(and how to avoid that)
“I was asking: How did it go?”
He could not think of an answer.
The truth was: he had no idea.
While playing, a million thoughts bombarded him left and right.
None of them had anything to do with playing.
None of them were helpful either.
Stay with the music!
He remembers trying, but no matter how much he would have liked to command his thoughts, they kept wandering around.
The performance was over before he even had the chance to get ‘into it’.
Playing an instrument requires complex motor skills. Years of practice go into being optimally prepared for those specific moments.
Yet anxiety, negative thoughts, fatigue and mistakes can be sources of distraction when under pressure. The ability not to react or be disturbed by these distractions and keep concentrated on the task at hand, are key factors in successful performances, researchers tell us.
They discovered that quite the opposite is also true: not being able to maintain concentration in the face of distractions was the cause of athletes failing to perform up to their potential.
One of the most difficult aspects of performing well on command is the ability to know what to be thinking and, most importantly, how to be able to recall and maintain those thoughts when under pressure with distractions lurking everywhere.
We think concentration is difficult. That it takes a great effort. Psychological research, however, tells us something quite different: concentration is about letting go of the unnecessary.
Techniques have been developed to help improve concentration. Although developing concentration requires great effort, once it is achieved, it is effortless.
What to do
1. One thing at a time: set a clear goal before each practising session.
“Setting goals can also help improve concentration especially when the goals are performance based and not results based.” (Winter & Martin 1991)
Concentrate on one specific parameter: sound, tempo, legato. Your goal is to train your mind to stay in the present moment, totally absorbed with the task at hand. Stop when your thoughts start wandering. Gently bring your attention back. Repeat the whole exercise.
2. Stay relaxed, open and matter of fact. Every time you feel yourself tightening up (brows tensing, eyes staring, breathing shortening) take a mental step back, open up and release that extra intensity.
3. Develop performance rituals. Create a physical and mental routine that helps you to concentrate, and use it every time you practice, rehearse and perform. These rituals are designed to cue both the body and the mind to initiate focused concentration.
4. Attentional Cues and Triggers. Think of task-related cues that help you centre your attention on the most appropriate focus within the task at hand. You can use physical, auditory, visual and of course musical cues. For instance: How do your hand or lips feel when you play optimally? Recall that feeling and keep concentrating on that. (NB not what you do with them, only how they feel. You don’t want to turn into Tin Man ;-))
5. Mens sana in corpore sano. Make sure you get enough sleep, eat healthily and exercise. It is not a luxury. Everything feels more difficult and takes more effort if you are sleep deprived, not fit or if you eat foods that don’t give you the right energy. It is like not bothering to have your bow rehaired…or playing with an old reed.
6. Find the right kind of distractions. While it is commonly accepted that negative distractions interfere with the ability to stay on task, a new study suggests positive distractions can actually aid performance. You can experiment by giving your piece, for instance, a colour sequence (one colour for each phrase or chunk); or concentrate on a part of your body that is not involved in the motoric process (your right little toe, for instance).
7. Trust yourself. A necessary element of great performances is finding the courage to stop the conscious thinking process and trust the more instinctual ‘let it happen’ flow of playing. (read here how to train courage)
– Journal of Excellence 2002 – Penny Werthner – Canada. Effective Concentration Before and During a High Performance Event.
– Bull, S.J., Albinson, J.G., & Shambrook, C.J. (1996). The mental game plan. Cheltenham, UK: Sports Dynamics.
– Nideffer, R.M. (1993). Concentration and attention control training. In J.M. Williams (Ed.), Applied sport psychology: Personal growth to peak performance. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield.
– The Journal of Neuroscience, 13 January 2010 Christopher Hemond, Rachel M. Brown, and Edwin M. Robertson. A distraction can impair or enhance motor performance
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