Resolutions, Goals, and Music Practice

The significance of a human being is not in what one attains but in what one longs to attain.
~ Kahlil Gibran

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It’s the time of year that we think about goals more than any other, because what is a resolution but a goal writ large? When we think resolutions, we usually think big picture, end results, bold and dramatic changes. And this is a necessary part of the process, and for me, not only the most fun, but also the most fraught with booby-traps. The reason is that long-term goals aren’t usually something that can be brought about with one simple action; they’re reached through many small actions. This is the difference between a resolution and resolve: resolution is a long-term goal, and resolve is something both more immediate and more lasting.

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.

Grand-master musician (tuba) and expert teacher Rex Martin talks about goals in terms of long-term, medium-term, and short-term goals. It’s the short-term goals that are the most concrete ones, because those are the things that we can do right now. It could be an abstract short-term goal like resolving to sit in your chair until you have a passage as beautiful as you can make it, or a more concrete but equally short-term goal to simply move from one chord to another on guitar (a frequent short-term goal of mine). It might even be something as simple as carving out 15 minutes to sit in the practice chair at all, regardless of what you actually do when you get there. It’s important to set goals that are so easy to reach that you’re (almost) guaranteed success, especially at first. But there is a danger: if your goals are too easy, too simple, you won’t be pushed much and your improvement will be slow at best. But on the other hand, if your goals are too ambitious, you’re doomed to failure in the short term.

In astronomy, we’re searching for other planets that might be earth-like in what’s known as the Goldilocks Zone: not too hot, not too cold, but just right. There may even be a galactic Goldilocks zone. As far as short-term, immediate goals go, the Goldilocks Zone is a goal that will make you work, make you think, make you strive a bit beyond your current abilities, but which you can achieve in the time you’ve got. If you’ve got 15 minutes, pick one easily-achieved short-term goal and pursue it. All this abstraction isn’t all that helpful, so let me give you a real-world example.

Yesterday I had 15 minutes to practice guitar, so my short-term goal was to play through a new Gypsy jazz tune I’ve learned, For Sephora and to play it without mistakes. But goals are funny D-hole Gypsy Jazz Guitarthings. They’re a bit like fractals: you can dive in deeper and find even more of them and they all have a similar structure. Thus, a short-term goal like this can be broken down even further into what I call micro-goals. Micro-goals are like atoms: just about as small as you can get and yet still have some kind of cohesion.

So I turned that short-term goal into a medium-term goal even though it only involves 15 minutes of time. In order to play through the tune without mistakes, I first focus on the areas that I know are tricky: In the B section of the tune, the chords move more quickly and in particular, there is a Gmaj7 to Cmaj7 to F# half-diminished passage that is the most difficult of the piece for me. That’s where I start, and I move so slowly that it’s impossible to tell what the tune is, and so slowly that it’s perfectly executed from the very beginning. I ensure that I make the changes perfectly, first from the Gmaj7 to the Cmaj7 a few times, then the Cmaj7 to the F#half-dimished a few times, and then, still going ridiculously slowly, through all three chords.

Already, you can see that each of those actions is a micro-goal in itself, all of which help to build up to my ultimate goal of playing the whole tune without mistakes (and in this case, a “mistake” also includes muted notes within a chord that muddies the clarity of tone). Approached like this, that 15 minutes is absolutely packed with focused effort. Toward the end of the 15 minutes, I begin to put the whole tune together, eventually playing the whole song. It might still be so slow that it’s just about unrecognizable, but that’s okay. My goal isn’t to play the tune up to speed (like the example below, played by the tune’s composer), but to play through without mistakes. It’s achievable but also a challenge because I know myself, I know my tendencies, and I know how much I can take in 15 minutes. After a week of only 15 minutes a day, I can play the tune almost up to tempo, and that is a thrilling thing for me. I love it! My long-term goal for this piece is to play all the parts live: rhythm guitar, trumpet on melody, and percussion, using a looping device (Boss Loop station). For inspiration, I watch the Rosenbergs play it with Birelli Lagrene (video below).

If you have experience practicing, you’ll know much better where that line is between too easy and too hard. If you’re a beginner, or just starting out, it’s better to set very, very easy goals at first, until you have enough experience that you can begin to push yourself a little harder and explore where your failure line is, where your Goldilocks Zone ends and you stray into the Too Hot Zone. At first, make your short-term goals low-hanging fruit. Make it easy! If it’s easy but a little challenging, it’ll be fun! But if, as a neophyte, you’re trying too hard and failing to reach your goals, you’ll be frustrated, dejected, and maybe even angry or depressed because it won’t feel like you’re making progress. You’ll feel like a loser, and nobody can continue in the face of that. Better is to set simple, easily reached goals to bolster your sense of progress toward your ultimate goal.

Here’s the Rosenberg Trio playing Stochello’s tune, For Sephora, with special guest, Birelli Lagrene. Stochello on lead guitar, Birelli accompanies the melody and takes a tasty solo, Nous’che on rhythm guitar, and Nonnie Rosenberg on upright bass. Good stuff! (find recordings of their music here)

Happy New Year! And good luck with your practice goals!

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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