As the year draws to an end many of us start thinking about our plans for the year ahead. What do we want to accomplish in our musical lives in the next year? Before you begin that planning process though, there’s something important you should do first: review the year gone by.

This week in Musical U we’ve had a discussion about our musical year, to share the ups and downs and lessons learned. Some members posted their thoughts while others have just been privately doing their own annual review. It’s confirmed how useful it can be to look back before you start to look forwards.

Why to do an annual review

The phrase “annual review” sounds a bit formal, and it’s important to say up front that this isn’t about judging yourself as good or bad. But it is about judging your musical year, in order to find out how you can make your next year even more successful.

Hindsight is 20/20. So why not take advantage of that?

It may sound strange, but looking backwards is the best way to get a clear picture of the road ahead. Here are a few examples of how an annual review of your musical training will help you:

  • By identifying problems and struggles you’re better able to avoid them in future.
  • By remembering your triumphs you’re inspired and guided to replicate that success.
  • By analysing what worked and didn’t in your training you can spot new potential and drop the dead weight from your approach.
  • By dedicating the time and effort to an annual review you’re starting to commit to take your musical development seriously in the year ahead.
  • By sharing your annual review with other musicians your results are amplified as everybody benefits from each other’s insights.

So if you want to go ahead and do your own year-in-review, how exactly should you do it?

How to review your musical year

Doing an annual review shouldn’t feel like a big stressful thing. It really is just you, sitting down with a piece of paper and some time set aside (even just 10-15 minutes might be enough) to think through how the year went.

You can just do this privately if you like, but do consider sharing it. This process is great to do with musical friends or inside a community like Musical U. It might take a bit of courage to share your ups and downs but all the benefits of an annual review are amplified when you do it in a group.

Again: don’t be intimidated! This is just thinking and writing.

Don’t skip the “writing” part either. You’re not writing carefully to publish an article. Grammar and spelling don’t matter at all. The writing is just to help you gather your thoughts and get clarity, and then to be able organise it into something useful after. This makes it much more effective than if you just sit and think.

Rather than just sit and think “How did my musical year go?” you will get better results if you have some questions to prompt you to think things through in a slightly more structured way. Here are some example prompt questions you might find helpful.

Were there any stand-out moments or highlights from your year?

This is a great place to start, remembering the high points from your musical year. It might have been a concert performance. Maybe you finally nailed a particular solo piece you’ve been working on mastering. You might remember back to the very first time you did some of the things you’ve really enjoyed in music this year. It could even be buying an exciting new instrument or joining a new music group.

Did you start the year with clear goals? What were they?

Part of the reason to do an annual review is to guide your planning for the year ahead, and so it’s worth stopping to ask yourself: did you begin this year with clear musical goals? If so, what were they, and how did they work out? Are you a step closer to them than you were at the start of the year?

If you need help understanding what a “good, clear” goal looks like, check out this 5-step tutorial on setting and reaching your musical goals.

How much were you able to accomplish what you set out to?

You might have started to answer this with the previous prompt question, but maybe you had areas of musical training that didn’t clearly fit with any of your goals.

For example, maybe you wanted to generally tighten up your rhythm, or you just knew you wanted to start learning music theory.

If you think back to “you at the start of this year” and imagine yourself in their shoes again, how satisfied would they be with the stage you’ve now reached?

What worked really well for you this year?

This is where we start to get into the juicy stuff! It’s time to dig into how you actually spent your music practice time this year.

A good way to approach this question and the next one is to start by simply listing out every activity you did as part of your musical life this year. The exercises, the pieces, the practice techniques, the groups, the performances, the skills, the teachers, the courses, the apps, the goal-setting and progress tracking techniques… all of it!

Then ask yourself: which bits of this worked really well? Try to separate out the expectations you started with and any personal preferences. For example, if there was a new course you were really excited about but didn’t prove that helpful, or there’s a practice activity you enjoy but doesn’t really move your skills forward – be honest with yourself! It doesn’t mean you need to ditch them necessarily, but you want to be clear and honest at this stage about whether they truly worked well for you or not.

What didn’t work as well as you’d hoped?

The natural follow-on question: of all the activities and resources that were part of your musical year, which ones didn’t really work out?

Again, try to be as honest and objective as you can.

Don’t leave it at just this question. When you identify something that didn’t work, ask yourself the followup questions:

  • “Why didn’t it work?” (it’s okay if you don’t know the answer!)
  • “Did any parts of it work?”
  • “What can I learn from this not working?”

Sometimes you’ll find that things which you remember as not working actually did bring some benefits. Some “failed” activities can still produce useful ideas for the future. If you can take away at least one learning point from each “failure” then you’re succeeding.

What did you learn that you should do more (and less) of in future?

This is probably the core benefit of doing your annual review: that you reach this question, and have gathered up some valuable observations and ideas for improving your approach in the year ahead.

Were there activities to double-down on? Were there things you felt you should try but aren’t worth continuing with?

Remember how valuable your music practice time is. Any useful activity you can focus in on (or useless activity you can drop) will amplify the success you get in your next musical year.

Did you discover any tips or tricks to share?

Finally, it’s worth pulling out any valuable tidbits you discovered along the way. Maybe you found a new way to practice scales more effectively. You might have learned a key bit of music theory that suddenly shed light on something which had confused you. Or perhaps you made up your own instrument exercise that’s made practicing much more fun.

First, make sure you write these down. They may seem obvious and memorable now, but it’s surprising how quickly our memories can fade! By writing them down you can pull out your annual review notes next year (and every year after) and perhaps remind yourself of some clever tips and tricks.

Then, share them! If you’re doing your annual review in a community this is easy, but even if you’re not, be sure to at least tell a musical friend or two what you’ve discovered. In this way you can make every insight go further and you might be rewarded by them giving you a tip or trick of their own!

Planning For Success Next Year

Of course this process isn’t just about reflection and reminding yourself of how the year went. If you do it right it can dramatically transform the results you’re going to get in the next year.

To make this happen, just take the time to go carefully through the prompt questions above, writing down your answers. Then it’s time to use the insights you’ve uncovered to set some clear goals, create an effective plan and get started on making your next year even more successful than this one.

If you’re looking for a comprehensive and supportive framework for musical training, look no further. At Musical U we would be delighted to help you through this process and ensure your next year in music is your best ever. By joining Musical U you get everything you need to succeed.

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