Goals FTW!

Most people would succeed in small things if they were not troubled with great ambitions.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

A journey of one thousand miles begins with a single footstep.


A few days ago I realized that posts for the last few months have been interviews, with little writing, and I miss writing, because it’s through writing that I arrive at my own understanding of how practice works. So, I’ll attempt to intersperse the interviews with regular blog posts.

A couple weeks ago I was able to speak with Hans Jørgen Jensen, a brilliant and affable ‘cello teacher whose students have won major competitions and positions in major symphonies. Mr. Jensen’s accolades are too numerous to list here. He’s Danish, so when you pronounce his name, the “j” sound is a “y” sound, so his name sounds like Hans Yorgen Yensen. Mr. Jensen has an excellent project going over at his site with good classical-music-related blog posts and information. You may have heard of Hans if you’ve read Dan Coyle’s The Talent Code, and if you haven’t read that book, you should if you want to get better at anything.

When I’ve talked with master musicians like Jensen about practice, their answers to questions are usually higher level abstractions; invisible aspects of practice that usually escape the notice of novices. This is one trait of a master: they see the unseen and help us to see it, too. With Mr. Jensen, the abstraction he kept returning to was goals.

Goals are like fractals. A fractal is a geometric shape, each part of which is a reflection of the whole. Goals can be broken down into long-term, mid-term, short-term and immediate goals. The smallest goal is the most immediate; the thing staring you in the face that you want to learn right now. This morning I started to learn the Gypsy jazz standard Troublant Bolero on guitar. The longest-term goal is to be able to play guitar and trumpet as well as I can. A mid-term goal is to be able to loop the chords on guitar, then play the melody and harmony over the top on trumpet. These longer term goals influence everything else. The most immediate goal is moving from the first chord to the second in the introduction (G to F#b9).  A more achievable mid-term goal is to play the A section (the form of the tune is AABA). You can see that there are many possible mid-term goals. Each immediate goal is a stair-step towards the next longer-term goal.

It can be overwhelming to sit down and define goals because you’re dealing with the chaos of life, the chaos that is reality, and enforcing some kind of order upon chaos is no easy task. But worthwhile tasks are rarely easy. It’s important to know your long- and mid-term goals, but too much focus on them can be overwhelming. You definitely want to set those goals, but your main focus should be on the immediate and the short-term goals.

Hans told me of a student he was teaching who had little time to practice. She wanted to learn a fairly difficult ‘cello piece. So she and Hans decided to do an experiment: they would orchestrate her practice in two minute increments! That’s all she practiced on ‘cello each day. Two minutes. They were meticulous about the structure of those two minutes, and over the course of several weeks, she learned the piece.

This is the power of immediate goals. They can be tiny. But stack up tiny advances and over time they become significant. How many of us lament the lack of practice time? I know I do. But I can certainly spare two minutes. I bet you can, too. So now I’m experimenting with my guitar practice. Two minutes a day for sure, and extra if I have any spare time (I never do…).

For your long-term goals, be as grandiose and imaginative as you can be. Let your longest-term goal be your wildest fantasy. You can always adjust it later. The closer a goal is to the present, the more concrete it gets. Immediate goals are something you actually do, whereas the longest term goals are often what you want to be. If we spend too much time focusing on long- or even mid-term goals, the task can seem overwhelming. But if we keep those goals in mind, and then focus on the tiniest of goals, this feels more achievable, and it is. You’ll actually see (and hear!) progress. That’s very gratifying.

So sit down and map out one long-term goal, then focus in and discover what the absolutely smallest step on that path is for you. Focus on that one tiny step until you’ve got it. A small enough goal should be easily achieved in a few days or less. Ideally, it should be achieved in one practice session, even if it’s only two minutes long. Then take the next step. In time you’ll be so far along the path that you might be surprised. Try it! It works.

Have fun, and good luck with your practice!

Here’s a version of Troublant Bolero:

And here’s a crazy fractal with a pretty cool soundtrack. This one zooms in pretty deep (it’s a 10 minute ride) and it’s a good illustration of the similarity that runs throughout the fractal:

Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Jil Ross says:

    Im so glad to see an article on mr jensen, and also to include that helpful pronunciation lesson. Im a fan of his work with the cello as well as his interest in electronics and not to mention animal training,and crate usage. Hope to see more on him.

    1. Thanks, Jil! I must admit I’m intrigued by the “animal training” and “crate usage” comments. Is he also a dog trainer or are you referring to the animals who play cello? 😉

      I’ll be posting a link to his “Taste the String” documentary in the coming days….

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