How to Set Musical Goals

Research has shown over and over that people who set goals are typically the most successful. These people accomplish more than their non goal setting counterparts, and they tend to report being happier. If this is the case, you think everyone would be jumping over themselves to set goals for their lives. The problem is, few people set goals and even fewer keep them. Only 8% of people who set new year’s resolutions actually keep them.

Write Down Your Goals

Before we can begin talking about specific goal setting techniques, you need to understand that a goal that is not written down, is not a goal. You need to write down your goals, and you need to refer back to them often. You should habitually be looking at your goals wherever you put them. Maybe you tape them to your instrument case, or on the wall behind your piano.

Write Down Your Goals

Maybe you even just have an app for them on your phone. It doesn’t really matter as long as you make a habit of looking at them daily. Before reading any further, get a piece of paper, download an app, or open up Word and let’s get started on writing some goals.

Long-term Goals

Understanding the different timelines for goals is the first step in setting them. Long term goals are goals for things you hope to achieve far into the future. Where do you want to be in 10 or maybe even 20 years? Do you want a certain job or maybe you want to play at a certain venue? 

Anything that you want to accomplish, but can’t for a decade or two, is normally called your long term goals. It’s important to have an idea of what these are before you set your other goals. Each of your other goals will play off of your long term goals.

Your Biggest Goal is Your BHAG

BHAG stands for Big Hairy Audacious Goal. It was first coined in the book “Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies”, by James Collins and Jerry Porras.

Everyone should have a BHAG that gives them direction in their life. A BHAG is a long term goal with a 10-30 year time frame. 

Your Biggest Goal is Your BHAG

To have a BHAG you need to dream big. Maybe you want to be a tenured member of an orchestra, or maybe you want to perform a solo recital in Carnegie Hall. Whatever you want to do, make it audacious. It’s a big deal. Not so big that it’s impossible to accomplish, but big enough that at first glance it may seem that way.

Your BHAG will give you a lot of direction. Before you continue on you should write down your BHAG in big letters at the top of your page of goals. This is your ultimate, number one goal, for the foreseeable future. Every other goal will get you closer to obtaining your BHAG.

You can then write some other long term goals that you think may not be quite as audacious. These are goals that are 5-10 years out, but you feel strongly that they are attainable. Your BHAG will push you further than you think possible whereas your normal long term goals will be more easily recognized as attainable.

Medium-term Goals

Now that you have some long-term goals, and a BHAG, you’ll need some medium-term goals. These types of goals can be set for anywhere from a few months to a year. What are your plans? Because you already have some long-term goals set, you need to keep them in mind when writing these ones. Each medium-term goal should get you closer to achieving your long-term goals.

Medium-term Goals

Set as many as you can. Plan out your life! What will this year look like? What are you working towards? A recital? A competition? What about next year?

The point is that if you are able to accomplish all of the medium term goals that you set, you can realistically see being able to reach your long-term goals, and even your BHAG.

These goals should push you just like your long term goals, but they should still be attainable.

Short-term Goals

Finally the last set of goals you need to set are the short-term ones. These goals can be monthly, weekly, daily, or even hourly. Just like with your medium term goals leading to your long term goals, if you were to complete all of your short term goals, they would allow you to finish your medium-term goals. A short term goal may be to learn a page of music on a certain piece by your lesson the next week.

Short-term Goals

You can break these down even further to more immediate goals. In order to learn that page by your lesson next week, you’ll need to learn 4 measures a day. Then your task becomes practicing each day to accomplish your 4 measure goal.

The Snowball Effect

The Snowball Effect

Now that you have goals for each time frame you might’ve noticed how it all works. By completing your short term goals, you’ll complete your medium term goals. By completing your medium term goals, you’ll complete your long term goals, and hopefully your BHAG. These goals will keep you honest and working hard. I like to call it the snowball effect. Your goals will build up like a snowball until you reach your massive BHAG at the end.

Set Real Deadlines for Your Goals

Goals must have due dates. The goals that people actually do finish are actually deadlines in disguise.The most illustrative example of this is studying for tests. Although most people don’t study for tests until the night before, most students do study for them. The goal in this case is to get a good grade on the test. The task is studying. You reach your goal when you get a good grade.

What if you could just take the test whenever? Next week is fine, but a decade from now would work too. Would you ever study? Have you ever studied the night before the test? I don’t know if I ever studied for a test any earlier than the night before actually. I remember most of my peers in school did the same. Students typically realize that they can get a good grade on a test by studying the night before, so that’s what they do.

For students like this, the goal isn’t to learn the material, it’s to get a good grade. These are goals that you’ve likely accomplished many times throughout your life. How long would it really take to study for a test? Maybe a couple of hours? It depends on the test of course, but most tests don’t require hours and hours of studying.

 We all know it’s best to study for a test a little bit each day, but what ends up happening? Cramming. It’s the night before a big test and you haven’t opened your textbook. You freak out and start studying. You spend a couple hours, feel good about it, go to sleep and ace the test the next day.

Set Real Deadlines for Your Goals

This is definitely not the best way to actually learn something. All you really get from this is an A on the test the next day, then you forget all of the test material the following day. Your goal was to get a good grade on the test, and you succeeded. You never really wanted to learn the material in the first place, so you accomplished your goal, doing well on the test.

In order to succeed as a musician, you need to have deadlines for your goals just like the test. I bet the best you’ve ever practiced was a few weeks before a big performance. You probably had months and months to practice, and I’m sure you did, but your practice was much better the closer it got to the recital.

One way to keep yourself honest is to always have something to prepare for. Enter competitions, have recitals, even setting up times to play for family and friends can keep you working hard. It’s better to have as many deadlines as possible. If the only thing you have coming up is a solo recital in 11 months, it will be a lot harder to practice and stay on track. If you don’t have any scheduled competitions or performances before your big recital, make them up yourself.

Deadline Examples

As an example, let’s say you have 7 pieces you need to learn for an upcoming recital. Set deadlines when each piece will be learned. Maybe the first piece will take you 2 months. You need to then set an actual date when your piece must be finished by. Write it down next to your goal.

Schedule time with a friend or family member to hear you play your piece. Let them know that on September 23 (or whatever), you want them to hear the new piece because it will be finished then. Send them a Facebook event invite.

Find a place to perform, it’s ok if it’s at your house, but if you can find somewhere different it will make it seem more like an event. Make sure your friend confirms and puts it on their calendar. Then plan a place to eat afterward. You’ve now created a deadline.

Wouldn’t you feel a little silly after planning that event to let your friend know that the piece isn’t done? I would. Because of the deadline you set for yourself, you’ll find that you actually work hard to get ready for it.

Parkinson’s Law and Deadlines

Parkinson’s Law states that “work expands to fill the time available for its completion.” This is extremely important to understand when picking deadlines for your goals. Have you ever felt pushed by something that you thought there was no way to accomplish in the time allotted? Maybe you got a new teacher and they expected an entire piece memorized in one week. With your old teacher it would have taken a month, but your new teacher wants more from you.

If this scenario, or another one like it, has ever happened to you, were you able to do it? Many people find that they are able to accomplish the task in a very short time period because a deadline was pushed on them. According to Parkinson’s Law, you’ll work less if your deadline is further away. You’ll work more if it is closer. If you have more time to do something, it will take that long to actually do it.

Parkinson’s Law and Deadlines

So how can we use Parkinson’s Law to our advantage? Make lofty deadlines. If you think you’ll be able to learn a piece in 2 months, set a deadline for 1. Cut your deadlines in half and see what happens. You may be surprised. If it was a life or death situation, could you do it in a month? I bet you could. Be realistic, don’t set a goal for a week if it takes you 2 months, but also challenge yourself. Don’t give yourself a buffer of time “just in case.”

Your Goals Must be S.M.A.R.T.

Setting these goals and making deadlines is great and all, but you have to make sure you’re making the right kind of goals. To illustrate this point we can use the acronym S.M.A.R.T..


Specific: The goals you set need to be specific. Setting a goal that you want to “be a performer”, is too broad. Setting a goal that you want to perform in Carnegie Hall or get a job as first violin for the New York Philharmonic is specific. Broad goals lead nowhere. You won’t even know what they mean.

Measurable: A good goal is measurable. A goal to play a piece “well” is not measurable. Making measurable goals with music can sometimes be difficult because music is a pretty subjective subject. You can set a specific number of pages or measures to learn by a certain date for short-term goals. 

Whether you failed or succeeded is obvious because you put a number to your goal. When it comes to long-term goals like “playing a piece well”, you could set a goal to play through a piece twice in a row with no mistakes. You know yourself, so you’ll need to brainstorm and start thinking about goals that you can measure.

Achievable: Don’t just set a goal that you know is not going to happen. Be realistic, but at the same time challenge yourself. If you’re setting goals for the first time, this one may be difficult for you because you don’t know how to judge how difficult a goal is for you.

That’s ok. I would say it’s better at first to make sure a goal is achievable before pushing yourself too hard. As long as you achieve your goal in the end, you’ll be motivated to continue. If your goal is too difficult, you may abandon goal setting altogether.

Recorded: As I said earlier, all of your goals should be written down. All of your goals should be in one good sized document, so write them down. Typing them out is fine too, but make sure you print them so you can have a physical piece of paper. Having something you can hold will make your goals more real.

Depending on who you talk to, the “R” could also stand for “Result Focused”. The goal should focus on the result, not the task. Practicing every day isn’t a goal, it’s a task. If your goals are set correctly, then you are more likely to complete the tasks necessary.

If daily practice is required for the goal of learning a certain piece by a certain date, then you’ll do it. If it isn’t necessary, then either your goal needs to be bigger, or guess what? You don’t need to practice every day! If you’re still reaching your goals, it’s ok to not practice once in a while.

Yet another word used for “R” is “Relevant”. I tend to use recorded or result focused more than relevant myself. If a goal isn’t relevant to you, why would you set it in the first place?

Time-bound: I’ve already talked quite a bit on setting deadlines, and that’s what having goals that are time-bound means. All of your goals must have a deadline. They absolutely have to. Once you get good at setting goals and deadlines, you’ll find that you’ll be able to create deadlines for yourself that you’ll follow even if there are no consequences. You’ll be intrinsically motivated to complete your goals. To start out though, try to set up external means to influence you to complete something by a certain deadline.

Adjustable Goals

Your goals do not have to be set in stone! This is one of the most important steps in goal setting. If you set a goal and you realize it was completely unattainable, don’t just leave it there. Adjust it. Adjust all of your goals when necessary. If your short-term goals aren’t going to get you to your medium-term goals like you thought they were, then make new short term goals or adjust your medium-term goal.

If you accomplished the medium-term goal, but realize that your long-term goals are still way out of reach, either adjust your medium-term goals to make it to your long-term goal, or change your long-term goal to make up for the difference.

This document with your goals should be a living breathing document. Change it often to accommodate for your daily life and the goals you’re working on attaining.


Don’t be discouraged if you’ve never been able to set and achieve goals before. You probably just weren’t doing it right. Setting goals can change your life. You want to be successful. You want your talent to grow. All of these things are possible when you set S.M.A.R.T. goals and work on attaining them daily.

What do you think? Do you have any other ways that have worked for you in achieving your goals?

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