I've mentioned before that I'm a very goal-oriented person. I believe that the right set of goals helps me stay focused and centered on the tasks that I need to accomplish. The most effective goals fall into three categories: Short-Term, Intermediate, and Long-Term. Each of the short-term goals feed into your intermediate, and the intermediate into the long-term goals.
Short Term Goals
I like to think of goals as a pyramid shape. The base of the pyramid is made up of short term goals. These are goals like “Today I’m going to increase the tempo on ScEx 2 from 80 to 90 beats per minute.” Or, “I’m going to find a way to hit the high E in the Gregson Concerto before Friday this week.” Short term goals tend to be on the scale of days or weeks. They also may seem insignificant, but they can really begin to accumulate over time. Imagine where you'd be if you set a short-term goal of increasing the tempo of a double tonguing exercise by two beats every day. How far could you get in a month or a year? You should have many short term goals, maybe three for each intermediate goal. Every short-term goal should feed into the next level of the pyramid.
The middle section of the pyramid is made up of intermediate goals. These are goals that you'll need to work toward spanning a time frame from a month to a year before they can be accomplished. My primary intermediate goal right now is this: "Before July 4th I'm going to be able to play ScEx 1-3 smoothly, with no gaps/breaks at 160 BPM at any dynamic level from pianissimo-fortissimo." Here's another example: "Before June 17th I'm going to have three episodes for TuVlog ready for release on YouTube." You should have fewer intermediate goals and like short term goals, they should also feed into the next level of the pyramid.
Long term goals
Long term goals are achieved over the course of years or your entire lifetime. What are the things you want to accomplish by the end of your life? An example of a good long term goal for me is, "I will be Full Professor by the time I turn 40 years old." Another example for a younger person is. "I will graduate with my Doctorate in Tuba Performance with a 4.0 GPA in two years." Long term goals take enough of an investment of time that you should only have a few. Any more than five or so and you risk your ability to accomplish the goals due to lack of focus. So pick just a few that you’re sure are worthy of your time. Also consider that you want the long-term goals to be as challenging as possible, while remaining realistically achievable.
Notice that every level of the pyramid feeds into the step above it. Short-Intermediate-Long. The base of the pyramid is broad, with lots of short term goals. The top of the pyramid is narrow. So there's only room for a few long term goals. Bill Gates says, "Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years."
One thing to keep in mind about goal-setting is that goals aren't effective unless they have certain characteristics. Remember the acronym SMART. If you need to, go back and read the goals I used as examples above. They all follow SMART goal-setting characteristics. They are Specific. Each goal is detailed enough that it doesn’t need further clarification to be identified or understood. They are Measurable. Progress toward all of the goals can be tracked and quantified over time. They are all Attainable. Each of these goals is something I personally am capable of accomplishing. They are Relevant. Every one of the goals is something I'm interested in or is closely connected to things I'm currently working towards. Finally, they are Timely. Each of the goals has an associated date by which to be accomplished.
If goals lack any of the SMART characteristics it means you'll be less likely to follow through or complete them. Think of it this way. Someone may say, "I want to be the best ever." This isn't specific. What area do you want to be the best ever in? It isn't measurable. It's not really possible to measure a goal like this, especially when it isn’t clearly defined. It's not really clear whether the goal is attainable, relevant, or timely either since it lacks specificity. Even a goal such as, "I want to be the best tuba player ever by the time I retire." doesn’t work because there are still questions that must be answered about it before it satisfies all the SMART criteria. Specific: How do you define "best tuba player ever"? Measurable: How are you going to tell when you are the best ever? Attainable: Only one person can be the best ever at something, are you able to do this? Relevant: Are you a tuba player now? Timely: When will you retire?
Hopefully, some of this resonates with you. I've used this procedure for years at this point and think it works well.
Last summer I wrote about focusing on a single goal and going all-in on a single weakness in my playing over the summer break. You can read about it here. That approach was effective, so I'll do it again this summer, but with a few tweaks. This summer I'll be focused on a single goal (moving in and through the top of the staff), but I'll have other tasks as well. I've already planned-out what repertoire I'll be performing next Fall. While I won't start working on the repertoire until July, I've planned out the means by which I'll improve my playing in order to better execute the repertoire when it comes time to perform.
Here's what I did. Once I'd chosen the solos I'd perform on my next recital I looked through them and considered what techniques and skills each piece would require. The idea is that in an ideal world you should always have more of said skill than is required for the given piece. In other words, your performance skills (or lack thereof) should never govern how the piece is performed. This requires an awareness of your deficiencies as a player, the challenges of a piece of music relative to those deficiencies, and how to go about improving those deficiencies. This is a topic that's been an interest of mine for a while. I even wrote my doctoral project over similar subject. You can read it here.
Here's an example: technical pieces like Carnival of Venice are often performed with the theme at the written tempo and the variations (especially the final variation) at a slower tempo. This usually happens because the player lacks the requisite skill to perform the whole piece at the full tempo. In this case the technique in question is finger speed, coordination, and dexterity.
Next year I'll be performing Metallic Figures by Kevin Day. Here's the protocol I developed to get myself ready to perform it. I've listed each movement and the challenges associated with each as well as some general challenges that apply to the whole piece.
The reason for Loud Playing is that I'll be performing the piece with the band. Playing solo over is generally extremely demanding in terms of volume of sound. It's one soloist against 50-80 band-members. It's sort of like how you play louder with an accompanist than you do in the practice room, but way worse!
I've done that for each of the pieces I'll perform on my recital in the Fall. I've started working on them every day which is the bulk of my practice after completing my routine. There's a lot to cover, so I try to hit everything at least once a week. I'd like to know what you're working on this summer. Leave a note in the comments below.
Thank you for reading and happy practicing!
Jeremy is Associate Professor of Tuba and Euphonium at West Texas A&M University.