text=”Purchase”]
  • Horizontal Weekly Planner without goals – [purchase_link id=”1312″ style=”button” color=”inherit” text=”Purchase”]

 

Advantage: Know you can get through everything you’ve been set and nothing will be forgotten.
Disadvantage: It might take more or less time to do things than you’ve allowed for.

Establish some goals for next lesson

Goal settingIf your teacher hasn’t set you a goal for next week, and you’re not keen on planning your week entirely, why not write three goals to achieve by the next lesson, and put them on your music stand? Then you know exactly what you need to work on when you come to practice.

Advantage: Keeps you focussed on what you’re doing.
Disadvantage: Your goals might not be what your teacher expects them to be!

Make a list of objective tasks to check off this week

Chances are your notes from your teacher are a bit random, vague and possibly even scruffy. When you get home, why not turn your teacher’s notes into a neat list. You could even try my free printable ([purchase_link id=”1314″ style=”button” color=”inherit” text=”Purchase”]) which gives you space to plan three tasks for each piece, and then a second side to note down which ones you’ve achieved.

Advantage: Having a list gives you small tasks, and a sense of achievement for doing them.
Disadvantage: It’s not always easy to create small, objective tasks for instructions like “play with more character”.

Write down some goals/tasks at the start of your practice session

Zemanta Related Posts Thumbnail

Keep a notebook by your music stand and use it to write down three things to accomplish each day before you start practicing to help you focus. You could also do this at the end of each session – writing three goals for tomorrow.

Advantage: Flexible to take account of what you achieve each day in your practice.
Disadvantage: Doesn’t necessarily take into account any set homework for the week, and uses up a few minutes of practice time each day.

Keep a record of what you’ve done and when

There’s nothing like record keeping to help you realise what’s really going on with your practice. Keeping a practice journal can be really helpful, as it allows you to make notes on what was hard today, or any questions you might have for your teacher. It’s also helpful to keep a note of the times you’re practicing from time to time, and note how effective your practice is. You can grab my practice audit printable here, and try it yourself: [purchase_link id=”1302″ style=”button” color=”inherit” text=”Purchase”]

Advantage: Gives you a really good picture of what you’re doing
Disadvantage: Doesn’t directly improve the quality of your practice at all!

So, those are my tips for planning your practice. Do you have any planning methods that work for you? If you’ve tried any of these, how did they work for you?

What do I do if I’ve failed?

F gradeI was having a look through the search terms that led people to look at this blog, and I noticed that a couple of them were things like “failed sight reading on singing exam”, “abrsm grade 6 theory fail” and “abrsm grade 8 fail”, so I thought perhaps it was time to address the horrible question of what to do if you fail a music exam, or a section of the exam.

The first thing to say is don’t panic. I know it’s hard when you first see the mark sheet and it doesn’t hit that magic pass mark. Failing an exam doesn’t mean you aren’t good at playing your instrument, or that you don’t understand the theory. It doesn’t mean that you can’t achieve your goals. All exams are there to do is mark points on our journey and give us feedback about where to improve.

Remember, it’s also ok to be sad, frustrated, angry and disappointed. Do what you need to do to process the feelings. If you need to have a cry, that’s ok! Or get someone you love to give you a hug. Make a cuppa and treat yourself to your favourite chocolate bar. Don’t try to figure out your next move until you feel ready.

Once you are ready, the first thing to do is reflect on what you did well:

  • Where did you get good marks? Did you pass your pieces, or do well in your sight-reading?
  • What kinds of positive comments did the examiner make? Even on a marksheet that records a fail mark, examiners still try to say what you did do well.

If you need to, write these out separately and read them to remind you that you did do some things well.

The next stage is to look for the things you didn’t do so well:

  • What sections or questions did you do worst on?
  • What sort of comments are there on the marksheet? Does it say something like “pitch was insecure” or “forgot the words repeatedly”? This will give you an idea of what needs to be better next time.
  • Do you agree with the examiner’s comments/marks? Do you remember making the mistakes?
  • In a theory exam result, do you remember finding the question hard to answer?

You might find it helpful to make a separate list of the things you need to work on for next time.

The last thing to do is to answer the question of “what do I do now?”. Here are some of my suggestions

  • Talk to your teacher to make a plan to tackle technical problems like pitch, rhythm or memorising.
  • Make a plan to focus especially on developing aural and musicianship skills if you failed the aural tests.
  • For sight-reading, challenge yourself to sight-read as much material as you can. Sight-reading is often a fail point in exams because it takes a lot of time and effort to build up the skills to do well.
  • Join a choir that uses sheet music – this will help your aural, sight-reading and performance skills
  • Get some performing experience – are there local competitions or concerts you could participate in?
  • Do something totally different for a while. Switch genres, try learning some duets, work on a bucket-list piece.
  • Think about how you’d teach the things you do know to someone else
  • Move away from formal theory and try doing some more creative things like composing or arranging

Finally, it’s important to remember that unless  you were taking a theory exam at Grade 5 or a practical exam at Grade 8, you don’t have to retake the exam if you don’t want to. If your teacher is happy, you could skip the failed exam and just move on with a view to taking the next one when you’re ready. You could also consider taking the same level exam again, but with a different board. If you stick with the same board, consider learning a new set of pieces.

If you do decided to retake the exam, you can find links to a range of different posts about taking music exams on my Advice from the Blog page and by checking the “exams” tag.

Whatever you do, don’t let a fail stop you from enjoying music. Exams are just a means to an end, not an end in themselves, and sometimes a fail is just what we need to remember that we are not exam taking robots – we’re musicians.

“But I’m Not Musically Talented!”

Zemanta Related Posts ThumbnailThis is the cry of many people I encounter, and on the surface it might very well seem true. Perhaps other people seem to be able to hear music better, or pick up how to play an instrument faster. Surely they must be more “musically talented” than others?

Well, actually, that’s not really true. There is no real objective thing called “musical talent”. There’s not a whole lot of research into it, but this post collates a whole lot of the evidence so far to point out some key things (these are quotes from the linked article):

  • Primitive musicality is, without question, built into our DNA
  • Beyond primitive ability, even basic musical development requires some modicum of encouragement and teaching
  • Advanced musicianship requires methodical training and “deliberate practice”
  • Musical training physically alters the brain. Accomplished musicians have key differences in their brains — not from birth but as a direct result of training

Ok, so if what scientific research there is struggles to identify any objective thing we could call musical talent, why do some people find musical skills easier than others? We could ask that about any skill, but here are some reasons that apply particularly to music.

1. People who seem to be “musically talented” developed key skills very young.

When we’re very young we have amazing aural and linguistic capacity. Human babies are born with the ability to form the sounds needed for any language – we can pitch our tone of voice or make strange clicks. As we develop language skills, we lose the ability to make the sounds we don’t need. A child from an African culture which speaks in a click language will keep the ability to make five or six different clicks with their mouth, while we native English speakers only really use one sound. A child who grows up speaking Thai will learn to control the pitch of their voice as they speak to communicate the different words with the same sounds, while native English speakers learn to use pitch to communicate emotion. Many of these skills are also useful for music, so it’s quite likely that children who are exposed to environments that use these skills retain them better and then find learning music much easier.

Even without considering the retention of skills from birth, the younger someone starts learning, the more quickly they learn and the longer they are likely to retain the information and abilities. Ever wondered why Mozart was so amazing? He was sat down at a piano as soon as he could sit up, and taught to play at a younger age than most children in the Western world even go to nursery school. He was also not sent to school, but educated at home, which meant he could dedicate more hours to practice than anyone else. This brings us neatly to point two.

2. People who seem to be “musically talented” dedicate more time to music, and that time is quality time.

ClockYou want to know why that fifteen-year-old from China can play the piano better than you can? He’s probably spent three or more hours practicing for every one you have. Music is a bit of a numbers game. The “ten thousand hours” statistic is dubious in its accuracy, but it certainly reinforces the rule that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. You wouldn’t expect to run a marathon in four to five hours if all you’re doing is taking a leisurely jog around the park for twenty minutes a couple of times a week, but people often think musicians can pick up an instrument and play brilliantly while putting in similar effort. Talented musicians simply put in the hours needed to be masters.

Talented musicians also know how to use their time effectively. If your music practice involves you flipping through a few books and idly playing anything you fancy, then you’re going to progress more slowly than someone who focuses in on one thing at a time, and works on the difficult bits rather than avoiding them. Music practice can be quite boring! I once heard someone say that “if your family aren’t sick of you playing that bar again then you’ve not played it enough”. For help and advice on developing quality practice habits, click here.

3. People who seem to be “musically talented” may have other abilities or disabilities which affect their musicality.

Music isn’t actually a thing in itself that one can be talented at. It’s actually more of a combination of different abilities. Musicians require aural skills – the ability to hear and understand music clearly, but they also require physical skills and intellectual abilities. People who appear to be talented musicians may have great ears that can hear intervals precisely, and predict what makes sense. Or, someone who makes rapid progress might have particularly flexible hands, good fine motor control, or great co-ordination.  Other people might bring their intellectual abilities – an ability to understand what the music is about.

There will be some people who find music difficult because they have disabilities. Dyslexia, for example, can affect music reading. Other people have physical problems – anything from paralysis or amputated hands, to severe allergies or a lactose intolerance – that might affect their ability to play or sing. None of these things make it impossible to learn to play as many disabled musicians demonstrate. Musicians can learn to play the piano with only one hand, or learn to read braille music because they are blind, or rely on vibration to play because they’re deaf. It really puts the complaints of those of us who are able-bodied into perspective doesn’t it?

4. People who seem to be “musically talented” are in love with music.

I-love-musicBeing a musician is a lot like being married (or in a long-term relationship). Some days you are the happiest person in the world, and feel the glow of love. Other days, you wonder why you ever picked this life and seriously consider giving it all up. Ultimately, though, you know once upon a time you said “yes”. You fell in love, and you decided that love was worth fighting for.

So here’s the truth of the matter: ‘Musical Talent’ isn’t real. To become that person with musical talent, you just have to suck it up and put in the hours of quality time. It’s that simple. Not everyone will want to do it, and not everyone will be willing to overcome the physical and mental challenges you will face along the way. But if you want to, it is possible. Even for you.

(And if you do want to start the journey – check out my posts on choosing a teacher to help you on your way)

The Mythical Grade 8

ABRSM Exam Certificates

Grade 8 is the highest available graded instrumental exam. For parents and students alike, it can seem like a glowing light in the distance – a magical target that once achieved will bestow the mythical status of ‘musician’ on anyone who can reach it.

Here are 8 myths about reaching Grade 8:

Myth #1 – Grade 8 means I’m good enough to be a professional

Nothing in music qualifies or says you’re good enough to be a professional. The people who decide if you’re good enough to be a professional are the people who pay you! Grade 8 is definitely a good target if you want to have a career in music. It should set you up with a solid technical foundation, and give you extra skills like sight-reading and aural awareness. By the time you reach Grade 8, you’ll also probably have a good idea of whether you want to make a living from music. However, Grade 8 alone isn’t going to get you paid work – you need more skills than what is included in Grade 8. Diplomas, higher education study and participation in plenty of amateur performing opportunities are the things that will help you get started as a professional.

Myth #2 – By the time I get to Grade 8, I’ll be able to sing/play anything right away

There’s some truth in this one. By Grade 8, if you’ve really achieved the all-round standard, you should be able to tackle most music. There’ll be very little that’s off-limits. However, there’ll still be things which take work and could take months or even years to perfect. There’ll be lots of things you’ll be able to sight-read (more or less), but not everything will be!

Myth #3 – Passing Grade 8 means I don’t need any more lessons

At Grade 8, you need lessons more than ever! As you get better, there’s lots you’ll be able to do in your own practice times to improve, but when you’re working at a post-grade 8 level you need a teacher who has experience working with advanced level pupils who can refine and improve your voice. The right teacher will also help you to work out what steps to take next in your music “career” – whether it’s full-time study, diplomas or a summer school.

Myth #4 – By the time I get to Grade 8, I’ll be able to write my own music

Grade 8 is a performance exam, so you never have to learn to compose as part of it. Some boards do have an improvisation option, but there’s no real composition element. If you get to Grade 8 with ABRSM you’ll probably have a good idea of what sounds good and bad, and some of the basic theory you need to back it up. However, composing is a different skill to playing.

Myth #5 – If I get Grade 8 in one style of singing, I’ll never be able to sing any other music

Not at all! Grade 8 is a sign that you’ve hit a good level of proficiency in one style of singing, but very few people who sing professionally (other than perhaps those at the top of their game) only sing in one style or genre. If you’ve reached the giddy heights of classical Grade 8, you can probably start in at a higher level for rock & pop exams or musical theatre exams, though you’ll still have new skills to learn. I’d actually recommend getting experience in two or more vocal styles to give you greater vocal flexibility and a wider range of options.

Myth #6: Once I’ve passed Grade 8, I can teach my instrument

This, for me, is one of the worst myths out there. Graded exams do not qualify anyone with teaching skills. This is, however, a point a which one could consider the possibility of teaching, and look for a mentor to guide you through the early stages of learning to teach. Grade 8 is one of the requirements for taking teaching diplomas, as are more advanced theory qualifications, and I would always recommend getting a teaching qualification so that you and your future students know you know what you’re doing. Please, whatever you do, don’t set up teaching the day after you get your Grade 8 certificate. You’re not doing anyone any favours. If you’re interested in qualifying as a teacher, please contact me. I’m not yet qualified to teach teachers, but I can recommend a number of other teachers across the UK who will be happy to mentor you.

Myth #7: Grade 8 makes me a musician

If you need a certificate to prove you’re a musician, you probably aren’t one. Being a musician is a gut feeling, just like becoming an adult. Whether it’s the moment sight-reading clicks, or the day you perform perfectly in a competition, you will, one day, find that thing which makes you feel like you can hold that title.

Myth #8: Grade 8 is the end

Grade 8 is not the end. It’s the end of the beginning. Go out and explore where you can go next!

 

Singing Through the Summer

It’s school holidays from this week, up in slightly sunny Scotland, and it won’t be long before the schools are off in England too. That means lots of music teachers are on holiday too. Some teachers take the whole summer off and most of us will take a couple of weeks.

So, how do you survive the summer as a music student? Here are some of my favourite things to do to keep myself motivated without weekly lessons.

1. Read some books about music

As things quiet down over the summer, it’s a great time to pick up a book about music. If you’re off on holiday yourself, a good book is a must to pack into your suitcase. Join your local library to get books for free. If you’re under 16 (mainly aged 4 to 11), you can also join in the national summer reading challenge at your local library and get rewarded for reading!

There are loads of choices for all ages. You could pick up a composer biography, a book on the history of musical styles, or one about instruments. What about a scientific book about how music works, or one on the psychology and neuroscience of how music works? Amazon even has a selection of classic texts on music available free in kindle format.

I’m just compiling my reading list for this summer (more later in the week), but in the meantime, check out my book recommendations page.

2. Head out to a concert or festival

Music happens all year round, but in the summer it’s usually mild enough that musicians venture outdoors. There’s a huge range of outdoor concerts that take place throughout the summer, from national events like Proms in the Park, to the bandstand in your local park. Keep an eye on national sites like The List as well as your local listings for opportunities, especially family friendly ones with the option to picnic while you listen.

For the more adventurous, summer is the time for festivals. Urban festivals often showcase local talent, while weekend events in fields give a more intense and cosmopolitan environment. These aren’t the cheapest option, but often offer a wider variety of styles of music. I’ll be reporting back from Greenbelt later in the summer which offers a huge range from classical opera to punk rock all on the same site.

If you really can’t find anything locally, check out coverage on the BBC of the various music festivals from Glastonbury (last weekend) through to Leeds and Reading (at the end of August). They also broadcast lots of concerts from the Proms on radio and TV.

3. Make some music with others

I nearly titled this one “take part in a concert” and I would definitely recommend that as one of your considerations. If you have a local festival, why not consider participating? It might be too late for this year, but you could use your summer to plan for next year.

If you’ve got some more free time over the summer, why not touch base with some musical friends and get together to play? You could even head for the park and make music outside, or try busking (check out your local council’s by-laws before setting up just anywhere). Making music with others challenges all kinds of skills like sight-reading and aural perception, and it’s loads of fun. I love getting together with my duet partner to rehearse new songs.

4. Take part in a summer school

Summer schools for music come in all shapes and sizes for all ages and abilities. Local events are often short and affordable. Come-and-sing events often crop up over the summer, as do workshops for kids run by local music groups. I was lucky, as a teen, to take part in summer workshops with a local opera society, for example. Non-residential summer schools are often run in vacant school buildings for local kids, while boarding schools often host residential weeks for more advanced children.

For adults, the range goes even further with Conservatoires opening their doors to a wider audience. There are also many residential events, some of which involve travelling overseas to French country lodges or Mediterranean hotels. You can get a taste of what is on offer here.

5. Set Yourself a Challenge

Why not set yourself a challenge? Your teacher might have left you a list of things to do, but if you’ve got some extra time (especially if you’re on school holidays) why not set yourself something totally different to do? The summer break is a great way to hit the T of SMART by making your challenge one which is “time-bound”.

You could set a goal of learning anything from a single song you don’t know up to a whole song cycle. I’m toying with learning all the mezzo arias from the Messiah as my musical challenge while my teacher is on holiday for a month.

To take a different angle, why not consider the challenge of composing something? Set a favourite poem to music, or muck around on an instrument (anything from piano to recorder) and write down a melody all of your own.

6. Think about what you want to do by next summer

Maybe you need to take some time to refocus on what you want out of music lessons. We can often get stuck in one track in music, like getting from one grade exam to the next without really thinking about why we’re doing exams. It’s important to think about what you’d like to do in the future and summer is a great time for blue skies thinking (well, on the three days when the skies are actually blue anyway!).

Think about what you’ve achieved up till now. Is it what you’ve wanted to do? Are you happy with all of it? What would you change?

Then think about what you’d like to do in five or ten years with music. Do you want to go to conservatoire, or be a teacher? Do you want to sing in amateur musicals? Or just to be able to sing to your kids?

I try to spend time with my students at the end of the summer talking about what we’ve achieved and where we’re going together. Watch out for more on this later in the summer.

7. Don’t stop singing!

Whatever you do, don’t stop singing all together. Just as when you stop exercising for a month, going back to the gym is unpleasant to say the last, so if you don’t sing over the summer, your voice will get out of condition! So keep singing. Even if you’re on holiday on a Spanish island, do your warm-ups in the shower to keep your vocal chords in check! Remember, too, that just like athletes, singers need to be wise about things like drinking too much and sleeping too little…

 

All in all, though, have a great summer and enjoy taking a more relaxed approach to music for a few weeks. If you’ve got any of your own tips as to what to do over the summer, why not comment below with your ideas.

Setting Goals for your Music – Why You Should be SMART

No 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 Twitter, like my page on Facebook or get posts delivered by RSS feed.