Hitting the Target: How to Accomplish Your Goals in Music and Anything Else

On this site, we often talk about the specifics of learning improvisation: ear training, transcribing, chord progressions, language… But what about the big picture? How do you accomplish what you want to as a musician?

How do you get from the player you are today to the player that you want to become down the road?

It’s an important question for any aspiring musician to ponder and the answer is surprisingly simple, yet it’s one that many players forget as they head into the practice room.

The truth is, a lot of musicians are spending hours in the practice room, but few of these players are actually achieving their musical goals.

This doesn’t have to be the case. Here are three simple steps to turning this pattern around and accomplishing all of your goals, musical or otherwise:

I. Have a defined objective

Know what you want.

This is the first step to achieving a goal in music or anything else. You need to know why you’re doing something and what you want to get out of it.

Think about your musical practice as a journey that you’re about to embark upon. If you begin your travels with no clear destination, you’ll spend months wandering around aimlessly. By chance you might get closer to your goal or you may even be going in the completely wrong direction, you’ll never know.

However, if you know exactly where you’re headed you can easily find the best route to get there. The same is true of your musical goals.

Right now your objective in the practice room might only be “I want to get better.” This is great attitude, but what exactly do you want to get better at? You may not realize it, but this vague goal is actually leading to actions that are holding you back.

Where you are now:

  • Getting into the practice room and “playing” your instrument, not practicing

  • Practicing random etudes, exercises or scales with no specific plan or defined objectives

  • Going through the motions of practice without believing in what you’re doing

  • Practicing goals that others gave you, not your own

  • Transcribing solos that you’re “supposed” to transcribe, not solos that you love

  • Practicing because my teacher is making me

Instead, to improve, go in with a specific goal. Define the exact goals you want to accomplish as an improviser.

Where you want to be:

  • I want to accomplish ‘x’ in music.

  • I want to be able to do this on my instrument.

  • I want to be able to learn a melody & chord progression by ear

  • Today I’m going to work on articulation in the practice room.

  • Right now I’m going to learn this ii-V line in all 12 keys

  • By this date I want to know all my major scales

  • I am going to learn these 5 tunes by February 1st.

  • I want to learn Miles solo on So What by ear

These are defined goals. Do you see the difference?

When you know exactly what you want to accomplish, it’s much easier to create a specific practice plan that will get you there.

“If you don’t know what you want, you end up with a lot you don’t.”~Chuck Palahniuk

How to get there:

Take a moment to think about why you are working on jazz improvisation. Why are you playing music?

  • What do you want to be able to do: Play like your heroes on your favorite recordings…be able to get gigs around town…know a bunch of tunes when you go to jam sessions?

  • What do you want to sound like? Which players do you want to emulate? Which recordings are your favorite? What inspires you musically?

  • Which aspects of your instrumental technique do you want to improve? What is difficult on your instrument that you wish was easier? What is “your sound” going to be?

Define these thoughts in specific words. Write them out on a piece of paper. Hang them up on the wall in your practice room. Remember, these goals are your own, no one else can make them for you.

With these concrete goals staring you in the face, it’s much easier to start plotting your course of action. There is a destination point, a timeline, and specific course of action that will get you there.

Most players never get around to defining a specific goal, a goal that they believe in. With no goal you’re shooting in the dark no matter how much time you spend in the practice room. Instead, every time you go into the practice room you should think, “ I want to accomplish this and here’s how I’m going to do it.”

II. Are your actions conducive to achieving your objective and getting your desired results?

This one is so simple it seems obvious, yet it is likely the #1 obstacle for most musicians trying to improve — the things they’re practicing simply do not line up with their goals.

Take a look at the contents of your own practice routine. Are the exercises and techniques that you’re working on in the practice room helping you to achieve your goals?

If they aren’t there could be two reasons for this disconnect:

(#1) You simply don’t know how to get the results you’re looking for

You don’t know what to practice or how to practice it. This is common when you first start learning a skill or have no guidance or experience  – you really want to improve, you just don’t know the first step to take.

When I first started getting serious about learning to improvise I knew that I wanted to get better, I just didn’t know how to do it. I practiced scales, memorized music theory, and listened to a bunch of recordings, but at the end of the day I still couldn’t improvise any better. No matter what I did improvising was this elusive skill that was always beyond my reach.

The reason was that I didn’t know what to practice to improve my improvising. I took my best guess, but the bottom line was that the things I was practicing were not getting me to my goals.

(#2) You’re practicing the wrong things/wasting time on stuff that is not going to get you to your desired results

The other reason your practice time may not be as fruitful as you’d like is that you’re wasting time on the wrong types of practice.

You may be going into the practice room and selecting exercises or tunes at random depending on your mood that day. Or some days you might just take out your horn and start playing.

In my own experience I was guilty of both of these things. I knew I wanted to become a better improviser, yet I would spend hours aimlessly “improvising” with play-a-long tracks or trying to learn tunes out of the real book note for note. It felt as if I was improving, but I was simply wasting time on things that were not going to make me a better improviser.

The solution to these two problems is easy. (#1) If you don’t know what to practice ask a player that sounds great, take a lesson, or check out the articles on this site. The answers are out there you just have to find them. (#2) Make sure that the things that you’re working on in the practice room are benefitting you and moving you toward your goal. It’s easier to waste time than you might think.

Remember that the players that sound great don’t get there by good luck. They know what they want to do and they know the specific things that will get them there. From that point on it’s just hours in the practice room.

III. Flexibility

The third step is your ability/willingness to change your course or adjust your practice based on the results your getting.

At times you might realize you’re on the wrong path. You’re holding onto beliefs or practice plans that are old habits or you’re on a course of action that is a dead end. Things are just not working out.

The original goal that you set out to accomplish may be different than you originally thought or the path to your destination may be more complex than you once perceived it to be.

“Adapt or perish, now as ever, is nature’s inexorable imperative.”~H.G. Wells

In order to accomplish big goals you need to be able to adapt. New approaches and new techniques will make it easier to improve and will get you closer to your destination, the only catch is that you must realize this and create change within yourself.

Keep in mind that change gets harder the older or more advanced you get. After a certain amount of time you get set in your ways and resist any different method of doing things. “I couldn’t have been wrong all this time!”

When I first got to New York I quickly realized that my playing was not what I thought it was and I needed to make some changes. I was only scratching the surface of what it truly meant to be playing this music. My current practice plan enabled me to sound decent, but there was a higher level of playing that lay just beyond my reach.

I wanted to be able to go to jam sessions and hear the melodies and chord progressions by ear, I wanted to be able to improvise longer musical lines – to play what I was truly hearing without thinking about scales or chords, and I wanted to be more creative as an improviser.

The missing link in my practice was my ears. Somewhere along the way I had ignored the importance of ear training. Studying more scales and licks, and theory patterns as I was currently doing was not going to change my playing or get me to my goal.

This meant that I had to change my approach and go back and work on the basic elements of ear training. Instead of trying to practice advanced techniques or outside harmonies, I went back to the fundamentals. I had to head back into the practice room and sing the basic intervals like Major 2nds and 4ths until my ears slowly got up to speed.

This is not easy to do, it’s like a blow to your ego. It’s like being defeated or admitting that you’re wrong. At a certain point you must be brutally honest with yourself. My ears suck and here’s how I’m going to make them better.

On your own musical journey you’ll find that you’ll have to do the same. The more you learn the more obvious it will become what it is that you need to do. This means that you’ll need to readjust your course and adapt every now and then.

Everyday implementation

These three steps are easy to do and they can make a huge difference in the results of your practice. They can even change your direction in music. Spend an hour or even a week and find out what you want to accomplish as a musician.

When your musical approach and daily practice lines up with something that you truly believe in you’ll find that you’ll be much more successful. Practice will no longer be a chore, but an essential piece of your journey in becoming a better musician.

Instead of leaving your musical progress up to chance, take control of what you want to accomplish as an improviser. Know what you want, define a goal, and create a practice routine that leads directly to this goal.

If you’re serious about music, you’re already putting in the time in the practice room, now just make sure that your time is spent pursuing something that you truly believe in. Not only will you save time and effort, you’ll actually start accomplishing those ellusive goals that you’ve had for years.