Developing Student Autonomy with Goal Setting // Jess Baldwin

This past fall, I started having my students write their goals down each semester in my private studio. In the most general sense, I had always been asking my students what they wanted in lessons, but I realized I hadn’t been asking them to get specific enough, which was leaving them less motivated and independent than they could be. The need for individual goals is particularly important in popular and commercial genres where artists are working mostly as individuals or very small groups with no conductor, director, etc. We have to learn how to be clear about what we want and how to take action to get there, or we risk floundering as artists, missing out on opportunities, and still remaining confused about why we aren’t having any success. For students who either aren’t sure they want to perform in front of people, or who are preparing to become amateur or professional singers, goals tend to be general and cloudy. The events in which they participate are the easiest and most obvious goals for them to latch onto: bi-annual studio recitals and coffeehouses, competitions, choir concerts, musicals, church services, Solo & Ensemble, All-State choir, Royal Conservatory exams, etc. In my mind, these events were a means to an end, but to the students, they were an end unto themselves, so as soon as each big event was over, practice would lag. And while all of these things were events they chose to participate in, most of the events allowed them to go into auto-pilot while someone else did the work of helping them reach the goal of a successful performance. So, not surprisingly, most of them were showing up to lessons expecting me to just tell them what to do each week. They consistently did this despite the fact that they knew I was always going to ask them what they’d worked on, how much they’d worked on it, what feedback they had about it, and what they wanted to work on this week. I realized I needed to create something that would help them invest more and take more responsibility for their path and their work. For the first goal sheet I created in the fall, I didn’t provide specific options under each question. I was afraid it would limit answers. But while some of the students were able to put in their own answers with no problem, most of the students got stuck. They just didn’t know what was even possible. They needed some suggestions to prime the pump, so I added them to the form for the spring semester. Also, in the first version I provided timelines: this semester, this year, in five years. While this was helpful, I found that while the students had no problem setting a goal that was five years away, what was most helpful and also most difficult was to decide what to take action on immediately. I focused more on short-term goal setting for the Spring semester version.

The Questions

I want to use music to…
  • release stress
  • share my feelings and thoughts
  • connect with other musicians
  • connect to something bigger than myself
  • entertain others
  • make people dance
  • enhance the feeling of an environment
  • motivate others to take action
  • comfort others
  • help people feel understood
  • help people connect to something bigger than themselves
venues/environments/events I want to sing in eventually:
  • open mic nights
  • solo gigs
  • band gigs
  • coffeehouses
  • bars
  • restaurants
  • community festivals
  • music festivals
  • street fairs
  • house concerts
  • choir concerts
  • operas
  • musicals
  • theaters
  • music halls
  • recital halls
  • concert halls
  • stadiums
  • schools
  • contemporary church services
  • traditional church services
  • weddings
  • funerals
  • hospitals and nursing homes
venues/environments/events I want to sing in this semester (list specific ones in chosen categories above): songs I want to learn this semester:  artists I want to study this semester: styles I want to study this semester: people/groups I want to perform or record with this semester (list specific people in chosen categories):
  • friends
  • family
  • area musicians
  • community choir
  • school choir
  • church choir
  • church worship team
  • school musical
  • community musical
instruments, equipment, software, and other tools I want to learn to use:
  • singing harmony
  • piano
  • guitar
  • ukulele
  • looping pedal
  • digital audio workstation (GarageBand, Logic, ProTools, etc.)
  • notation software (Finale, Sibelius, etc.)
  • social media
  • website building software
(if recording) ways I want to share recordings this semester:
  • YouTube
  • Instagram
  • Facebook
  • My website
  • SoundCloud
  • iTunes/Spotify/etc.
how often do I want to post recordings? how many recordings will I share this semester? what dates will I share them? things I want to work on in my voice this semester:
  • high notes
  • low notes
  • going from low to high
  • going from high to low
  • tuning issues
  • better loud sounds
  • better soft sounds
  • more brightness/zing/edge/excitement/sparkle
  • more darkness/warmth/roundness/fullness/oomph
  • more understandable words
  • better short, fast notes (runs)
  • better long, slow notes
  • more stamina (voice gets tired too soon)
  • bigger breaths
  • more breath control
  • hear more of what I’m feeling/thinking in my sound
  • less straining/pushing/struggling
  • less pain


I’ve only had a couple of semesters to see the results of this experiment, but so far I’ve noticed…

  • students are becoming more autonomous
  • students are practicing more
  • students come in to the lesson knowing what they want to work on more often
  • students gain self-confidence when they see that they’ve met a goal
  • students are performing more
  • students are taking more initiative to set up their own performances
  • students are excited about previously unknown ways to create and enjoy music
  • I’m opening myself to more path options for my students, rather than unconsciously steering them in directions that are most familiar/comfortable for me
  • I’m learning lots of new songs and artists
  • I’m creating more diverse lesson structures to meet the more diverse needs of my students
  • I’m feeling less exhausted because students are sharing more of the psychological load of their own development and progress
So far, it’s been a success. If I feel at any point that focus and motivation are lacking, or if I’m not entirely clear one day about what we need to do in a lesson, we just pull out the goal sheet for the semester and review it together. Both of us are immediately more focused, motivated, and clear about how to proceed. Side note: I have adult students who are already performing singers. These folks are generally much more clear about their goals to begin with. I just check in with what their agenda is for the semester: places they’ll be gigging, people they’ll be gigging with, etc. This lets me cater their lessons to their needs. In terms of goals, we mostly just set goals about what they want to work on in their voice.


Do you set goals with your students? What questions or options do you think should be added to the list above? Share in the comments!

Learn more from Jess Baldwin

Check out more of Jess’ work at True Colors Voice and Artist Coaching

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