Matt Edwards

Associate Professor of Voice, Shenandoah Conservatory Artistic Director of the CCM Vocal Pedagogy Institute

Mix it up Monday: The stepladders approach to goal setting

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Stepladder.jpgI think one of the biggest challenges we face as voice instructors is convincing students to do the technical work necessary to achieve their goals. I think there are several reasons why some need to be convinced. In some cases, it is really their parents who want them to sing and therefore they are only half-committed. However, in other instances, the discouragement of not reaching big goals can override the pleasure of making small but significant changes and therefore cause students lose faith in the training process. Dr. Sean Young, PhD., talks about the science behind this challenge in his book “Stick with It: A Scientifically Proven Process for Changing Your Life – for Good.” In chapter two, Young states “people often think they are planning small steps to reach their goals when they are actually creating really big steps. How do you get people to think small? I created the step ladders model of steps, goals, and dreams to solve this problem.”

Young offers the following guidance:

“The size of the steps you plan depends on whether you are focused on dreams or goals. Dreams are bigger than goals. They are plans that typically take more than three months to achieve and which you haven’t ever achieved previously – like the first time an app developer crosses the coveted one-million-downloads mark. People need to be reminded of their dreams to keep them motivated, but focusing entirely on dreams can lead people to give up. Instead, people should focus most of their energy trying to complete steps and goals.

Goals are the intermediate plans people make. There are short- and long-term goals. Long-term goals typically take one month to three months to achieve, like learning the basics of a new language. A long-term goal could take more than three months to achieve, but only if it’s something you’ve already done before; otherwise it’s a dream. For example, getting one million downloads would be a dream for most developers, but it’s just a long-term goal for an entrepreneur who has successfully built other apps that of been downloaded more than one million times. If you already have experience doing something, then it’s more realistic that you can achieve it and it becomes a goal rather than a dream. While long-term goals take one to three months, short-term goals typically take one week to one month.

Goals are also more easily quantifiable than dreams. ‘I want to be a famous rockstar’ (the dream) is infinitely less quantifiable, for example, than, ‘I want to sell 1000 copies of a song’ (the goal).

Finally, there are steps. Steps typically take less than one week to accomplish. Steps are the little tasks to check off on the way toward a goal. Getting a Spanish book is a first step toward achieving the goal of correctly pronouncing a menu at a tapas restaurant in Madrid. It takes less than a week to get the book. Blocking off your calendar tomorrow to make time for writing is the first step toward the goal of writing the first chapter of a novel.

I typically find that the sweet spot is to have goals that take about one week to accomplish and to plan steps that take fewer than two days.” (Young, p. 27-29)


Step ladders model.jpg

“The Stepladders Model of Steps, Goals, and Dreams. Too often, people think they have planned a step but they have actually planned a goal or dream. This model will help you create steps, goals, and dreams that are the right size.” (Young, p. 29)

I find that when I use a stepladder based approach in my teaching, the results are infinitely better. Young says there is actually a scientific reason why:


“Scientists studying behavioral economics have a different explanation for why stepladders work. They call it intertemporal choice or delay discounting: people assign greater value to smaller, quick rewards over larger, more delayed rewards. In other words, people are impatient to get results quickly. How does this apply to step ladders? Focusing on small steps allows people to achieve their goals faster than if they focused on dreams. Focusing on small steps also keeps people happier and more motivated to keep trying because they get rewarded more frequently.

Neuroscience research also shows how stepladders create lasting change, based on how the brain reacts to rewards. Each time the brain gets a reward, a powerful chemical runs through it that makes people feel good, leading them to want to repeat that behavior to feel the chemical again. Eating chocolate, earning money, or having great sex releases this pleasure-inducing chemical dopamine and makes people want to do it again. The interesting thing is, brains understand rewards in relative, not absolute, values.

How does this apply to step ladders? People don’t feel good based on what they actually accomplish; they feel good based on what they expect to accomplish. A new gym salesperson might have a dream of selling 100 memberships next month, but if she has the goal of selling 10 by the end of the week and ends up achieving it then she could feel almost as good as if she had sold 100 by next month. Then she could set another small goal, like selling 20 memberships by next week. If she accomplished that goal, she’d get dopamine. It would make her feel good and want to keep selling. Ultimately, she’d feel better getting daily and weekly doses of dopamine rather than waiting for the dream of selling 1,000 memberships by the end of the year. And she’d be more likely to sell 1000 memberships.”

If you outline three small steps for your students to achieve each week (one every 2 to 3 days) they will experience at least three fulfilling moments of dopamine release between lessons. The goal is that the student will become addicted to achieving the small steps, which will make it more likely for them to reach their goals and eventually their dreams. So, for instance, you could tell a student that the steps this week are to:

  1. Master an /i/ vowel on single pitches throughout their range without tongue retraction
  2. To be able to sing 1-3-1 slides on an /i/ vowel without letting the tongue retract
  3. Followed by 1-5-1 slides on an /i/ vowel without letting the tongue retract

As the student achieves these steps along the way, the series of dopamine releases will get them more and more interested in continuing to pursue technical work.

The step ladders approach can have a huge impact on your students’ success while also making teaching more enjoyable for you. Do you have a similar approach that you already use? You can contribute to the conversation by leaving a comment below. If you’re not already following the blog, you can enter your name and email address to be added to the mailing list. You will then receive a new email each time there is a new post.

Group shot session 2Looking for something fun to do this summer that will also improve your teaching? Consider joining us at the CCM Institute this summer in beautiful Winchester, Virginia. We bring together some of the world’s best voice researchers and pedagogues as we offer nine days of workshops and presentations that give teachers a structured approach to teaching all styles of music. The curriculum is designed to be beneficial to both new and established teachers with plenty of opportunities for interaction with the faculty. Rather than teaching a codified method that must be followed exactly as presented, we teach a scientifically-based system that allows for the integration of multiple techniques. You will learn new approaches to correcting vocal faults while also learning how to integrate exercises you are already using. If you would like more information, visit our website. Early registration pricing ends on May 15, but if you write “BLOG” on your application, you can receive the early registration price through June 24th. As always, thank you for reading and have a great week of teaching! ~ Matt

One comment on “Mix it up Monday: The stepladders approach to goal setting

  1. Christina
    May 14, 2018

    Fantastic post.


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This entry was posted on May 14, 2018 by in Misc. Thoughts, Motor Learning.

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