The first two things I have learned about music are discipline and persistence (see previous 2 blog posts). Alone, discipline and persistence lack focus. What are we being persistent in doing? Discipline in practice - how? Hopes and dreams are necessary and beautiful. We need them. We can continue dreaming about our goals and work hard. Without a plan, your hopes and dreams will come to nothing. I'm sorry, but it's true.
If you don't have a plan, will you know if you ever achieve your goal?
#3 - Discipline and persistence must be backed by SMART practice.
S = Specific
Be as specific as possible. What exactly do you want to do? How exactly do you think you can get there? You plans may change over time, but being specific gives you direction.
The same thing is true with practicing. Have a map in your mind of exactly what you want each piece to sound like. Do you know exactly how you want your performance to be? Then, do not allow yourself anything less than that in practice. Don't give yourself the benefit of the doubt - "Well, I never make a mistake there. It was just a fluke." Go back and take that section apart until you know you won't make that mistake again. If the mistake does come back, practice it in different ways to trigger your brain to continue working towards the sound you want. Do not be satisfied. Be happily discontent with your work.
M = Measurable
Often a goal for music is, "I want to play this piece memorized by the end of the semester for my jury." Practicing specifically is tiring and discouraging. It is difficult work. In order to keep from being discouraged and to make sure you are making good progress, have shorter goals. "In two weeks, I want to have the first page solidly memorized." Or something similar. Seeing the small steps you are making towards your goal will keep you motivated when you really would rather be doing anything else but practice.
A = Attainable
Be realistic with your goals. Don't have all of your goals and small steps be stretching your abilities. If your goal is to learn and memorize an entire Bach Invention in one week, make sure that is something you really can do. Too often, students set goals and don't realize it is beyond their current capabilities. They repeat a pattern of frustration and discouragement by regularly failing to meet the expectations they have for themselves. Instead, set yourself up to be successful!
R = Relevant
Your small step goals need to be relevant steps towards achieving your long term goals. For example, if your goal is to play your scales quickly, your practice isn't going to be filled with exercises of double thirds. There may be some correlation, but double thirds are more peripheral. Your practice should be directly linked to the goals that you have. Everything from your warm up routine to your cool down stretching should be focused on improving your goals. Always be asking yourself questions. What is practicing like this specifically accomplishing? And, is this practice technique actually improving my music the way I want it to be?
T = Time-measured
Over great lengths of time, you can learn to do just about anything. The body and mind are highly adaptable.
But what if you don't have great lengths of time?
Choose a variety of music. You may have a long-term piece that you can slowly let sink in. You may also choose some short-term pieces for an end-of-semester jury. And you may also choose some ultra-short-term pieces to expand your ability to pick up repertoire quickly. All three of those categories impose different requirements on your brain. All three need different learning strategies and skills. Pick up all of the skills you can and continue to tinker with how you learn and practice.
The key is to know which pieces require which time-measurement. Once you have the SMAR part of your plan, decide what Time-measurement it best fits into. Students may not get much of a choice with the time restraints of school, but your teacher is there to help you learn how to learn within a great variety of Time-measurements.
By backing up your goals with discipline, persistence, and SMART practice, you will be amazed at how far you can go.