“Practice the first page one hand at a time, slowly for 10 minutes every day.”Would you say this is a good task?

For those who knows what a “SMART” goal is, you would probably rate it as a pretty smart one. It is “Specific” – there is a specific page; it is sort of “Measurable” – 10 minutes a day; it surely sounds like a reasonably small task that is “Attainable” and somewhat “Relevant”; and it is undeniably “Time-anchored”.

All good, except that “sort of”, “pretty” and “somewhat” aren’t good words to have in the world of “deep practice” – a state of practice that is focused and purposeful, and one that many world-class musicians and athletes alike engage in daily.

Here are the refined and re-defined rules of a better SMART task:

Specific – just specifying a place, be it a page or a passage or even certain bars isn’t good enough, because you would be specifying the wrong element here! Go one level deeper and specify the specific outcome you are trying to achieve, or specific problem that you are trying to address. The place is just where the problem occurs. Ask what and where the problem is, and how to fix it.

OKAY: “Play the RH melody more beautifully in the first 8 bars”
SMART: “Ensure RH is playing a true legato with desired fingering, and shape the melody accordingly from bar 12 to 18.”

Measurable – If your task is outcome-based like the examples above, you should then be able to measure it by attentive and critical listening. Recording yourself is also an invaluable tool.

OKAY: “Practice slowly from bar 1 to 12.”
SMART: “Learn notes from bar 1 to 12 at m.m.=80 at first, ensuring that the rhythms are learned correctly.”

OKAY: “Work on the intonation around bar 8.”
SMART: “Aim for a cleaner shift (or work out better fingerings) up to the high note in bar 8, and check intonation there.”

Attainable – Size matters! And in the world of deep practice, tasks should come in small chunks so that they are attainable and achievable within a practice session. Once fixed, move on or look for the next task.

Relevant – Your tasks must be collectively relevant to what you are trying to achieve in the medium and long term, be it to play this piece by Chopin at an advanced level or to pass an examination.

Time-anchored – All “smart” goals should have a time anchor, a deadline so to speak; in other words, when you want to achieve this particular outcome by.

Start asking how deep you practice rather than how much!