Focus your progress with SMART objectives – By Pat MacGibbon

Pat MacGibbon is an award-winning saxophonist, educator and author of the book “Rethink the Woodshed: New Rules of Practice.” Learn more at

“Our goals can only be reached through a vehicle of a plan, in which we must fervently believe, and upon which we must vigorously act. There is no other route to success.” -Pablo Picasso

If you want to improve musically, you need a plan. There’s no way around it. Some musicians have a plan in their head that’s more or less intuitive. Some follow a teacher’s plan, while others use books that lead them through a step-by-step curriculum (a great example of the latter is, in my opinion, Jerry Bergonzi’s Inside Improvisation series). Planning comes in all shapes and sizes, but the more intentional you are about it, the more likely you are to be successful (whatever that means to you).

There a lot of ways that you can plan your progress, but in this post we’re going to look at one area in particular, which is all about establishing effective goals using something called S.M.A.R.T. objectives. I know, this probably already sounds a little corny, like something that belongs in a corporate board room rather than a jazz education blog. However, if you stick with me, I think you’ll find that this idea has some really solid value with the potential to help you make a lot of consistent and intelligent progress as a musician.

The acronym S.M.A.R.T. reminds you to set objectives that are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-bound (Banks and Presley). Let’s go through these ideas one-by-one.

Use clear language that communicates exactly what you want to accomplish. When you’re too vague, you end up with an objective that is both immediately attainable and completely unattainable at the same time.
Let’s say your objective is to “get better at playing Coltrane changes.” From the time that you complete your first practice session, you will have improved in this area, so in some ways, you already will have accomplished your objective! However, since it’s always possible to get better at playing Coltrane changes, in other ways, you’ll never accomplish it. This objective doesn’t give you clarity in the practice room; it just leads to more questions.
A better version would be to “master major 1-2-3-5 patterns through Coltrane Changes in all 12 keys at a metronome speed of 120 bpm.” That’s a mouthful, but it’s much easier to work with. You’ll know exactly what you’re trying to accomplish, and you’ll know exactly what it means to succeed or fail. This brings me to the next concept.

Part of the reason that the objective to simply “get better at playing Coltrane changes” doesn’t work as a S.M.A.R.T. objective is that there are no built-in criteria for determining success or failure. What does it actually mean to accomplish it? Every musician would give you a different answer. However, the improved version has clear parameters for success and failure, and is therefore much more helpful.
A good way to test the measurability of your objectives is to put them to what I call the “stranger test.” Imagine that you’re going to be responsible for assessing a complete stranger on his ability to perform the requirements of each objective that you set. The point here is that you have to do it without hearing him play prior to the evaluation day!
The idea is that your assessment of success or failure cannot require a comparison to some previous level of ability. The language of your objective should stand alone as a clear statement of achievement that leaves no room for interpretation.
Let’s put our sample objectives to the stranger test. How do they stand up? The first, to simply “get better at playing Coltrane changes,” turns out to be completely unmeasurable, partly because it only makes sense through the use of a comparison to some previous level of ability. However, the second requires no comparison, and is therefore clearly measurable. The stranger either will be able to perform the requirements of the objective or he won’t; it’s that simple.

Define your objectives in such a way that a real human being in the real world actually could achieve them. They should be realistically and thoroughly attainable without approximation and without any room for interpretation.
If your objective is to “play with perfect time,” then you need to adjust your wording, because it’s simply not possible for a human being to achieve. Aspiring to play with perfect time works as part of your musical blueprint, because at that stage, everything is hypothetical. However, when it comes to setting S.M.A.R.T. objectives, everything has to be practical.
Of course, it’s possible to develop such a strong sense of time that it feels perfect to you and anyone who plays with you. However, in that case, it’s far better to express your objective in wording that describes what that perfect-feeling sense of time actually means in practical terms. You could express this objective by saying that you aim to “stay in sync with a silent metronome for up to four bars at a time.” This is attainable, partly because it’s specific and measurable. Therefore, you can see how each of the steps in the S.M.A.R.T. objective formula helps you to stay on track with the others as well.

The next step is to make sure that your objectives aren’t only attainable in an objective sense, but realistic for you in a personal sense. Aspiring to stay in sync with a silent metronome for up to four bars at a time may be attainable, but it may not be realistic for you at this point in your development.
A more realistic goal for you might be to “stay in sync with a silent metronome for one bar at a time.” You always can increase the difficulty as you progress, but it’s important to make sure that each of your objectives is well-tailored to your personal strengths, weaknesses, and musical needs. There is no quicker way to mastery than taking your ego out of the equation and challenging yourself at a realistic level of intensity.
Of course, the degree to which a specific, measurable, attainable goal is also realistic for you is only a matter of your time frame. This brings me to the next and final step in the S.M.A.R.T. objective formula.

Like the carton of milk in your refrigerator, your goals must have an expiration date. If your objective is to “stay in sync with a silent metronome for up to four bars at a time,” then it might be totally unrealistic for you if your time frame is one or two weeks. However, if your time frame is twelve months, then it might be entirely realistic, and this is why having a time-bound goal is so vitally important. It helps you to determine what’s realistic for you and what’s not.
Resist the urge to make your time frames vague and general. Like your objectives themselves, your expiration dates should be specific so that you accurately can measure how close you are at all times to your proposed date of completion. This will help you to hold yourself accountable and stay on task.

Every time you step into the practice room and begin to work on something, ask yourself what goal you’re trying to reach, and then take the time to refine it using the S.M.A.R.T. objective formula. Even if this feels corny to you, it’s important to realize that you’re always goal-setting whether you’re intentional about it or not. You may do it intuitively, but I guarantee that you still do it. So why not make a point of doing it in a way that gives you the best chance of success?

All the best,

Banks, Renee, and Todd Presley. Work in Progress. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2014. Print.