Most of us are familiar with the idea of setting goals for ourselves, whether they be one, three, or five-year goals. If you are a guitar student in college or university, there are goals set for you on a semester basis. If you are a private music student, your teacher probably sets weekly goals for you to achieve. But how many of us set daily goals for our self or even set targets for each practice session?
If you are going to be efficient, setting several small goals each practice session is very effective, especially if they are set in light of the overall weekly goal that you are trying to achieve. As cliché as it is, mountains are scaled one step at a time and setting goals for each practice session can help make lofty goals feel more attainable. Likewise, small goals are also important because they create small wins. The small wins are what keep us motivated and give us confidence. They also regulate our progress. A steady stream of small steps and constant wins does more for our progress than inconsistent or erratic practice sessions.
Setting goals is similar to Stephen Covey’s habit, “Begin with the End in Mind.” It is easier to get somewhere if we have a destination in mind. For example, learning to sing the melody before working on the fingering is critical if our playing is to be expressive and musical. This doesn’t mean that our interpretations and ideas must remain static. In fact, it is the exact opposite. When we learn to first sing the melody, as we begin to work on fingering and other technical challenges, we begin to understand the music at a deeper level and our ideas can evolve and mature, but having an initial idea in our head can give us some direction and some initial goals to reach for. Besides, it is much more fun to practice a melody or rhythm than it is to practice a fingering. Being able to sing the melody helps clarify what our ultimate goal is and we have a clear target in mind.
Setting priorities, or making sure the most important tasks are worked on first, is very much tied to the idea of setting goals. Again, most of us understand prioritising at the macro level but it is probably even more important to be done at the micro level. For example, it is tempting to do the easy things first, such as playing through sections or passages of a composition that we already know how to play but the priority should be to learn or work on the things that we are unable to do. The progress we make on the difficult tasks inspire and motivate us to continue on, which will ultimately result in us being able to play the entire piece and not simply the signature well-known sections. I don’t know how many times over the years where teenagers have walked into my studio for the first time and played me the first sixteen measures of "Leyenda" but are unable to play the rest of the piece. On the one hand, it is great that the composition inspired them to learn the opening passage. On the other hand, their priority should shift to tackling the more challenging sections and developing the technique to play the more difficult passages (assuming they are technically and musically prepared to tackle the rest of the piece).
Finally, it is important to celebrate the small wins. It is so easy to get discouraged when we are constantly berating our self for not achieving more. However, it is important to acknowledge each positive step. When you practicing, you are your audience and it is important to be encouraging and supportive—even if you haven’t arrived at your final destination. As we have often heard, the joy is in the journey. Appreciate each step taken and celebrate the milestones when you have reached them.