target with arrows in bulls-eyeIt’s 10:00 a.m., and I’ve already practiced for a couple of hours. I practiced yesterday, too, and I’ll practice tomorrow.

Like musicians everywhere, practice is central to the rhythm of my life.

What keeps us musicians practicing?

Self-motivation is a big part of it. But underlying our devotion to daily work is our intention to achieve specific goals.

And the more precise our practice objectives, the more energy and accomplishment we generate.

Goal-Oriented versus Unfocused Practice

As an illustration, compare these two approaches to practice:

Student 1 heads to the practice room, and his aim is to ‘get better.’ He warms up leisurely for 25 minutes and then mulls over what to do next. After halfheartedly playing a favorite piece, he considers a newly assigned composition but decides that the rhythm is hard and that he’ll work on it later. He then runs through some excerpts and etudes without polishing anything and wraps up unsure of what he’s accomplished. He realizes that he should have practiced that new piece and is now worried about getting it ready for his upcoming lesson.

Student 2 enters the practice room with goals and a time frame in mind. She efficiently warms up in 10 minutes. Then, having completed a practice performance of a piece the day before, she goes over passages that she wants to improve: she evens out her articulation and dynamics in a tricky run; she secures her memory by imaging and then executing a couple of sections; she refines her rhythm in several phrases by playing them with a metronome. Following a short break, she spends 10 minutes stepping up the speed of an etude. Next, she practices sight-reading for 5 minutes and then learns two pages of a new piece at a slow tempo. Lastly, she mentally reviews what she did, thinks about her goals for a subsequent practice session, and exits the practice room with a gleam in her eye.

Obviously, Student 2 is an adept, goal-oriented practicer and is moving her artistry forward. Student 1 is ingraining lax habits that will take him further from acquiring the proficiency he craves.

When you practice, which student do you resemble?

If you’d like to be more like Student 2, then you need to set appropriate goals, know how to attain them, and be able to evaluate and improve on your work.

Part I of The Musician’s Way delves into these issues in detail. Here, I sum up a few points about goal setting.

Pinpointing Goals in The 5 Practice Zones

Over the course of decades of teaching, I developed a highly successful framework that structures practice in five zones:

1. New Material
2. Developing Material
3. Performance Material
4. Technique
5. Musicianship

To grow our abilities and repertoire, we have to set goals in each of these zones and possess particular practice skills to realize our goals.

For instance, we need to identify how we’ll bring unfamiliar pieces to concert level, maintain our core repertoire, refine our technical abilities, and elevate our sight-reading and improvisation skills.The Musician's Way book cover

I advise students to note their basic aims on a practice sheet or log (see the downloads page at and elaborate on their goals in a notebook.

For example, a musician seeking to deepen her interpretation of a developing piece might listen to a self-recording and then jot down in a notebook what she’d like to improve.

Recommended audio recorders: Zoom H4n | Zoom H2n | Tascam DR-22WL

Process and Outcome Goals

Our goals, however, shouldn’t be just outcome-oriented but also process-centered.

Process goals encompass the ‘doing’ aspects of learning. As Student 2 exemplifies, they incorporate making decisions about how to manage time, solve problems, control tempos, and refine interpretations.

Each practice zone demands particular process skills.

When we pinpoint both outcome and process goals, and when we have abundant process skills at our disposal, we head to the practice room with gusto and depart with a sense of achievement.

To gain fluency with these processes, though, we must work with accessible material. Then we can learn pieces quickly, distill our interpretive abilities, and perform with confidence, as spelled out in The Musician’s Way.

Preview The Musician’s Way at

Related posts
Assessing Your Practice Habits
Beautiful Repetition
Better than Patience
A Different Kind of Slow Practice
Optimizing Practice Time

© 2009 Gerald Klickstein
Photo licensed from Shutterstock