I’ve written before about the power of our attention when we practice, and that practicing in a focused and mindful way yields more, and faster, rewards than practicing long hours.¹ Learning to be more attentive, or mindful, when we practice and play is one of the most valuable things we can work on. The paradox is that while it takes no special mental ability, physical prowess, technique, or experience, being mindful can be quite challenging to do.
Most of us spend an enormous percentage of our time thinking about either the past or the future. We ruminate on anger, regret, disappointment, grief, past joys, successes, our younger days. And we think ahead: dreaming, planning, forecasting, fearing, worrying, projecting, craving, fantasizing, and avoiding. This is such a habit for most of us that it’s completely normative, in other words, we’re so used to these thought patterns we have no idea there’s any other way of thinking. Naturally, when we sit down to practice, we’re not really present for the work we’re doing. Every passage, every note is bound up with thoughts about the past or the future, the associated emotions, and often, the reactions of the body.
Paying attention is the opposite of all this. It is simply letting our minds rest in the present. When we practice or play attentively, we open ourselves fully to what is happening: what we hear, feel, and see. In the words of guru Ram Dass, “Be here, now.”
Why Pay Attention?
Mindfulness can turn practicing from a drudgery into a joy. Something that was associated with feelings of inadequacy, regret, fear and anxiety can be transformed with a spirit of investigation, exploration, inventiveness, and openness to change. When we listen deeply, and connect what we hear with what we are physically doing, we can quickly discern what we want to do less or more of, and repeat what we did right. We’re able to make fine adjustments that may elevate our playing from being mundane to interesting, or even transcendent.
Certainly, the practice of mindfulness can have rewards in daily life as well. We make choices every day as to how to spend our energies: both what we do and what we focus on while doing it. When we choose to pay attention to what we’re doing now, instead of what has happened or will happen, we’re empowering ourselves in a very real way.
“Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love — is the sum of what you focus on.” – Cal Newport, Deep Work
“Your experience of being alive consists of nothing other than the sum of everything to which you pay attention.” – Oliver Burkeman, Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals
It’s possible to build a greater capacity for attention and focus, so that when you call on it, it’s there for you. We have to practice developing this capacity, just like we practice scales, techniques or tunes. The benefit for musicians is that building your ability to focus is the most efficient way to accomplish more when you practice. It will also allow you to play with more joy, creativity and musicality.
Put It into Practice
- The first, and most difficult, step is to notice when your mind has wandered away from what you are doing now. This can be a challenge. You may spend an entire practice session and realize that, despite your intention to focus, your mind was elsewhere. Don’t berate yourself. Work on it again next time. Try using an external cue. I have a meditation timer that can be set to ring a gong at random times. Hearing the gong reminds me, “Be here, now.” You could set a standard kitchen timer, get up to stretch every five, 15 or 20 minutes, and mentally “reset” when you sit down. Or use another idea.
- When you notice you’re not “here, now,” make a shift. Bring your focus to the present. What are you doing? What do you hear? What do you feel?
- Finally, build positive associations to help rewire your brain. Try to fully experience the enjoyment of that focus and attention. Explicitly think, “Wow, I can really sense my change in finger position and how great the low D note sounds.” “Ahh, that’s the feeling of getting that staccato note just right.” “I can feel my body relax as I let go of the fear of playing that passage.” You don’t need to get absorbed in thinking. Just fully experience the moment in a positive way.
Building your ability to focus, listen, and stay present is incremental work. It may not always seem like you’re making progress. Our “monkey mind” wants to find new bananas, new trees, new vines to swing on. With some persistence, we can develop the ability to pay attention for longer periods, and experience the benefits in our playing.
 Best Practice: Inspiration and Ideas for Traditional Musicians, Chapters 42, 22, 66 and others.
Here are a few chapters in Best Practice where you’ll find more about the power of attention:
42 — The Myth of 10,000 Hours
22 — Attention
66 — M Is for Mindfulness Practice
81 — One Thing at a Time
45 — Attentive Listening
119 — What’s Next
57 — Recovering
Judy Minot is a musician and the author of the book Best Practice: Inspiration and Ideas for Traditional Musicians.
Judy has played and practiced piano since she could reach the keys, training in classical playing until age 16. She now plays traditional music in various settings on a number of instruments, and gives workshops and classes on Best Practice ideas all over the U.S. and virtually.
Judy spent her working life in broadcast television and digital marketing. She holds a 4th degree black belt in the martial art of Kokikai Aikido and is a certified yoga teacher.
For more information visit: www.judyminot.com/bestpractice