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Meaningful goals in music lessons

green typewriter on brown wooden table

I’m sure many of you had instrumental lessons like it.

The ones where you leave feeling utterly defeated, as if you will never be good enough.

Where everything went so tragically wrong that nothing could ever fix it.

Sometimes, I deserved to be firmly reminded that I needed to practice. That in order to improve, I actually had to put the time in.

This time though, I didn’t deserve it. I had worked hard, made improvements, but it simply wasn’t enough. It never really was. Spoiler alert, I changed teachers after a while.


The reason why I felt so defeated was simple. I had been set a task that I had no idea how to achieve. A task that I didn’t even know if I was capable of achieving. You could just as easily have said to me to refreeze melted ice cream by sheer brainpower, and I would have felt just as lost.

Unfortunately, I have to admit that even though I know this feeling well enough, I have been guilty of passing it onto my students.

Which is why I am so grateful that I am also trained in general classroom education. Because although perfectionism is a definite problem everywhere, it is not as pervasive as in music.

One of the most valuable skills I gained from this education is setting meaningful goals that students can pursue independently.

So often as music teachers, we send off our students to practice a set list of exercises, repeat a bar a certain number of times till they get it right, or just practice that crescendo.

Just PRACTICE.

That is not an achievable goal by any stretch of the imagination.


Which brings me round to my advice. Rather than just give the exercise, explain to the student exactly what you want them to achieve through the exercise. Model it, explain its purpose, give them a try, model it again. And then crucially, WRITE DOWN what you want them to be achieving, and how you want them to get there.

In example:

This week, make the melody line stand out more clearly above the accompaniment. Do this by practicing ghost fingering with your left and right hand, reinforcing the fingering and playing the melody on its own to make clear decisions about the phrasing. By next week, you should be able to hear the melody clearly over the accompaniment every time. Check your progress by making short recordings.

That example is significantly too long, but for your own students it would be possible to shorten it, due to the understanding that you know is already in place. But if your student received that, they would know exactly what needed to happen, and what to do if they were struggling.

This may seem harder in the short term, but in the long term I guarantee you will not regret the new found independence, confidence and growth in your music students!


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