I received this comment in response to an earlier post:
“If I had a better idea of what to focus on as I practice, I might be able to focus better.”
Let’s take a look and see if this idea can help us practice more effectively.
Focusing Isn’t Easy
Could you focus better if you had a better thing to focus on? For the most part, no. We need to practice the skill of focusing. The attention of the brain is easily drawn by frightening or “prohibited” things — that’s evolution for you — but otherwise, it’s in the nature of the mind to wander. In our “connected” world, we’re continually distracted and distractable, awaiting the “ding!” of a new message notification, and scrolling our feeds.
Cal Newport calls Deep Work the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. (That sounds a lot like practicing to me.) He likens this ability to a super power.
Who wouldn’t like to have a super power to aid our practicing?
The best way to get this super power is to practice. Newport has a training method, outlined in his book, for becoming better at focusing. Many people (myself included) find a meditation practice to be very helpful.
Even with practice, though, we will never be perfect at focusing. That’s just the nature of the brain. I often picture two kinds of Swiss cheese: Gruyère and Jarlsberg. Gruyère is the one with little holes. Jarlsberg has bigger holes — sometimes they’re so big there’s hardly any cheese at all. Your ability to focus will start as the little holes and gradually get bigger. Maybe one day you’ll be insanely focused most of the time you practice and play. I’m still distracted more than I’d like to be, but the holes are definitely getting bigger — which means my practice time is spent more and more effectively.
What to Focus on While Practicing
Whether you’re very distracted, moderately so, or highly focused, what should you be focusing on when you practice? The basic elements are straightforward:
- What does it sound like?
- What does it feel like?
- What is my mind/body state?
Ask yourself, “How do I produce the exact sound I want? Does this work? Is that actually better? Can I do that again?” These “thoughts” may be more or less verbalized. But the more deeply you can focus, the more progress you will make. (Think: super power.)
Great musicians have the ability to listen deeply, and to be very in tune with the state of their body/mind. Infinitesimal changes in our playing can make a difference that the listener reacts to, even if they really don’t know why. If you can focus on those changes, you will become a better player.
Here are a few chapters in Best Practice where you’ll find more about what to focus on while practicing:
4 — Being Present
5 — Working with the Practice Pyramid
75 — Breathing
35 — Posture
47 — One Point
67 — A Beautiful Sound
89–Your Three Things
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