One of the most common questions I receive from music students is, “How can I perform at the consistently high level that I hear from professionals?”
My short answer is that they’ll achieve the results they seek when:
1. They become fluent with practice and performance skills
2. They learn to use their minds like pros
In this post, I look at three mental functions – awareness, focus, and concentration – and describe some ways in which expert musicians use them.
When we veteran musicians practice and perform, we maintain broad awareness of our music, execution, and coperformers. We don’t constrict our attention into a concentrated laser.
Our inclusive awareness stems from the nature of our learning process in which we merge interpretation and technique into an encompassing knowing.
Upon that sea of awareness, we focus multiple lenses of attention. If we play or sing a folk tune, let’s say, we embody the emotion of the melody, we feel our technical actions, and we mold the music into a sculpture of sound.
It’s as though filaments of attention seamlessly connect the diverse regions of our awareness. We then expand or contract those filaments to create channels through which we improvise, adjust articulation, express emotions, and so forth.
A 2008 study backs up this view – MRI images of pianists’ brains showed how differently players used their faculties depending on whether they were improvising or playing a fixed melody from memory.
So, whether we’re practicing or performing, we focus our attention on whatever elements we choose. But the elements that will be available for us to focus on will only be those that we’re aware of. Deep practice habits, as spelled out in The Musician’s Way, make us expansively aware.
As Bruce Lee said, pinpoint concentration restricts attention, so, in my teaching, I seldom utter the word ‘concentrate.’ Some people use that label in place of ‘focus,’ but I don’t conflate the terms.
As an illustration, in a common meditation exercise, participants ‘concentrate’ on a candle flame – they gaze at the flame and banish everything else from their minds.
Although we musicians also need to dispel extraneous thoughts, I don’t advise that we do so by narrowing our attention. Instead, I teach students to lightly focus on numerous artistic and technical facets as they play or sing.
Then, they become engrossed, and unwanted thoughts turn up less often than they might otherwise; when distractions occur, they refocus and let intrusive thoughts drop away.
In other words, focusing allows for the inclusive attention that we musicians require, whereas concentration is exclusive.
* * *
In sum, the things we’re aware of we can gain control of; the things we aren’t aware of can control us.
Aspiring musicians, therefore, should aim to expand their awareness and mental agility. From that place of broad awareness and supple focus, artistic possibilities become limitless.
© 2010 Gerald Klickstein