If you're a student, this tends to be the time of goal-setting and returning to fundamentals. (Stay tuned for a burnout post, coming shortly.) As I finish up another academic year, I find myself entering summer with just that approach.
Get in the practice room! Play scales! Make reeds!
After all, these are the building blocks... aren't they? Why, then, do we feel so frustrated with the inevitable plateaus of learning? We have been taught for years that relevant short-term goals and focused work will lead to our long-term goals. Diligent major scales and long tones win auditions.
I was (relatively) happily sweating away at the gym last week when the great flaw of this was literally right in front of my face. With the elliptical machine as my weapon of choice, this spring I set a semester goal of going from total gym avoidance to breaking five miles in 45 minutes, and I had been clocking in around 47 minutes for weeks. I had also been doing what I had been trained to do with long-term goals, trusting the fundamentals - focusing on breathing, smooth body motion, even pacing. For weeks I would enter the last mile and a half with an extra burst of energy, and for weeks I would fail.
I don't know what inspired me on Wednesday, but I decided to start focusing earlier than the last mile and a half. What if I started paying attention to the middle step? Specifically, I wanted to hit three miles at 27 minutes and four at 36. Unsurprisingly, it worked. With almost no extra physical effort, I shaved a solid three minutes off my average five mile time simply by gearing my efforts to the "middle-term" goals.
This got me thinking. What if I can do so much more in music than I think, simply by shifting focus? What if I can play a magical Mozart Concerto if I just bother to set my sights on something in the abyss between a B-flat major scale and a moving, stylized, engaging performance?
Essentially, I realized I needed this guy:
Remember him? He's the guy in Mario Kart who picked you up when you drove off the road. He also measured your mid-race progress. Lap four at just under 38 seconds. Not getting the turbo boost to lead off in first (B-flat major scale) or standing on the top of the podium at the end (from your Mozart Concerto, of course).
What is your "lap four" goal? Really, though, leave it in the comments field below.
This is the goal that falls by the wayside. We do the work of the short-term goals with our eyes on the long and forget to have a means to measure the gulf in between. Most times it is very clear how to set a short-term goal for a week - what was I assigned in my lesson? It is also very clear how to set a long-term goal for a year - what is on my recital/jury/audition? The middle steps are much more elusive, though.
What do you personally want to see, hear, and feel in yourself as a musician in a month? What about two or three? Can you make these specific, independent goals and state them without referencing your short- or long-term goals? By this, I mean that a "lap four" goal is not just to play your scales more in tune or your concerto under tempo. It's trickier than it sounds to set this kind of milestone, and I will leave you with that charge.
Ready? Set. ...