Why you need clear musical goals

“You know the difference between the musicians who made it big and those who didn’t?”

Top jazz guitarist, Mike Moreno, was talking at an exclusive masterclass a few years back.

Lights from a crowd of effects pedals danced on Mike’s face as he paused for a moment.

There was a shuffling sound as, all around the semi-circle of chairs, people leaned forward expectantly. He continued:

“It’s not what you’d expect…”

I witnessed some incredible playing at that masterclass. I got great advice on a range of topics.

But the most important thing I learned came from the 12 words that Mike said next.

Is your playing improving as quickly as you’d like?

If you’re a typical musician, then the answer’s probably no. Maybe you even feel that you’ve hit a complete stop.

And you probably assume this is down to one or more of these three reasons:

  • You just don’t have the TALENT
  • You’re not working HARD enough
  • You’re not doing the RIGHT work

I’ve got to tell you that blaming lack of talent is an excuse. Ask any great musician and they’ll tell you their success comes from practice – not talent.

The other two areas are the ones you need to sort out … eventually. But the trick to doing this usually lies in looking somewhere else to start with.

Working on the right topics is vital if you want to maximise your progress.

And – once you’re working on the right things – more quality practice time leads to faster improvement (though the guys who make the most progress often practice less than you might think).

But this is rarely the whole story. Not picking the right areas of work, or not putting in enough effort tends to be a symptom rather than the underlying cause. Get the bigger picture right, and those things tend to follow naturally.

Let’s go back to that Mike Moreno workshop to learn the secret.

Mike’s story

“You know the difference between the musicians who made it big and those who didn’t?”

Mike was talking about the people he was at music college with years ago. A group of them went on to become big names.

But lots of them didn’t make it.

He’d had almost no sleep – he’d literally just come from a transatlantic cruise ship gig. His voice was slightly slurred, but the message was clear.

“It’s not what you’d expect…

The guys who made it big knew exactly where they were going”

And that was it. The one obvious difference.

The guys who didn’t go on to be super-successful weren’t any less talented. They’d worked just as hard as those who would eventually make it big.

The difference was that the musicians who would become successful had a specific and clear idea of exactly what they were aiming for.

Even at that very early stage – before their career had started.

Clarity about your goal drives everything underneath

Without knowing what you’re aiming at, how can you hope to get there? Let alone choose the quickest path?

As Yogi Berra said:

“If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else”

If I’m being charitable, most of the material on music practice assumes that you already have clarity about your goal.

More realistically, most of it just takes for granted that you have exactly the same goal as whoever’s giving the advice.

Unfortunately, this means you can conscientiously follow detailed practice advice that’s proven to work for others…

… and get nowhere.

But if your goal is clear BEFORE everything else, then the right things for you to work on will fall into place.

And there are more huge benefits once you have a clear and specific target to aim at:

  • You’re not so easily distracted by “new” things to work on
  • That vision of what you want to achieve keeps you motivated when times are tough
  • You can measure whether each thing you work on is really moving you towards your goal
  • You experience less doubt and self-criticism. When you know something you’re impressed by in other musicians is not part of YOUR goal then you’re less likely to think “I ought to be able to play like that”

Keep it simple and specific

As you start to work out what vision of the future you’re heading towards, avoid the trap of trying to include too many things.

This is as much about deciding what you’re not going to pursue as it is about choosing what to go for.

If you want to master some areas, then you have to be willing to let others go.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t ever work on those areas. Just that you know they’re not your focus.

And to do this, you need to be pretty specific about what your goal is. Simply thinking “I want to be a great musician” is nice, but it’s not going to help you decide what’s in and what’s out.

Which specific areas will you excel in? And where is it ok for you to be average?

Which genres will you master? And which can you drop?

Here’s how it’s worked for me

When I went through this process a while back, I realised that the areas I want to master the most are simple, beautiful melodic playing and amazing rhythms.

It was really hard to let go of other things that I’d also like to be great at. In an ideal world, I’d have amazing technique, play incredible harmonies, and much more besides.

But once I’d focused my goal on a narrower set of objectives, I relaxed and enjoyed my practice more.

I no longer felt the urge to practice an impossibly large set of topics.

I wasn’t so envious when other musicians got up on the bandstand with incredible technique, improvising crazy outside phrases. I’d given myself permission to let that go – at least for the moment.

And I discovered that this didn’t restrict me as much as I’d initially thought. The improvements I made with a narrow focus spilled over into other areas.

For example, digging deep into simple melodies also turned out to benefit my skills with more complex melodies. And it improved how I voice lead harmony.

[Note that my goals happen to be independent of musical genre and type of band. Those things could easily be at the centre of your vision, though]

You don’t need “perfect” goals

If you’re concerned about committing yourself to the “wrong” goals, then don’t worry.

You’re not locking yourself down to something that you can never change. You’re free to update your goal in the future.

Put something in place now and adjust it over time – rather than waiting until you’re totally sure of your target. In my experience putting things off until you’re “ready” usually means you end up never starting at all.

In fact, starting when you’re unsure is probably the best way to get real clarity in the end.

You have to fix on something definite (and ideally physically write it down) and then live with it for a while. This way, you’ll learn much more about which bits are right for you and which aren’t.

When you live with something in practice all sorts of insights appear that wouldn’t have arrived if you were just thinking about it.

And pay attention to how you feel about this goal as you work with it. Whether you feel happy with it or not is usually a strong indicator of what’s right for you.

Then readjust if necessary. And repeat.

Now go and get started

It’s a simple process:

Map out your goal.

Let it guide, motivate and inspire you.

See the progress.

You just have to put it into practice. And the best time to start is now.

Do you have a clear vision of where you’re headed as a musician? What is it? Let me know in the comments below.

  • Thank you Mark. Mike’s story …. and what I have read from you, speaks to my heart. At this stage, as a young 75 year old, and as I pick up my musical interests again, I am TOO SCATTERED. One thing I know is that I need to play the music and melodies that appeal to me. I need to simplify and not spread myself over too much of a range of genre. I need to persevere, encourage and experiment more with a group of us who can all bring our talents and joy to the “music table” I have STARTED RELAXING more. I am on the right path and now that I have “let go” – sort of – and am thankful for the music I have absorbed over the decades, I need to have MORE STRUCTURE in my practices….oh dear! Life is so full and too short!!!

  • My goal is to be a one man band (guitar, vocals + pedals) and busk, play on cruise ships or anywhere else someone would have me. I’ve been in a year long process trying to hone goals, practice, repertoire.

      • I’ve started writing out not only my ultimate big goals but smaller daily goals. Then at the end of the day writing what I left unfinished and tomorrow’s action plan. I’ve also set specific times to practice.

  • I have the goal of learning songs well enough to be able to play the head, simply arpeggiate the harmony and then the plan is to improvise melodically and rhythmically. Well enough to play at an open mike night or informal gig. For me this is a huge undertaking as I have avoided these challenges for years and there is quite enough involved to see me through the foreseeable.

    • Yes, it’s a big challenge, John. But it’s well worth the effort once you find yourself having genuinely taken a big step up. The trick is to break the large challenge down into several manageable steps and then just get started on the first one (and ignore the rest for the time being). Just like you’re doing now. Keep up the good work!

  • I’ve been training in piano for 4 months I’m 60 years old and my desire to learn but it seems as though my progress is slow Bn i Bn dont have the proper instrument to practice on and the one I have has 42 keys I think but I know it’s very important that you have an instrument you can enjoy ill be getting one soon because I want to be a gospel musician I mean a good one. Thanks Maurice

    • Keep going, Maurice. Slow progress turns into large improvements surprisingly quickly if you’re consistent and stick at it. One day you’ll look back and be amazed at how far you’ve come!

  • Excellent, echoes one of the three of Itzhak Perlman’s practice goals whose video you earlier pidted, i.e. practice with a specific objective. Your words of wisdom are awesome, thank you!

  • Since having looked at module one, I have seen much value in eliminating self chatter from the practice as a musician and getting more in touch with the ‘feel’ of the process. I am new to this but have found the approach of training the mind and attitude effective and helpful already. I also like the concept of letting go; there are many thoughts and ideas that seem important, but only get in the way of clarity of direction and a sense of the right priorities for positive progress.
    Thank you, Mark.

  • I am in the “same boat” with too many goals of expanding repertoire, improving technique, decoding puzzling theory (models – some artificial – for explaining why something ‘sounds good’), jamming with several jazz bands, recording fun stuff, while suffering from “shiny” on-line distractions and possible burnout. For 2023, I will pick my “top 3” for daily morning practice. Time permitting, I will treat myself to secondary topics at other times of the day. It’s my 2023 hope for a sharp(#) discipline and faster progress with a clear view of direction ahead. I like the analogy of rowing a boat in small incremental steps towards the ultimate destination, and adapting to changing currents and weather along the way, as necessary.

  • Oh what a wonderful reminder that goals are important. I quit believing in my goal to become a busker, singing and playing the guitar. Or do busking on the violin. But I am doing recitals at my music school 2 or 3 times a year. Thank you Mark for giving me hope again to aim for my dreams.

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