Setting Goals in Music

English writer Aldous Huxley was quoted as saying:

“Every ceiling, when reached, becomes a floor, upon which one walks as a matter of course and prescriptive right.”


Huxley was talking about the process of setting goals, attaining them, then setting new goals on the strength of what was already achieved. This “stepped” approach to skill development works because it allows us to celebrate the achievement of smaller, attainable accomplishments as we work towards larger, long term goals. Because of this, most music instruction series are “levelled,” allowing a student to “graduate” from one book to the next, celebrating the successful completion of this “medium-sized” milestone, while looking ahead to their longer-term goal of attaining mastery in their instrument.  


But it all starts with setting goals, and in the beginning, perhaps just one goal.  


Goal setting shouldn’t be as simplistic as just deciding to do something for the sake of having something to shoot for. For example, you could state your goal as, “by summer I want to be able to play Taylor Swift’s ‘Long Live’ on the piano.” In and of itself, this is an admirable thing to aspire to, but you have a much greater chance of achieving your objective if you have taken the time to figure out why you want to achieve it in the first place. Using the Taylor Swift “Long Live” example, do you desire to learn how to play this song because you are inspired by it’s empowering theme? Or is the song itself a “victory anthem” for you because you are facing a  challenge in your life? By setting a goal that inspires you, you are increasing the odds that you will be willing to work through some of the more challenging, “hard work” aspects of learning the song.


So now you have your inspirational goal, what system do you use to help keep yourself on track? One method is to manage your goal by using the SMART acronym; which stands for: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Bound. To break it down a bit further, let’s talk about each specific word:


When we say “Specific” we are talking about a particular thing, such as “playing C-scale” as opposed to something more general such as just “playing scales.” Specific usually also means a brief, easy to remember concept such as “I want to sing this song for my mom by the time her birthday comes!”  


Measurable” is about easily seeing your goal in tangible ways. For example, a long distance runner may measure his or her progress by counting the number of telephone poles they have passed as they run down a road. Music goals can be measured in equally concrete ways. To use the “Long Live” song example, you might set a goal of being able to play two bars of the song very well be the end of the first week of practice.


Attainable” can be defined as the thing you can do if you push yourself. It’s not what is easy, or on the other end of the spectrum, what’s nearly impossible. Ask yourself, “What can I realistically achieve if I work really hard?” That is a practical way of deciding what you can actually achieve!


The word “Relevant” can answer a question such as, “Why do I like this song so much?” Is it because you can identify with the words of the song? Is it because the song contains a special feature, such as a guitar riff that you want to get good at? Look at what you are working on in music and ask yourself how you are connected to the ideas of the song. That’s relevance.


Time-bound” speaks to one of the unavoidable truths of life. That is that we usually have a limited amount of time to achieve our goals. The celebrated musician Leonard Bernstein said: “To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan and not quite enough time!” There is humour in what Mr. Bernstein said, but there is also a message as well: that your goals will usually take longer to achieve than you think and that by applying time measure to your goals, you are able to achieve more than you may have thought possible!

There is no right or wrong way to set a goal! But the SMART system has proven helpful for many people, so we have included it as an example.


Below is a list of music goal examples. As you review this list, you could ask yourself, “Which one of these goals fit into where I’m at in music today?” You could also challenge yourself by deciding what specific skill you wish to take on, maybe you want to learn to play more songs in the blues genre, you may want to become better at accompanying a singer so that you and your friend could perform together. Keep the “Why” in mind as you set your goals, then you can use a system like SMART to keep yourself on track!


In order to get started, here is a list of “musical” SMART goal examples:


  • If you wish to improve your “sound”, you could start recording yourself as you practice — then listen to your past recordings, noting how much better you’ve become!


  • In order to expand your musical appreciation while learning new techniques, you could try a new song in a different style or genre that you may not be familiar with.


  • You can express yourself by composing a song. When you are just starting out,  your song doesn’t have to be long or complex! Write lyrics, then music to go along with it, or write music, then add lyrics — there is no right or wrong way to compose!


  • Attend a concert, opera, play, or take in a live performance in a coffee shop. This is a wonderful way of finding new artistic expressions you enjoy. It can also give you new ideas regarding music you may wish to try learning yourself!


  • Audition for your school choir, theatrical play or your school band. If your school doesn’t have these opportunities, check out your local community theatre! These experiences will teach you how to perform with other people, and you may really enjoy it!


  • Learn a new song each week! They don’t have to be mastered, but the more music you know, the more music you will love.


  • Teach someone else to play a song — your friend, siblings, or even a parent. The fastest way to mastery is teaching another.


  • Learn about a famous composer or era in music and then tell your music teacher about it! Not only will they be impressed, but you might even teach them something!


  • Think about increasing your lesson length! Talk to your teacher to see if this is something you would benefit from, and talk to your parents about it.


  • Try to do an ear training exercise every day. There are exercises on youtube you can try!


  • Perform More — this is a big one. Take advantage of all the events Crescendo puts on! Make sure you’re performing at each Mic Night, Coffee Shop, Markets, Recitals, etc. The more you perform the better musician you will become.


  • Try jamming with your friends, family members, your teacher. Try something different every time, even if it doesn’t work out! This is an excellent experience and a great way to grow.


  • Pick a specific skill or technique and resolve to work hard at it — perhaps you want to improve your syncopation, or your scales, or your hammer-ons! Whatever it is, make it your goal to master it.


  • Listen to music – we can’t emphasize this enough! Listen to anything and everything. Decide what you like and what you dislike. Listen to obscure music, take suggestions from friends and your teacher. The more music you are exposed to, the more you will grow.


  • After each practice, reflect on how you did. Were you trying hard? Did you follow the practice plan your teacher gave you? Were you focused? It’s important to be following the rules of good practice.


  • Try learning another instrument — you might pick it up even faster if you’re already learning one!


  • Parents: sit in on practices when you can! Ask your child what happened in their lesson, what they learned, the best part. Ask them to play you their favourite song they’re learning. Attend every performance they have. Students whose parents take an interest in their musical journey LOVE music.


  • This is an important one: set a goal you can be proud of, even when you are having a tough time with a song. Remember, we think you are doing AMAZING and learning an instrument is hard. Take a break and come back to the song, and sometimes it all comes together.


  • Try a new instrument! Your goal could be something simple such as learning a scale on a different instrument or perhaps just some basic chords. Sometimes we can find a whole new passion or reinvigorate our love of music when we learn a new aspect of music! Summer Passports are a great way to try something new at Crescendo.


  • The most important goal: resolve to try your best! Make sure you are doing everything you can to grow as a musician. Practice, play, learn, listen — and most importantly, make sure you are having fun as you do this.


We hope these suggestions help you to set SMART music goal. With approaching events like Sherwood Park Music Festival, Crescendo Video Showcase, Crescendo Recital, and Royal Conservatory and/or Crescendo Exams, it’s always good to think specifically about WHY and HOW we do what we do as musicians. Crescendo and our students LOVE music. Goal setting is the fastest way to growth…we can’t wait to see you take your music to new heights.