Setting S.M.A.R.T Practice Goals

Friday, 27 March 2020

Setting practice goals is key to improvement on your instrument. Whether you want to play Ben Lee’s infectious song ‘Catch My Disease’ by the end of the month, or burn through Coltrane’s ‘Giant Steps’, there’s methods to divide your aims into smaller tasks or habits.

The SMART goal system breaks your overall aim into five areas: specific, measureable, accountable, relevant, and time-bound. These areas make setting and achieving your practice objectives easy, and the workflow makes it simple to manage many goals at once.

Once you’ve identified a goal, the first thing is to decide whether it is a short (2-8 weeks), mid (3-6 months), or long-term (6 months +) goal. I often have several of these on the go at once, and this helps me stay efficient with my practice routine. Let’s use the example of playing through a blues form in all keys as a mid-term goal (3-6 months).


S = Specific. Identify your ideal outcomes using action words.

  • - In 3 months’ time, I will be able to play confidently through 12-Bar Blues forms in all keys, up to 200bpm.
  • - The forms I will use are a simple 12-bar bebop blues, and 12-bar jazz minor blues.


M = Measureable. Break down your overall goal into smaller tasks, habits, or routines.

  • - Complete scale, chord, and pattern exercises using the chords from 2 Major and 2 Minor key blues’ each day (4 keys per day, 6 days per week = 24 keys per week)
  • - Play-along tempos: Week 1 = 100 bpm, Week 2 = 105 bpm, …, Week 21 = 200 bpm
  • - Find a Major and Minor blues melody to play through all keys each week
    • o Blues For Alice – Charlie Parker (Major)
    • o Mr PC – John Coltrane (Minor)
    • o All Blues – Miles Davis (Major)
    • o Stolen Moments – Oliver Nelson (Minor)
  • - Compose a Major and Minor Blues once a month


A = Accountable/Achievable. How will you stay disciplined during this process? It’s one thing to have a plan, but keep in mind you should also document the areas where you have progressed and those where you have fallen behind. For example; maybe you’re burning through most keys, but F# Major and Db Minor are a little lacklustre. Making sure you document where you had difficulty might help you reorganise your priorities – it is part of ‘Measuring’ but also helps you stay disciplined and makes your goals ‘achievable’.


R = Relevant. Relevancy is key. A blues is a pretty universal form and useful form for learning improvisation regardless of your musical ambitions. In a larger context though, learning how to play paradiddles on a practice pad isn’t going to help you with left hand voicings through a blues. Sometimes it helps to write out how this will improve your musical performance overall:

  • - Learning to improvise over chord changes
  • - Learning chords and harmonic movement
  • - Increasing dexterity and flexibility
  • - Etc.


T = Timely/Time-bound. This is covered somewhat in earlier steps, but I find it good to also put a timeline in the front of my practice diary that looks something like this:


1   Blues in all Major and Minor keys at 100bpm + 2 Blues Melodies
4   Blues in all Major and Minor keys at 115bpm + 8 Blues Melodies + 2 original blues’
6   Blues in all Major and Minor keys at 125bpm + 12 Blues Melodies + 2 original blues’
8   Blues in all Major and Minor keys at 135bpm + 16 Blues Melodies + 4 original blues’
12   Blues in all Major and Minor keys at 200 bpm + 24 Blues Melodies + 6 original blues’

This is more like a checklist, but can often put the goal in perspective. I’ll often add notes to these as I go (for example; the title of the Blues Melodies I learned, any supplementary study I did – listen to records with blues on it, transcribed solos, etc.).

By using the SMART strategy, any musician can improve their discipline and productivity, making for effective and efficient practice. Happy practising!