A Musician’s Most Important Skill

It’s the one skill you can’t do without. It’s the skill on which every other skill is built. It’s a force that moves mountains, builds skyscrapers, and turns 98-pound weaklings into Arnold Schwarzeneggers.

Enough mystery already. What is this skill?

Objectives: the key to musical success

Setting goals

We’re going to switch terms here: we’re going to replace the term “goal” with the term “objective.” What’s the difference?

A goal is a desire or a wish. It may be strong, but it’s imprecise. An example of a goal is “I’d like to play like Joe Pass.”

An objective is a goal that’s channeled, focused and distilled into a precise target that you can see, hear or feel. Most importantly, an objective is measurable. Here’s a more refined goal that’s offered as another candidate for an objective:

To play every solo recorded by Joe Pass, and to do it within one year.

Is this a proper objective yet? How will we know when we’re precise enough? Some criteria for objectives are needed to answer these questions.

Criteria for objectives

  • It must be precise, including being measurable
  • It must be written, not simply spoken
  • It must be stated in positive terms
  • It must have tremendous value to you
  • It must be beyond your present reach, yet realistic
  • Let’s describe each of these, and apply them to our Joe Pass goal.

It must be measurable

Can you measure “playing every solo recorded by Joe Pass, and do it within one year”? How about “play every solo recorded by Joe Pass, at 80% or faster of the speeds he plays at, and do it within one year”? Are these measurable results? Let’s break them down: you can count the number of solos recorded by Joe. You can time whether or not you’ve learned to play each solo in one year.

Can you measure your ability to play these solos? This may be a grey area, but we can clarify it in many ways. Here are some:

  • Get 10 Joe Pass fans together and play the solos for them. Don’t tell them what each song is before you play it. In fact, throw in a Whitney Houston or Beatles tune to throw your audience off track. When you play the Pass tunes, you can count the number of fans who can identify the specific Joe Pass solo you play for them.
  • Play the solos for a guitar teacher you respect and trust. His judgement of your playing is the measuring tool.
  • Simply play each solo with a metronome, and record yourself doing so; the recording will give you a greater sense of objectivity about your performance.

It must be written

This requirement confuses some musicians. Why do you have to write your objectives down if they are precise, especially an objective as clear and simple as the Joe Pass one?

There’s something about writing that focuses your idea; that commits you to that idea, and that creates solutions to make that idea a reality. The more certain you are that this requirement is unnecessary, the more I urge you to test it for yourself.

How do you test it? On paper, write down, in the form of a question, any particular problem you’re trying to solve, (e.g.: “How do I get my fingers to play the third phrase in that Chopin piece?”) Under the question, write down at least five solutions that come to mind, no matter how dumb they seem. Do this for a week, and then you can decide whether or not writing down something you want brings that thing closer to you. Back to our Joe Pass candidate. If this were my goal, and I’ve written it into a journal of my musical activities, or if I’ve written it on a piece of paper and stuck it to the refrigerator door, then it passes this test.

It must be in positive terms

How clear and compelling is “I don’t not want to play like Joe Pass”? People don’t speak that way, right? But what if we had said – excuse me, written, “My objective is to not make any mistakes in learning all of Joe Pass’s solos”? For one thing, it sucks the power right out of the would-be objective. And there’s a subtler force at work, when you use negative words. Psychology tells us that we steer ourselves in the direction of whatever we focus on, whether it’s good or bad, positive or negative. Applying that here, we’d open ourselves up to seeing only the mistakes we’ll make in learning the Pass solos, ignoring any sweet sounds that come out.

As written, “To play every solo recorded by Joe Pass, and to do it within one year” passes the “positive terms” test.

It must have tremendous value to you

This one sounds obvious, but let’s look at it. Does playing all of Joe Pass’s solos have value to you or to someone else, like your guitar teacher for example? Maybe you think playing like Joe Pass will bring you respect from fellow musicians. The point is that if you’re not enamored with and excited by simply listening to Joe Pass and his work, this objective will fail the “tremendous value” test; you’ll need to create a new objective.

Beyond your present reach

You sure wouldn’t create the Joe Pass objective if you could already play all of his solos; you can’t play them now, so they’re beyond your present skills. But you also don’t want to make this an objective for yourself if you’re just learning to play guitar. Joe Pass was a master musician, a superb soloist. It could take some time for you to learn all of his solos if you were just starting out. Why not choose something that you could achieve within the year, and that would help you fulfill the complete Joe Pass objective later on?

Working without goals or objectives is like driving without a map. You could have the fastest car on the road, but if you have no place to go, you’ll just spin your wheels. Worse, you’ll run out of gas (motivation), and stop moving (playing) completely.

Rather than let that happen, take some time every day or week to write down what you want to accomplish in music. Consider this time as just another part of your practice regimen.