Goals as Fractals and Guerrilla Practice

Hans Jørgen Jensen
Hans Jørgen Jensen Hans Jørgen Jensen

Hans Jørgen Jensen is an affable cello teacher from whose studio have come cello players who win in international cello competitions and garner spots in top orchestras around the world. He’s a wonderful teacher and an interesting, busy man. There were many gems to admire when he spoke with me about practice, but the one that sticks in my mind, the one that was powerful enough to make it a chapter in The Practice of Practice was the power of goals. Another chapter covers what I’ve called Guerrilla Practice: snatching a tiny fragment of practice when you can, either once a day or, ideally, throughout the day. Both are covered briefly below.

Setting goals “just right” is one of the most powerful and motivating techniques expert practicers use to get the most out of the practice session, even if you only have two minutes of practice time a day . When I asked Hans Jensen my favorite interview question, if there was one thing he would teach his younger self about practice, he said, “I would try to make my goals more specific: short-term, long-term, and having a big vision of where you’re heading with it.” He teaches his students to set clearly defined, concrete goals. He said, “If there is no dream, and if there is no vision; that’s what we need for having motivation.”

We know about long-term, mid-term, and short-term goals. Except for short-term goals, larger goals are abstract: it’s a challenge to know exactly what to do to achieve them. I envision goals as a fractal, specifically, a Sierpinski fractal, named after the Polish mathematician who discovered it in 1915. You can see below that even the tiniest goal is a part of the larger goal in which it’s embedded, which in turn is part of a larger goal, etc. Here’s the graphic from The Practice of Practice:


The trick for your single practice session is to break down goals even smaller than short-term goals. Immediate goals are what you want to accomplish for the time you have, whether it’s 5 minutes or 2 hours. Micro goals are one specific task you’d like to accomplish, say learning a tough phrase. Nano-goals are a single repetition, the goal of which is to play the repetition flawlessly.

Shrinking goals to the smallest size helps to make concrete exactly what you’ve got to do to improve in that one moment. Approaching practice like this will help you improve even if you only practice 2 minutes a day. One of Hans Jensen’s students was a graduate student strapped for time and she could spare only 2 minutes a day. His student was learning the Popper cello etude #38 (cellist Joshua Roman in the vid isn’t Jensen’s student). Hans said, “It’s a hard etude. It goes fast! I think she worked on it six weeks. At first, for the first two weeks, she only practiced one minute a day. Then we changed to two minutes. It’s really hard! One of the hardest.” Setting tiny, reachable goals was the technique that allowed her to learn the etude.

Kolossen i Frihamnen
Kolossen i Frihamnen Kolossen i Frihamnen (Photo credit: Eva the Weaver)

Goals combined with what I’ve called Guerrilla Practice are a one-two punch. I used to think that I needed at least an hour or two to practice, otherwise it wasn’t worth it. Hans said he used to think that, too, but he told me, very emphatically, “That’s totally wrong.” Hans said he had another student who got better lots faster than other players. When Hans asked him what he was doing to get so much better so much faster, he said he used short moments of down time to practice, mostly during group rehearsal warm-up time. Ten or fifteen minutes here and there really adds up.

To learn more about goals and many other helpful practice approaches, get a copy of The Practice of Practice. Buy a paperback copy and get the Kindle edition for free! If you have Amazon Prime, you can borrow a Kindle edition for free.

For more on Hans Jensen’s teaching, check out the wonderful documentary on Vimeo, Taste the Stringposted by Richard Van Kleek. All kinds of great stuff in there about learning to play, teaching, and life.

We’re all busy, but I know I can spare at least two minutes a day for an intense burst of practice. I bet you can, too.


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