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Thomas J. West Music

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focusandattention

Focus and Attention: How to Maximize the Results of Your Practice Time



In most public school teaching situations, beginner students are told to practice 30 minutes every day five days a week. Many school band and orchestra directors require students to fill out a practice chart, have parents sign it, and submit the chart for approval at their next in-school lesson. In my experience, keeping such charts teaches most students the following:
  • How to tell "little white lies" about how much they practice
  • How to mislead parents as to how much time they actually spend practicing
  • How to forge their parents' signature (or at least their initials)
The student learns unethical behavior in this fashion. This type of learning is minimized when parents/guardians set up expectations and environment at home that is conducive to effective practice.

On top of that, when most students sit down to practice, they have not been taught how to practice by their school teacher. Students end up just doing what happens in their school lesson without the benefit of having a professional sitting next to them telling them what they did or didn't do correctly. Most students will play an entire line from their method book from the beginning, make a mistake, stop, go back to the beginning, make the same mistake, stop, and repeat the process. Guess what the student is learning how to do? They are practicing how to make the same error and getting really good at it!

Just playing your instrument for thirty minutes a day will give you limited mastery. A student must learn how to learn when it comes to any knowledge or skill they wish to acquire. There is much to learning a musical instrument as it is a very complex set of actions, reactions, and perceptions all happening in real-time during performance. The number one thing I teach every student who is learning how to practice is how to FOCUS!

"Focus" in this case can be described as "The concentration of energy or attention on something." Another way of saying it is "paying attention." When one is focused, time stops - the mind is totally absorbed in the object upon which it is attending to. No other distraction or event draws the attention. It is the timeless realm of NOW where all of our effort produces change.

With practice, maintaining focus on a task is the key that unlocks the door to anything you want to accomplish, and that goes beyond playing an instrument as well. When the mind is focused and time drops away, one is literally present. It is being present in the moment that enables you to clearly experience what you are observing.

In modern Western culture, our society is suffering from collective "attention defecit disorder." Watch any amount of TV and you will see so many rapid-fire images during the commercials, it's no wonder we can't keep our mind on one thing at a time. It is true that children's brain development all the way into their twenties offers varying degrees of ability in the realm of paying attention.

It is my experience, however, that beginner students as young as six can begin the work of staying on task and building the neural connections that give them a much less stressed and quieter stream of conscious thought. As a student's focus becomes more durable, they become more present in the moment and that in turn enables them to observe more clearly what they are focused upon.

It has been shown in research that "music makes you smarter." Travel down the halls of any public high school in the country and the majority of the highest-achievers are involved in some fashion in the arts. There are many reasons for this, and the ability to stay on task and see it through to completion is definitely one of them. Paying attention is personal power.

See if any of the following scenarios is common for you:
  • You are focused on playing a passage or even reading a book and a person coming in the room causes you to lose your place
  • You lose your train of thought when talking to people because of an outside stimulus
  • You observe something that reminds you of an event from your past. Before you know it, you're off on a mental train ride that ends in a very weird place that had nothing to do with the original thing you observed.
These are all common occurrences and have to do with the way our brain functions. The front part of the brain right behind your forehead, which is called the prefrontal cortex, is responsible for all conscious thought processing. This is where your focus is occurring, or as I like to say, it is where the movie screen in your mind is located. It is the "mind's eye." You can observe something in your environment directly in this part of the brain, or you can close your eyes and visualize something that's not even there.

While you are focusing on that image, other stimuli are coming into your brain from the five senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch). There are literally thousands of stimuli coming into the brain at any given moment, and there is a portion of your brain, the caudate nucleus, that filters that information and only sends you what it knows from your own memory as important for the well-being of the body.

For example, if you are focused on a ball rolling into the street and there is a car coming, your brain's filters will alert you to the sound of the engine or something similar so that you can take your attention off the ball and put it on the car, which is much more of a threat to your body than the prospect of losing the ball down the sewer. Still, where you place your focus is still a conscious choice, even if the alarm bells are going off in your brain. Developing the ability to hold your focus despite incoming stimuli is a key to success in music and in life.

Exercises for Improving Focus

Here are some activities you can do to work on paying attention. Like any acquired skill, it takes repetition, intention, and force of will to make progress.

Critical Listening: This is a good one for young and old students alike. Select a music recording with a thick texture (orchestral music or even choral music with thick harmonies). Select one instrument to focus in on and follow only that instrument's part. For more advanced students, sketch out their part either in a general flow of line or verbatim (known as transcribing).

People Watching: Sit in a busy public place where there are a lot of people coming and going. Select a random person or group of people and watch them from a stationary position. Try to determine as much about them as you can without talking to them, such as their destination, their mood, their profession, their age, and so on. The busier the location, the bigger the challenge to stay focused. Once you have done this exercise for a while, simply observe people without judgment - don't use your conscious mind to try to figure out anything. Hone your ability to simply observe. You'll be surprised at the insights that pop into your head from your intuition without you even thinking about them.

Nature Watching: Sit amongst nature and simply observe without judgment. This is another instance where intuition and "feeling" the energy of things can take front seat if you are able to keep the mind from wandering aimlessly on idle chatter.

Candle Focus: This exercise is challenging, and is so far the best exercise I have found for making long-term growth in focusing. Sit at a table with a lit candle about six to twelve inches away. Ideally, it should be at a level where you do not have to look down to look at the flame - this cuts down on fatigue in your neck. Set a timer for five minutes to start. Look at the candle flame, blinking normally. Focus on the base of the flame around the wick (usually blue in color). While doing this, keep perfectly still - do your best to hold your seated position without shifting your weight, fidgeting, or adjusting.

Mentally, you should work towards having an "empty mind" or choose a symbol to focus on, such as a star. Keep the mind blank or keep that symbol in the mind's eye as long as you possibly can. Inevitably, especially at the beginning, your mind will drift onto some random thought. When you catch yourself thinking about something else, simply let the thought go and return to the candle flame or your symbol. See if you can go the entire five minutes without your mind wandering, or try on successive sessions to lower the number of times you lose focus. If you are successful at five minutes, change the timer to ten. People who are excellent at candle focus can go for a half-hour or longer without breaking concentration.

I must admit that I have been doing it for quite a while and I am not that successful. If staring at a candle is too hard on your eyes, simply choose a picture on the wall or something similar to focus on. Remember the idea is to observe the object, not stare at it. Staring at something can cause headaches, blurred vision, and other symptoms. Staring is "trying to see" while observing is simply "seeing what is."

In my two years as a member of the Cadets Drum and Bugle Corps, I learned a lot about what it means to be single-minded of focus. In my recent learning about how the brain functions, it becomes apparent that the ability to pay attention and observe for extended periods of time is where human beings have given away much of the cognitive power. In future articles, I will give examples of how I apply focus training to specific musical situations.


This article (c) 2008 Thomas J. West. If you wish to reprint this article on another website or offline, please contact the copyright holder before using.

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