Am I Getting Better?: Setting Musical Goals

I’ve always thought that athletics and music have more in common than you might think. Both require a passion for the subject and a dedication to developing your technique. And whether it’s training for an upcoming track meet or preparing for a local audition, you’ll need to show true commitment. In this blog post, I’ll provide an overview of how I set goals in music lessons and share some examples.

Understand your student’s intentions and establish a baseline

Playing walking bass lines from chord charts is a skill I worked on for years before I felt confident enough to do so in a performance!

My original baseline for improvising walking bass lines (pun intended) was nonexistent, so I could only go up from there!

Before you get started on setting specific musical goals for your students, it’s important to know where they’re starting and what they hope to achieve. Though they may not be able to pinpoint specific goals quite yet, getting to know your students’ intentions and dreams for their music-making can improve the connection between you and your student and the quality of your teaching.

Take the time, too, to observe your student’s playing. Where are they strong? Where is there room for growth? Just like a beginning runner who’s never run more than 30 seconds before or an experienced musician who’s auditioning for a new ensemble, everyone has room for improvement.

Keep track of where they started, select appropriate goals for your student, and use your baseline observations (i.e., their starting point) later to help you and your student better understand their progress.

What kinds of goals can I select for my students?

Qualitative and qualitative goals

Many common athletic personal records and goals are easy to understand and, often, quantitative (i.e., measured by numbers). They all begin with a question, too. For example:

  • How fast can I run 5K?
  • How much can I deadlift?
  • How many points can I score in one basketball game?

These can all be answered with specific numbers in order to create quantitative goals.

On the other hand, qualitative (i.e., measured by anything other than quantity) goals can be a little more open-ended. I find that due to the nature of music-making, many musical goals fall under this category:

  • How expressively can I sing this aria?
  • How successful am I at playing this rhythm in a certain style?
  • How can I develop a richer vibrato?

However, not all musical goals are qualitative and not all athletic goals are quantitative! And depending on the student’s level or intention, quantitative musical goals may be just what they need:

  • How far off from the beat was my rhythmic timing?
  • In how many positions can I play a C major arpeggio?
  • At what BPM can I play this Chopin etude?

Hopefully it’s becoming clear that there are many different ways to set and track progress towards goals even in the private music studio! And it’s all dependent on your student’s intentions and starting point.

Let’s take a look at some other ways to categorize goals.

Efficiency, skill progression, and comprehension goals

After the San Diego Half Marathon Relay of 2014

Running the second half of the San Diego Half Marathon Relay in 2014 took a lot of efficiency goal setting!

I like to think of efficiency as how easily or effortlessly a musician accomplishes something learning a new song, mastering an element of their technique, or even learning how to tune.

  • A beginning athlete writes down how long it takes to learn a new movement like the barbell squat.
  • Similarly, a beginning musician tracks how long it takes to learn their first song.

Skill progression goals come in handy after that first milestone is achieved. Take what they already can accomplish and set a new, related milestone.

Depending on your student, you may need to break up their first achievement into different components and progress each component appropriately. This expands on knowledge they already have and challenges them to use them in a different way.

  • The student who just learned his first song takes that song’s chords and use them in a different progression.
  • Another student just wrote her first solo using an A minor pentatonic scale and a 4-bar length. She then begins to work on writing an 8-bar solo using the same scale.

Note that if you’re working on a specific skill progression, you may not want to change or progress too many skills at the same time. As your student becomes more proficient and competent, more variables can be changed and more skills can be progressed simultaneously.

Lastly, comprehension refers to how well your student understands certain musical concepts and whether they are able to think critically about their own performances.

  • The student who just wrote her first solo revises it a month later to improve its phrasing.
  • Another student is able to clearly describe how a rhythm is played in a recording and what they would need to change in their own playing to emulate the sound.

Though comprehension can be considered a skill in itself, I think it’s important enough for it to stand alone. This is because ultimately, improved musical comprehension helps your student achieve musical independence.

What are some examples of musical goals?

Let’s look at some different options and how they could be categorized:

  • A beginning student is keeping track of the fastest BPM (“beats per minute”) they can set their metronome to while playing a certain chord progression. As they improve, the BPM increases.
    • This is a quantitative musical efficiency goal.
  • A student listened to three songs and picked out one instrument in the background of each one. A month later, he is able to pick out four specific instruments in the same songs.
    • This is a qualitative skill progression goal.
  • An advanced student identifies weak areas in her own playing and the steps needed to improve.
    • This is a qualitative comprehension goal.

Measure progress regularly

Without keeping track of progress, it’s difficult to know whether a goal was reached. I like to take notes after lessons, but your preferred method is, of course, up to you. You may even have success with encouraging students to self-report their progress once they’ve reached the comprehension goals needed for that!

Adjust intentions and goals as needed

Once I reached my first goal, I adjusted to set a new one.

Once I reached my first goal, I adjusted to set a new one.

Throughout the process of working towards musical goals, your student may find that a goal doesn’t necessarily resonate with them as strongly as it did before. They may not have been able to describe their intentions and dreams as well as they are now. Or maybe they just were not aware of something they could do or accomplish and their focus and interests have changed.

Don’t be afraid to be flexible and change intentions and goals if it’s what best for your student. And make sure to speak with them first to communicate new expectations and why adjustments were made!

Celebrate accomplishments!

You’re keeping track of your students’ milestones, right? Let them know how they’re doing! They may not always be aware of the smaller accomplishments, like being able to keep and play to a steady beat, but helping them to recognize them helps improve comprehension and build motivation.

Sharing accomplishments with your student’s parent or family member can also be a helpful way for them to see and understand what you and your student are working on together.

What about you? What kinds of musical goals do you set?

I’d like to hear about how you go about setting musical goals for your students; please feel free to leave a comment! If you’re a musician-athlete, I’d love to know more about that, too!

And if you’re interested in working with me to set and achieve your musical goals, let’s get started today!

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