Goal Setting

Question:

How can I go about setting medium and long-term goals for my playing (and otherwise I suppose) when I have limited experience/knowledge of what is possible in a certain time frame? I am pretty good at setting goals for the day, but I have trouble setting goals that are months or years into the future and determining what steps needs to be taken to accomplish them. What are your thoughts? Do you have recommendations for other resources on this topic? 

Thanks from an aspiring high school player and a fan of your work. 

Answer:

Fantastic question! There’s so much territory that can be covered here. I’ll do my best to get to what I think you’re after, but I’ll begin with a detour and touch on some applicable concepts that perhaps you, or some other readers, were not previously considering.  

Step 1 - Have a dream.  

I’ll revive one of my favorite quotes here to illustrate the point. 

"I tell young people that you can't arrive someplace until you determine the destination. It sounds simple, almost clichéd, but it's an inescapable truth. If I'm at the airport, I can't buy a ticket until I know where I'm going. That's the first thing they ask you when you step up to the counter." - Al Sharpton  

I encourage my students to begin with their dream ending in mind. Give some thought to what that is for you. Is it playing in a great orchestra, funk band, jazz ensemble? Being a soloist, college professor? Having a portfolio career? Try to answer this question first.  

Step 2 - Determine the component parts of your dream.  

Time to do some homework. Want to play in a great orchestra? Learn about people you admire who have done that and chart their paths. Where did they attend school? Who did they study with? In what festivals did they participate? What competitions did they enter? Where did they play before they arrived where they are now? What is their musical philosophy?

Much can be learned by simply scouring the internet, but even more depth is gained from taking lessons and communicating directly with people you respect. Don’t annoy people, asking them for information you could easily find on your own or obsessively stalking them, but don’t be afraid to ask a few thoughtful questions that can guide your path. (Side note - If people aren’t willing to respond to you after a few attempts, consider new heroes.)  

Gathering this information helps you chart a route from where you are now to where you dream of being. No two paths are Identical, but you can chart equivalent trajectories. A rough example could look something like this... High School Region Band - All-State - Major Summer Program - Good Music School - Elite Music School - Major Summer Festivals - Freelancing in Major Cultural Center/Taking Auditions - Regional Orchestra Position - Major Orchestra Position. Keep in mind that this is just one version I put together quickly. Your goals may be completely different. Feel free to combine different paths! 

Step 3 - Take an honest assessment of where you currently stand.  

Take a good look in the mirror and be honest about your current status. Are you a below average high-schooler, an above average collegiate, an elite talent on the doorstep of a major career? If you’re not sure, play for some qualified people who are willing to give you an honest opinion, and take a look at how you have fared up to this point. How do these assessments/results line up with your view of the world? Maybe you’ve never qualified for High School Region Orchestra after years of trying, but you dream of a major career. Maybe you just graduated from Juilliard and made the finals of a major orchestra, but you think you’re a failure. Try to be objective about where you are on the path. The legendary football coach Bill Parcells was known for saying “You are what your record says you are.” If you don’t like what your record says, do something about it. Have an honest conversation with yourself and those you trust about whether or not your goals are based in reality. Maybe you will determine that you need more time before you can say for sure.   

Step 4 - Define and create long, medium, and short-term goals.  

Yes. That’s the correct order. The overarching concept is that you always begin with the end in mind, but you invest your energy on the hurdles directly in front of you. Getting ahead of yourself is a recipe for disaster. This philosophy is why you often times hear athletes say “We’re taking it one game at a time” during the course of a season or a playoff series.  

Long-term Goal (Something you can only hope to accomplish at least one year, or maybe several years, from now.)

These are dreams. Disregard actively working on long-term goals. Rather, make sure that your short and medium-term goals are aligned in a way that you may be able to one day put something from this category into the “medium-term” category. For example, you may be a high school trombonist who dreams of playing in a major orchestra or being the next Christian Lindberg. By all means, think about it before you go to sleep at night and be inspired by the thought of it at a great concert, but don’t apply for the Chicago Symphony when you’re 16. Most people you admire didn’t skip steps. A select few may have gone through the steps at an expedited pace, but rarely were steps skipped altogether. So work on what is immediately in front of you, and if it’s in the cards, the rest will take care of itself. Redirect your enthusiasm to the next component part of your trajectory. Maybe you will be great one day, but let’s learn these scales and how to stay with the metronome first.

“Be serious about these tasks and you’ll earn the respect or jealousy of your peers. And if genius plans to meet you down the road, you won’t miss the introduction, man.” - Wynton Marsalis  

Medium-term Goal - Something you can accomplish in less than a year.  

These should be the next logical steps on your trajectory. Maybe it’s making the All-State Orchestra, playing a great sophomore jury, or advancing at a professional audition. In the same way that you broke down the dream into its component parts, do the same for medium-term goals. What does accomplishing this goal require? Maybe you need to learn particular pieces or overcome certain technical hurdles. Make a list and see to it that your short-term goals combine to achieve these goals.  

Short-term Goal - Something you can accomplish in a week or less.  

“Organizing on a weekly basis provides much greater balance and context than daily planning. There seems to be an implicit cultural recognition of the week as a single, complete unit of time... Most people think in terms of weeks. But most third-generation planning tools focus on daily planning. While they may help you prioritize your activities, they basically only help you organize crises and busywork. The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities. And this can best be done in the context of the week.” - Stephen Covey from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People 

Plan your practice, in detail, one week in advance. Be specific with exercises and time frames. Daily goals seem nice, but they don’t give enough context to be of optimal use. In order to achieve your medium-term goal, you may need to improve the speed of your tongue, improve your intonation, increase your range by a whole step, and learn 1 hour of repertoire. You can’t do all of that in a single day (or a single week for that matter!). If your plan is to just cram as much of it as you can each and every day and then continue where you left off tomorrow, you’ll soon be frustrated. However, you can plan an intelligent week where you, for example, practice one movement and range on Monday, a different movement and articulation on Tuesday, etc. Look at the week as a whole and make sure you have addressed the relevant issues in a way that is balanced and thoughtful. Imagine a scenario where one short-term goal rolls seamlessly into the next until a medium-term goal is achieved.

Schedule time at the end of each week to evaluate what you did and create a plan of action for the following week. Were you able to completely follow the plan you made? Did you improve in the way you hoped? Did you work/rest enough? How can you make your work more efficient and mission-driven next week? The answers to these questions will let you know what you’re capable of in weeks or months.

And finally, make sure that in this time of being organized and regimented that you leave yourself some time for peace, reflection, and thoughtfulness. My most productive periods have always been preceded by some degree of emotional and physical solitude. You don’t have to escape into the wilderness for months. Maybe just one hour a week where you disconnect from everything and let yourself be free to think. You’d be amazed at the ideas and clarity that find you.

“Each of us needs to withdraw from the cares which will not withdraw from us. We need hours of aimless wandering or spates of time sitting on park benches, observing the mysterious world of ants and the canopy of treetops.” – Maya Angelou

In the spirit transparency, those last two paragraphs were more for me than they were for you. It’s sage advice from one of history’s great thinkers, and I could afford to listen to it more myself!

I hope these thoughts are helpful. Good luck!  

Recommended Reading 

7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey 

Practice Perfect by Doug Lemov

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