Are you a dedicated musician, but find it hard to focus and concentrate without interruption while practicing and performing?
Then you may find these tips about training your brain and preventing distractions very useful.
What is focus?
We often use the words concentration and focus interchangeably. There is, however, a difference: concentration is letting go of the unnecessary.
Imagine concentration as a beautiful silvery cloud pervading your entire body; and the distracting thoughts as little black clouds that invade and disturb the serenity of the big silvery one.
But… this cloud cannot do anything on its own, it just floats. If you want to get going, you now need to give a clear cue or command.
You run to catch a bus (or to get fit). When you run you have a very clear goal in mind. The more urgent the goal, the faster you will run – depending on your fitness level ;-)
So, concentrating while practicing and performing allows you to have the right state of mind, a clean, fresh slate. Free from distractions and the unnecessary.
Now you need to channel that silvery cloud into a beam of light shining only on… what makes you play better.
Focus is choosing where to direct your attention.
How to focus on demand.
Anything and everything inside and outside of us can be the object of our attention. Think thoughts, emotions, physical responses, sights, sounds.
You can shine your ‘beam of light’ on one specific detail (narrow focus) or on the bigger picture (broad focus). Also you can choose to direct it inwards (your heartbeat) or outwards (how your hand feels on the instrument). Put these dimensions together and you have a broad range of possibilities to choose from.
So, what do musicians need to focus on in order to play at their peak?
Before we get there, two other important bits of information.
There are two common misconceptions about focus:
1. Focus is an unlimited resource
We have a limited attentional capacity. If we are focusing on our physical responses for instance, we cannot focus on what we need to do in order to execute a demanding passage well.
Like computers, we have a certain processing capacity and cannot attend to every detail of everything inside and around us all at once.
2. It means directing our attention on one particular thing for a long period of time
Optimal focus gives you the ability to direct and shift your attention internally, externally, on details or on the big picture, as needed according to the best performance-relevant cues for the particular excerpt you are going to play. Considering your preferred style as well.
Musicians Focus Styles.
Some musicians are more comfortable focusing on some cues and avoid or don’t pay attention to other cues. This is why you need to identify your focus style. Understanding your focus style is essential for you to be able to manage it effectively.
Be aware that under pressure there is a tendency to revert to a focus style that will interfere rather than help your performance. For example, you perform best with an external focus style, but when under pressure you start to think too much (internal focus) and become anxious.
What to do.
1. Identify your focus style.
Recall past concerts when you’ve performed well and past concerts when you’ve performed below your level. Were you totally focused on your forthcoming concert or did you keep your mind from thinking about it? Were you thinking too much or were you distracted by things going on around you? What kind of cues work best for you? Can you identify a pattern? The clearer you are about what you want to focus on, the more likely you’ll be able to stay focused on the factors contributing to your success.
2. Identify your distractors.
Becoming aware of irrelevant cues that interrupt your flow helps you get back on track quickly if the mind is drifting off.
- Make a list of your ‘Relevant Attentional Cues’ (the ones that help you play better: stay in the moment, keep your key muscles loose, breathe, listen to your sound nuances, or create the sound in your mind and let your body free to produce what you have imagined) and one with your ‘Distractors’. Typical source of distractions include self-doubts, giving yourself step-by-step instructions on how to execute a skill, noises from the audience, temperature and acoustics of the hall, where you have to sit (or stand).
- Review the two lists on the day of concert to remind yourself of important cues such as focusing on the sound you want to produce, the emotions you want to convey, the way your body feels in optimal performance. Remind yourself why you play music.
3. Use triggers.
Under pressure your mind will want to take you back to your ‘distractors’. A trigger is an action that reminds you of the need to focus. For example, slightly tighten or untighten your bow, touch a particular part of the instrument. Such triggers serve to focus attention towards your performance relevant cues.
4. Pace yourself.
Intense focus requires a lot of energy, alternating it with moments of relaxation will ensure you have enough energy to focus when you need it most. Find when and where in your piece you can ‘take a break’.
5. Train your brain to stay focused.
- Meditation. Set your timer for 5 minutes. Concentrate on your breathing. Feel the air going in and filling your body. Your thoughts will drift, gently bring your attention back to your breathing.
- Hold an Image. Find an object, or a part of it (i.e. the scroll of your cello). Visualise it in every detail, notice the color, shape, the background on which it lies. When you’ve got a clear image in your mind, start a stopwatch and stop it as the image fades. With time and practice, attention span can be gradually increased
- Centering. A martial art visualisation technique made popular by sport psychologist Dr. Robert M. Nideffer in the mid-1970s and also championed by performance coach Dr. Don Greene (1):
- Pick your focus point. Get balanced, feet solidly balanced on the ground and identify your focus point (i.e. on the music stand, or down the hall/practicing room; important: your focus point is below your eye level)
- State your intention. What are you going to do when you are centered? Hear it, feel it, see it.
- Focus on your breathing. Take deep breaths, slowly.
- Scan your body for excess tension and with each exhale, release it.
Feel your Center (under your belly button) solid, grounded. Focus your energy downwards, toward your Center. Feel the connection with your feet and how they are ‘rooted’.
- Repeat your process cue. “smooth bowing”; “keep the air flowing”; or just hear a vivid sound in your head of what you want to hear; or an image.
- Direct your energy & go for it! Accumulate energy in your center, guide it up and direct it at your focus point. Sense the connection between your Center and your Focus point. Trust your talent and experience, let go and commit to really going for it, trusting your body to realize your clear intention.
Focusing intently on things that are important to your performance means you will be too busy to get distracted :-)
Dr Don Greene:
Dr Robert Nideffer:
‘A.C.T: ATTENTION CONTROL TRAINING’
Dr Maurizio Bertollo:
‘To Focus or Not to Focus: Is Attention on the Core Components of Action Beneficial for Cycling Performance?’
‘Neural Markers of Performance States in an Olympic Athlete: An EEG Case Study in Air-Pistol Shooting’
Dr Alan MacPherson:
‘Is what you think what you get? Optimizing mental focus for technical performance.‘