Goal Setting for the Practice Room

Goal Setting should be part of every musician’s practice session.

There are many kids of goals in music. Some goals will be achieved within a single practice session, others will take longer to achieve. Regardless, simply writing down goals is a powerful first step in making your practice as effective and efficient as possible.

Today is the first day of lessons after the winter break, and I am talking with my students about their musical goals for the year. Together we are setting New Year’s Resolutions for music. The goals we are developing are mainly long-term goals, like improving tone, learning repertoire, winning first chair in the fall, or memorizing all the major/minor scales. Articulating these goals is good for the student and it’s good for me as a teacher. Once I know what a student’s goal is, I can create a plan and offer the right materials to assist that student’s progress. Goal setting is a positive experience for the student because it promotes motivation and focus,goals are dreams with deadlines

Students should develop the habit of setting goals as part of music practice. Ideally, goal setting should happen at the beginning (Practice Session: Part 1) because it’s easier to build an efficient practice session with and endpoint in mind. When creating practice goals, it’s a good idea to set some short-term goals that can be achieved during a single practice session because meeting those goals is very satisfying and builds confidence that other goals can be met also.

I have always encouraged my students to set goals because it has been a useful tool for me in my development as a musician. Many other music teachers also recommend goal setting so this isn’t something I’ve invented. However, I had no idea that researchers have been looking into the benefits of goal setting since the 1930s. Goal setting really works and there are many scientific studies to prove it! There’s even a codified theory, Goal-Setting Theory, to explain why goal setting is useful.

Goal-Setting Theory

Setting goals affects outcomes in four ways:

  1. Choice: goals narrow attention and direct efforts to goal-relevant activities, and away from perceived undesirable and goal-irrelevant actions.
  2. Effort: goals can lead to more effort; for example, if one typically produces 4 widgets an hour, and has the goal of producing 6, one may work more intensely towards the goal than one would otherwise.
  3. Persistence: someone becomes more likely to work through setbacks if pursuing a goal.
  4. Cognition: goals can lead individuals to develop and change their behavior.

from Latham, Gary P.; Budworth, Marie-Hélène (2007). “The study of work motivation in the 20th century”. In Koppes, Laura L.; Thayer, Paul W.; Vinchur, Andrew J.; Salas, Eduardo. Historical perspectives in industrial and organizational psychology. Series in applied psychology. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. p. 353–382 (366). ISBN 0805844406. OCLC 71725282

Write Down Your Goals

A recent report on NPR (“How Writing Down Specific Goals Can Empower You”) discussed the role of goal-setting in achieving academic success. Schools around the world are trying one simple thing. They are asking students write down their goals. Teachers have found that their students have higher achievement after committing to the written goals.

goal setting imageIn my studio, I know that some students skip the goal-setting step in their practice. They believe they will remember their goals without writing them down, or they worry that it takes too much time, or they think it’s silly. However, this study from McGill University in Montreal suggests that putting pen to paper has a powerful effect on achievement.

Make Goal Setting a Habit

Goal Setting also improves non-academic skills like communication, resilience, creativity, and problem solving. The development of these “soft skills” may be more important than cognitive skills that can be measured by a standardized test. Employers are increasingly looking for people who are able to complete complex projects. Musicians are particularly good at this!

Adding goal setting to your daily music practice might make your entire life better.

Goal setting, like many other things, gets easier with practice. Once setting goals has become a habit in music, it’s easy to include it in other parts of your life.

Keep that pencil and notebook handy. You are going to need it.

whatever the mind can conceive, it can achieve

Practice Session, part 6: Review

Review: Time to Revisit, Reflect, and Plan.

The sixth and final part of a productive practice session wraps everything up and puts a bow on it.

If you’re just starting this blog series, be sure to read the OVERVIEW and posts about the five other sections. The links are below.

  1. Warm up.
  2. Scales & Technique.
  3. Etudes.
  4. Repertoire.
  5. Improvisation.
  6. Review, warm-down, reflecting on goals and planning for the next practice session.

If we are thinking about a 30 minute practice session, the sixth part is minutes 28-30. At this point in your practicing, you are starting to get tired and your mind is ready for a break. Hold on for two more minutes… you still have some important work to do.

If we continue the analogy of the six-drawer cabinet, there are three items in this thin drawer at the bottom of the practice cabinet.

  1. review tricky “woodshedding” spots from repertoire or etudes
  2. warm down
  3. make a mental note of accomplishments and what needs attention next time

Now is the time to review any tricky spots that you were woodshedding in Part 4: Repertoire. If you are working to memorize your music, now is the time to test your memory. New advances in neuroscience are showing that interval training is critical to long term memory. Spacing out the learning in longer intervals leads to better memory storage, according to the theory of “Spaced Repetition.” Because you worked on repertoire pieces in the middle of your practice, you have had a little time in between. This is a good first interval. Simply go back to the hardest sections of your lesson materials and try them one or two more times. You’ll hit these places again in your next practice session to continue the spaced repetition.

Depending on how you are feeling, you may want to do a gentle warm-down. I feel the need to play low notes and slurs when my embouchure is tight from playing piccolo. Brass players usually need a warm-down time.

Before you end this practice session, think about what you were able to accomplish. Thank yourself for taking the time to practice. Acknowledge the good work and the progress. If you tackled something particularly hard, give yourself a mental pat on the back. Think about what you need to focus on for the next practice session. Planning for the next practice session will give you a head start on item #1 (Warm up, including goal setting).

Finally, allow for some incubation time. Several studies have shown that creative insights and new skills favor a “prepared mind.” (Link here to Seifert, Meyer, Davidson study.) Make sure you take a break every 30 minutes. That means you need to leave the practice room. Get a drink of water, take a walk, play a game. Perhaps the best thing you can do for your long term memory is get plenty of sleep. It seems that the brain is working on the music even when you are asleep. Have you ever heard the music you’ve been practicing in your dreams? I know I’m ready for a recital when my piece is playing as the background music in my dreams.

I hope this seven part series on the structure of a 30 minute practice session was helpful for you. Now, go practice!

Practice Session, Part 1: Warm Up

warm upWarm Up

This blog post is the second in a seven part series about the structure of a typical practice session.

In the blog post “Overview,” I outlined the six elements that should be a part of every practice session. You can think of these parts like a chest of drawers. Each drawer is a different size. Working from the top down, the drawers are

  1. Warm up.
  2. Scales, short technical exercises.
  3. Etudes.
  4. Repertoire.
  5. Improvisation and revisiting old material.
  6. Review, warm-down, reflecting on goals and planning for the next practice session.

In every 30 minute practice session, you will want to spend about 2 minutes on #1: “Goal setting and warm up.” This part of the practice is important because it wakes up the mind, body and ear.

First, we warm up the brain.

I am in the habit of thinking about what I need to accomplish in the practice room before I arrive. Ideally, I have created new goals at the end of my previous practice session (practice item #6), but if not, the beginning of a new practice session is a good time to think about my goals. Many students find that a notebook can be very helpful for writing down this kind of stuff. (Unfortunately, I seem to lose notebooks faster than I can write in them….) The short term goals you set at the beginning of practice should be attainable in the amount of time set aside. For instance, you may want to work out tricky passages in your new solo and increase the tempo of the minor scales. Your goals will be different every day. Try to keep them realistic so that when your practice is finished, you feel like you have attained at least some of your goals.

The first thing I do when entering the practice room is silence my cell phone. I know from experience that a beep or buzz on my phone easily devolves into checking my email, then a quick glance at the weather, a reply to a text.., and then my practice time is over before I’ve played a note.

I consider how much uninterrupted time I have. Sometimes, I even put practice time in my online calendar to truly set it aside. When I begin, I tell myself that everything outside of the practice room will still be there for me when I’m finished. I try to quiet my mind and tell myself that this is the highest and best use of my time. If I’m feeling really distracted, I will take a moment to jot down a quick to-do list. Writing things down unburdens my mind because I don’t have to worry about forgetting.

As I put my flute together, I put the pieces together mindfully, grateful for the beautiful instrument and my ability to play it. I like to approach each practice session with a “beginner’s mind” because it allows me to stay open and curious. Judgement and negativity are not helpful.

This is a good place in your practice session to try out some of the concentration exercises I explained in a previous post.

Next, we bring attention to the body.

When I was younger, I didn’t need to do much to warm up my body. Now that I’m older, I find physical warm ups to be very helpful. If I’m feeling tight in my neck, I will make gentle circles with my head. Sometimes it’s my shoulders or hands that need to be stretched. Wherever there is pain or tightness, I’ll take a moment to move in mays that release the tension. While stretching, I also bring attention to my breath and begin to deepen the inhale and exhale.

This is a good place in the practice session to check your posture. Our goal is to always move freely without pain. The Alexander Technique has been very helpful to me in understanding how to use my body efficiently. My friend Lea Pearson has studied the Alexander Technique and wrote Body Mapping for Flutists: What Every Flutist Needs to Know About the Body. I highly recommend this book.

Finally, we wake up the ear.

Because I play a wind instrument, the first sounds I make on the instrument are long tones. It’s important for wind players to pay attention to embouchure, breath, and resonance from the very beginning. (If you are a string player, pianist, or vocalist, leave a comment below telling me what your first sounds are when you start practicing.) While playing long tones, I think about my posture, vibrato, intonation, beginnings of notes, releases, dynamics, and tone color. This begins to awaken my ear. Throughout, I ask myself “Is this the best sound I can make today?” I use a variety of tone exercises– the brain needs novelty to stay engaged– but I have my favorites too. I enjoy listening to my tone warm ups with my eyes closed. This helps me to really open the ear without any visual distractions. (I write about the difference between hearing and listening in this blog post.)

All these warm up activities happen in the first two minutes of practice! (Actually, some of the planning and goal setting can be done on your way to the practice room.)

Once the mind is focused, the body is moving well, and the ears are open, it’s time to get the fingers flying! Continue reading part 2 “Scales & Technique.”