This video was born from a desperate need to get organized. I’ve been spending my week on that – getting things organized for both myself and my students, and then I thought – I can’t be the only one with this problem. The only one who feels like without a solid plan, I’m floating aimlessly in outer space. I decided, it’s time to make some piano goals.
This post kept growing and growing, so I decided to split it into two parts, for all of our sanity.
The beginning of the school year, which we are fast approaching, is always a time that I renew goals and think about the future. A lot of people use New Years, and that’s hunky dory – but as a teacher, the beginning of September is when I sit down and really start thinking what I want to accomplish in the future.
So what I wanted to do today is take you through my process for setting personal piano goals.
In the first video, we’ll look at making big, yearly goals, and the questions I ask when putting together a list of songs to learn. In the next video, we’ll look at how to turn all of that brainstormed information into an actual plan, as well as other little tips.
big piano goals
Before getting into specifics of what pieces to pick, we need to talk about the big goals. So in 10 months to a year, what do you want to accomplish?
For some people, the biggest challenge, and goal, is to simply make time for piano on a regular basis. If you’re able to commit to the piano, of course you’ll get better after a year.
How much will you realistically be able to learn in a year? In my world, a year is usually a grade level. If you’re a highly motivated adult who is playing piano more than 1 hour a day, then it’ll go quicker, but for the average person, a year is about the right amount of time.
1 year of songs
A pretty realistic goal for most people is around 1 song a week, so about 4 songs a month. Factoring in busy months like December or summertime, let’s say you learn 1 song a week for 10 months. That’s 40 songs. If you’re learning lots of songs above your level, or you’re not able to spend around an hour a day at the piano, it’ll probably look like less. But I think 40 is a really good standard goal for most people.
In the Piano World Forums, there’s actually a yearly thread they call the “40 pieces a year club” – it is what it sounds like. It’s a group of people all trying to learn 40 pieces in a year. I highly recommend participating in that for the social accountability.
It’s kind of like with forums that set reading goals – like there’s a “52 books” Reddit thread, or you can set goals on Goodreads. (I’m at 30/52 books this year!) I just wanted to make that comparison because I want more Goodreads friends. Allysia K, add me!
List of questions
Here are some questions I need to ask myself:
So let’s start with the first question – what pieces do you need to learn?
For me, “need to learn” pieces are ones that my students will be learning. Usually at the start of September they have their books and I have some extra pieces picked out for them. I need to make sure I can play them. This isn’t a problem with lower grade students, but for students who have been playing a while, I need to spend some effort.
Since this probably isn’t a particular challenge you face, what do you need to learn in order to get to the next level? What are those pieces your teacher is harping on you to learn “for your own good”, that you’ve been avoiding?
Be wary of choosing pieces that are far beyond your level. These should still be doable.
If you don’t have a teacher and don’t know what you should be learning, consult a syllabus (which can be found online). This is the RCM Syllabus, and it’s got a whole bunch of song suggestions for each grade level, in a bunch of different categories.
Generally it’s the older songs – the list As and Bs – that are the music broccoli for people. They’re usually the most challenging. So pick yourself out some Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Clementi, etc, and get cracking.
I’ll show you the ones I need to work on here.
Those are the major intermediate-level pieces I need to learn over the course of the year, so that I can teach more effectively. Luckily, since they’re intermediate, they won’t take me as long to learn as my own personal choices.
So what’s my music broccoli?
Well when I learned a Prelude and Fugue by Bach (From the Well-Tempered Clavier), I felt like I was in over my head. I did okay, I made it work, but you know that feeling when learning a piece is just a huge struggle and doesn’t come naturally? That’s how I felt about it.
Then I was thinking – I’ve never gone through and learned easier Bach pieces – pieces that are a precursor to the giant, complicated Bach pieces. And it’s something that I’ll want my students to learn when they’re at a grade 7/8 level, so I want to have some familiarity with them.
Bach wrote 15 inventions, and it’s my goal this year to get through all 15. That will be my personal musical broccoli. They’re an easier level than some of the other pieces I’m learning, but I’m so poor with Baroque technique, that the step back is very important for my growth and development.
What do I want to learn?
So let’s move on to the next question for our piano goals: What do I want to learn this year?
This is the hardest one for me. I want to learn everything! There are hundreds of songs I could get excited about learning.
But what’s really speaking to me at the moment? Well, one I can say for certain is I want to learn all three Liebestraume by Liszt – I can passably play the third one, but I’ve always wanted to learn the other two.
I really want to learn an entire Beethoven sonata, and I’ve already started working on that. I’ve been learning the last movement to his first sonata (I’ve already learned the first two movements).
What’s a genre I haven’t really explored?
Next: What’s a genre I haven’t really explored?
Many of us get fixated on our tastes. Like if you love Romantic music, you might learn a bunch of Romantic music, and very little else. So I like throwing this question in there, because I think as a musician, it’s always a good idea to push your own boundaries, and get comfortable in a variety of styles, whether or not you end up loving it.
There are so many genres out there. Calypso, reggae, habanera, all of the jazz subgenres like New Orleans Jazz, blues, fusion, and so on.
Even after all of these years of piano practice, I still have tons of unexplored genres. I’m terrible at jazz genres, for example. There’s always something new to learn!
I think this is fresh in my head because I just did a video on it, but my answer to the question – my unexplored genre – could be ragtime. I haven’t spent much time playing ragtime in my life, so maybe this is the year to give Maple Leaf Rag a whirl.
What’s a genre you’re curious about? If you don’t even know where to begin, you should check out the Christopher Norton Connection books, at all different levels – there’s always a wide blend of styles in his books. Lots of jazz, blues and Latin music, in addition to standard contemporary tunes.
What’s my weakness?
What’s one of my biggest weaknesses, and what can I do to address it?
So many. SO MANY.
I’m a barely-adequate sight reader, so that needs to be something I spend several minutes on daily. Sometimes I do, and sometimes I ignore it.
My technique is not great for my level. I can be a sloppy player. I need to practice with precision.
This one is more abstract, but probably the most important – self-discipline.
With teaching – and doing these videos – I spend so much time working on songs for other people that I sometimes don’t end up practicing my own pieces. I learn these mandatory songs without reaching for my own goals. I’m still playing piano, though, so it’s easy to ignore. But not all playing is equal. Playing is good, but learning songs for students isn’t going to push my boundaries like advanced pieces will.
For most students, self-discipline waxes and wanes. I’ve done videos on how to stay motivated on the piano if this is something you struggle with and want more ideas.
Are you performing/doing exams?
Am I performing or doing exams this year?
Definitely ask yourself this question, as it could potentially play a huge role in what songs you choose.
Between now and June of next year, I won’t be doing any exams – I’ll be getting married in spring, and I don’t want to split my attention like that.
I do recitals in winter and summer, and one of my performance goals is to do a Christmas duet with my mother this year. And I’ll play a piece for the summer recital as well, as much as it pains me to say it. See, I’m a hypocrite. I make all my students perform, but I hate performing solo piano. I get pretty gnarly anxiety, especially being in front of all the kids I teach, and their parents. My head becomes a mess of, “what if I do poorly and they think I’m a crappy piano teacher?”
But I can’t let fear rule these decisions, and I think my students need to hear me play sometimes.
Are there any opportunities for you to perform? Even if you do a simple little recital with a few family members at your house, I think that totally counts. It gives you something to work toward, and an opportunity to share your skills, which close friends and family generally appreciate.
Not everyone feels the need to do exams – some feel like they’re even counterproductive – but if you’re a type A personality (like me), and you like having specific and measurable goals in your education, definitely consider annual exams. The RCM and ABRSM are standard examination systems, and they’re available in many countries around the world. It’s not unusual for adults to take exams, in case you think it’s a just-for-kids thing.
Ask yourself these questions, and see what kind of ideas you get. You might just end up with a new batch of song ideas to start working on!
In the next video, Setting Piano Goals, Pt. 2, we’ll look at what to do with all this information, and some other ideas for piano goals as well.