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Setting your musical resolutions up for success

The new year comes with all kinds of wishes for change. It's the time where people at least temporarily commit to more of this, less of that. In the world of music this usually relates to more practicing, or learning a new instrument (...which means more practicing).

As a teacher, specifically a teacher of adults, I wanted to share some pointers for making sure you actually reach your goals for the new year!

Keep the big picture in mind

It’s always good to check in before you start a new project about why you’re doing it in the first place. Is it to do something just for yourself? Is it to take a break from busy life? Are you wanting to perform? Is your goal to jam with friends?

Go deep with the big picture too. If you want to practice more, write out what that will do for you in other areas of your life: psychologically, socially, internally. Many people are focused on doing things for others (work, kids, partner) and don’t spend much time or money on doing something for themselves. I celebrate anyone wanting to learn or improve a musical skill because it’s often their time to be present with themselves and get joy from doing something of their own.

Big picture matters because it can help you get back on track later in the year if you fall "off the wagon." If, later, you start to get down on yourself, you can look back at this big picture and remind yourself that even small progress is still progress. I have some students (adults) who use our weekly lessons as their practice for the week. And you know what? They improve... Slowly, but it’s there and worth celebrating.

Set a clear goal

In order to feel like we’ve met a goal, it’s helpful to have something measurable we can look back to reference! So instead of saying “this year I will practice more” or “this year I will learn to sing,” dig a little deeper. What is “more” practice? You could choose more sessions, or more time per session. Give an actual amount of time. 30 minutes? 60 minutes? 5 days/week? Quantify precisely what you mean by "more."

If you are looking to learn a new instrument, what does that mean? Is your goal to find a teacher or sign up for a program? Are you self-teaching from YouTube? Is there a particular song you want to be capable of playing this year? Get clear on what you mean by “learn.” A new instrument also involves a new practice schedule, so include that as well. How much time, and how many time/week, will you practice your new instrument?

Playing music is lifetime learning, so sit with your desire for a minute and ask yourself what would make you feel good by year’s end.

Start small

The trick here is that small improvements are sustainable. If you never practice, and your resolution is to practice every day for an hour, you will likely fail if you jump straight into that. Choose something you can sustain for 6-8 weeks before moving on.

I recommend taking your baseline activity and adding no more than 30% for the first few weeks. If you practice on average 3x/week, maybe you start by adding one more session. If you practice for 10 minutes each day, move that to 15 minutes.

Also, I recommend starting with only one thing at a time. If you practice 3x/week for 10 minutes/day, start by either adding one extra 10-minute session or bumping your time per session to 15 minutes. Don’t take on too much change at once! Remember, we’re only talking the first few weeks. You’ll expand again later.

If you are truly starting from zero, I recommend starting with 2 practice sessions each week for 10 minutes. That is generally a doable number and will help you find a baseline to adjust from. Maybe you reach your first check-in and find it’s been super easy for you: great! Or maybe you’ll find you had trouble fitting in those 2 sessions. That’s fine too - at this point you’re just gathering data about what works in your life!

When you’ve figured out your starting point, put it in your calendar. This is an appointment you are keeping with yourself!

Schedule regular check-ins

Here I mean literally write in your calendar, 6-8 weeks out, to review your new habit. If you are starting your new routine on Jan 1, schedule a check-in around February 15 to review. Put it in the calendar with the following questions:

  • Did I hit this goal?

  • If yes, what worked that I can reinforce?

  • If not, what happened that I didn’t hit it?

  • What changes can I make to improve my progress?

  • Are any changes to this goal necessary so I still hit my annual goals?

  • Schedule next check-in 6-8 weeks out

From this check-in, you’ll adjust as needed. If you hit your goals, great! Add another 10-30%, something that feels doable. If you didn’t, that’s fine - see what adjustments are needed. Do you need to move things around, or do you need to just spend another cycle working on the same thing?

At the end of the session, schedule another one 6-8 weeks out. You get the idea.

Do a reality check

Let’s do some math. If you take the initial small change, and work in 6-8 week increments, adjusting no more than 30% each time… is your annual goal still doable?

If you’ve set a goal to practice an hour each day, but you currently only practice twice/week for 10 minutes, you may be setting yourself up for disappointment. Here’s why:

There are 6-8 cycles each year. In this situation your progress may look like this:

Cycle 1: 3x/week, 10 minutes

Cycle 2: 3x/week, 15 minutes

Cycle 3: 4x/week, 15 minutes

Cycle 4: 4x/week, 20 minutes

Cycle 5: 5x/week, 20 minutes

Cycle 6: 5x/week, 30 minutes

As you can see, If you currently practice 2x/week it could be an achievable goal for you to practice 5x/week for 30 minutes by the end of the year. An hour would be a good goal for the following year. Music is lifelong, so it’s fine taking time!

And of course, this illustration shows the perfect scenario where you hit your goals at each check-in point. If you haven’t hit your goal for the cycle, it is better to reset and re-inforce your existing goal. If you’re hitting 15 minutes each session but just can’t get that 4th day to work out, you can re-evaluate: do I actually need that 4th day? Or, if I’m already sitting down to practice, maybe I switch things up and instead increase my time to 20 minutes?

You can move things around as needed, but just make sure it’s realistic.

Resolution vs “good enough”

That which we do regularly, becomes part of us. Eating healthy foods 1x/week is better than not eating healthy foods. Moving your body 1x/week is better than not moving your body. Practicing at least 1x/week will move you forward in your musical journey vs not practicing at all. I recommend putting your resolution side by side with a “good enough” baseline. For example, your intention may be to practice every day, but your “good enough” may be 3x/week. That way if you start to hit burnout you can at least back off a little and avoid feeling guilty. Guilty feelings are unpleasant and typically lead the endeavor to be dropped completely, which is not what you want!

This also allows for changes in “spoons” throughout the year (if you don’t know what spoon theory is, look it up. It’s hella useful). Some seasons we have more spoons than others. Giving yourself grace for these fluctuations will give you a better chance of seeing progress over time.

Ditch the guilt

Look - life happens. Plans get derailed. Interruptions pop up. What matters most is our ability to be resilient and pick back up where we left off instead of giving up. Get factual, not emotional, if you miss a practice session (or a week's worth...!). I would take an honest “this week got away from me, but my practice next week should be ok” over “I failed to practice and I feel bad about it” any day. Heck, I'll even take “this month got nuts, I may have to go to a single practice session for a bit” over the guilt trip/failure spiral. Life happens! It’s ok! Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and keep showing up!

I’d love to hear your resolutions! What are you looking to do or learn this next year?

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