Last time, I focused on why being specific and relevant in your piano journey is helpful and how to implement that practice in your own goal-setting. In this post, I’m focusing in on the “MART” of smart goals and what it means to “reality check expectations,” as this is where new pianists especially struggle with setting themselves up for success.
To review, SMART goals is an acronym borrowed from the business world. It stands for:
Specific, in my mind, is related to relevant. It’s important to pick repertoire that’s specific and familiar to you, which is why I suggested creating a piano bucket list. Measurable and achievable are also related, to me, and new pianists who struggle with one typically also struggle with the other.
Having a specific way to chart your progress contributes to our sense of fulfillment. When you can clearly see a path from point A to B, you can prove to yourself and others that you’ve accomplished something. The issue, however, is that what we measure (or at least our perception of what we should measure) in piano changes over time as we learn more about our craft.
This isn’t a bad thing on its own; it’s actually a positive element that shows how we’re constantly growing and learning. It causes a problem when we don’t acknowledge that shift and don’t plan for it in our goal-setting.
In practice, this could look like a pianist setting a goal to play an F♯ major scale “perfectly” by next Friday. In that time, “perfect” might change from just hitting the correct notes without accidentally bumping wrong notes to including even rhythm, a certain speed, and without tension in the hands. Because what was being measured changed, the pianist probably didn’t reach that goal because it’s not what they planned to do. They only planned to play the notes correctly, so that’s the only standard they should hold themselves to. But that’s not how it always works in reality.
The disparity between the original goal and the added parameters causes even more frustration with long-term goals: new pianists often have large and impressive pieces of music that they hope to learn. La Campanella is one I see a lot. Instead of focusing on bite-sized repertoire pieces, they spend all of their time and attention on that one crazy-hard piece and grow disappointed when their version doesn’t sound like the concert pianist’s version. Along the way, they may have learned what other parameters there are to learn in piano, and this can cause them to either give up on the piece or just get frustrated that they don’t have the chops to play it artistically.
Can you see at this point how achievable is related to measurable? Because measurable changed, achievable gets ignored or forgotten.
Achievable might be the most important aspect of setting goals. You’re more likely to do something, despite its difficulty, if you know for certain that you can do it. It’s like asking someone for a favor: you’re more likely to ask someone for something if you know they’ll say yes. Or asking someone on a date: you’re more likely to just ask if you’re pretty sure they’ll say yes. We hate rejection and subconsciously stay away from it as much as possible, so setting goals we know for certain we can achieve is the superpower of SMART goal setting.
The issue with new pianists is that they don’t yet know what is achievable. How could they know how long it takes to learn a piece when they don’t know how many fine-motor movements are involved?
To combat this, I encourage pianists to be scientists. Before setting lofty goals, pay attention to how long it takes you to do things. For your first few weeks of lessons, don’t even set goals, just collect data. How long does it take you to learn how to read notes on the staff? How long does it take you to do one specific movement?
For each movement, are there smaller movements within it that you also had to learn? Just keep asking questions, ask how long it takes to do things, and what steps are actually involved in those things. From there, you can begin to set more achievable goals, like I want to have this passage feel comfortable by next week, not at any speed because I know I’m not good at judging how long it takes to get something up to speed, just comfortable. And because you know that’s something you can definitely do, you’ll succeed in it.
It might feel like cheating to set goals that you know you’ll accomplish. It does for me, at least. I feel silly putting things on my daily to-do list that I always do, so I know I’ll do it, but it’s still important. They are still things that I have to do before the end of the day, so giving myself a little sense of accomplishment makes me excited about tackling other activities on the list. These other activities might involve a little more time and energy, but I also know I’ll get them done, so I’m more ready to just sit down and do them.
Part of setting goals that are achievable is understanding how long it will take you to do every task involved in that goal, and unfortunately, humans don’t always have a great sense of how long it actually takes to do something.
Me planning for my day (either in the morning or the night before) often looks like this: All right, it’s going to be a productive day! I’m going to start the morning by writing a full analysis post on this 8-page long piece full of counterpoint, motivic development, and non-diatonic harmony. I should have an hour after that before lunch, so I’ll write a few emails and get ahead of the game. Then I’ll have a nice lunch, maybe a quick walk outside (gotta get that Vitamin D!), then back to the hustle. I’ll make a 10,000-word guide to harmony and then have just enough time to call my bestie before dinner and a nice evening to chill with Netflix.
I’m lucky if I write half an analysis post in a day because it just takes that long to do the analysis, formulate what’s most important about what I found in the piece, and then find the words to communicate those findings. And that’s not a bad thing at all! But, I do feel disappointed because I didn’t do everything on my to-do list in the time I’d alotted for it. It all gets done by the end of the week, but this is where I have to “reality check my expectations.”
I heard this phrase for the first time in Brené Brown’s podcast, Unlocking Us, about digging in to what makes each of us tick. In the first episode, FFT, Brown talks about why it’s important to always try new things and the sense of humility and vulnerability we experience when we do try something new. I recommend just listening to the episode; she has such a bright personality that is sure to cheer up your day.
But basically, the strategy for finding success and staying mentally healthy and engaged when you start learning something new is to lean into the fact that you don’t know yet. You have all of these expectations of becoming a concert pianist and taking people’s breath away (or maybe you don’t — that’s what my teenage self thought when I first started), but you don’t actually know yet what kind of work is required to get to that point.
For now, since you’re just starting out, have the expectation that it might just suck for a while. Maybe your teacher will have you play kids music, maybe it’s a lot harder to move each finger completely independently than you thought, maybe you’re frustrated. But this is all temporary. If you just accept the not fun parts for a little bit, not get down on yourself for not knowing how to practice, not knowing how to even start, then you’ll get through it with a healthier, more driven mindset. And lean into the knowledge that this is all temporary.
How long does it take a baby to walk? (I talked about this in the curiosity post) It takes most babies around a year to learn to walk, and that’s with it being their full-time job. They don’t have school or work to take up time in their weeks. Nope, babies get to practice walking for more than 40 hours a week, and it still takes them an entire year to do something you probably don’t even think about. You’re thirsty? You just get up and go grab some water. Babies can’t do that! And we don’t expect them to be able to do that from birth. We reality-check our expectations for them, so do the same for yourself!
This is the fourth post in the series that talked about mindset; that’s because your mindset is the most powerful way to set yourself up for success. But, it’s also important to just jump in and do, so the next post will be the first step to actually doing.
In the next posts in this series, I’ll go over supplies, the basic pieces of equipment you need to play the piano: how to pick a piano/keyboard, what books are out there, and an introduction to finding a guide (in the forms of teachers, apps, online courses, and books).
About the Author
Amy King is a music theory and piano instructor currently residing in the Chicago area.
- Master of Music in Music Theory and Cognition from Northwestern University (June 2020)
- Bachelor of Arts in Piano Performance and English Literature from High Point University (May 2016)
- where she received the Outstanding Senior Music Major Award, which is awarded to one single graduating music student per year
Amy has been teaching private piano lessons for 12+ years, taught classroom music theory for 5 years, directed choirs spanning ages 4–25, led and arranged for a university a capella group, and composed and arranged music for various soloists and ensembles.