The Power of Attention

I rarely share personal information with this blog, but this month I wanted to wish congratulations to my mother. For those of you who don’t know, my mom recently retired from a three decade long career as an elementary school band director. She had a phenomenal gift for making music accessible to a huge number students. Nearly half the students in the grades she taught were involved in her band program! One of the most important lessons I learned from my mother was to use lots of analogies to everyday life in teaching music. One analogy I remember in particular was her comparison of playing a musical instrument to driving a car. Both activities involve our ability to manage our attention. For some reason I have been thinking about this a lot the past few weeks so I decided to write about it.

Attention is the currency of a performer. We only have so much of it at any given time, so we have to be careful how we use it. This runs contrary to how many musicians are taught to think about what they do. I have attended many masterclasses when the teacher would ask the student, “so were you thinking about X?” The answer was almost always “no” followed by the teacher scolding the student that they should always be thinking about X. I always found myself asking the following question. “Sure, the student can certainly try to focus more on X. However, is X the most important point of focus for them at that particular instant?” Sometimes it is, but many times it probably is not—especially when focusing more on X will come at the expense of the ability to focus on Y. Should we sacrifice Y to serve X? It really just depends on the music and the circumstances.

Let’s use my mother’s car driving analogy for a moment. When I took driver’s education in high school, I was told to never take my attention off my mirrors, my left and right side windows, the car in front of me, my dashboard speedometer, or even the car behind me. While there is a logic to this way of thinking, our attention is unfortunately very much finite. When we attempt to divide it this much we actually fail to maintain any point of focus at all. Constantly shifting our attention back and forth between this many things is the very definition of being distracted. Instead, it is far more valuable to prioritize our attention. When driving on the highway, it is most important to keep our attention on what is in front of us and occasionally glance to our left and right. When we are backing into a parking space, looking behind us suddenly becomes more important. We must constantly prioritize and re-prioritize that which is most deserving of our attention to be successful drivers of cars. Failure to do so in many cases could be fatal.

The same principle applies to performing as a musician (though the stakes are much lower!). At any given moment our attention can only be on one thing. Should that be rhythm? Should it be intonation? What about phrasing? Should I worry about my hand position or embouchure? It really depends on the music, the particular passage, and the musician. I frequently encourage my students to write their point of focus at any particular moment directly in their score. I believe it is just as important to plan out how we will use our mental resources as it is figuring out where we will breath or what fingering we will use.

We should also think differently about prioritizing our attention while practicing from what we do while performing. Practice affords us the opportunity to test out different points of focus. For example, we might work on a particular passage focusing primarily on rhythm. We might then later run through this same passage focusing on phrasing or intonation instead. Unfortunately, we do not have this luxury in performance. This means that we must adopt a fundamentally different mindset when we practice from when we perform. Practice is all about finding ways to improve over time. Performing is about making things as good as they can be in the moment.

I always tell my students that, when we perform, we tend to pick higher level points of focus like energy, tempo, or anything else which triggers our musical imagination. When we practice we tend to focus on more fundamental elements of music such as rhythm, pitch, or some element of our technique. I have found that this perspective is especially useful for improvisers who I find often struggle to ever approach what they do from a practice mindset when they practice. It can be very useful to approach practicing improvisation focusing only on rhythm, sound quality, phrasing, or some other more fundamental element of music. Likewise, those who primarily perform from written music seem to struggle to get out of the practice mindset in live performance. For them it is especially important to focus their attention on big picture musical ideas while they perform. This is especially important for anyone working on becoming a better sight-reader!

Our attention is incredibly powerful. A good driver who is fully attentive can drive for hundreds of thousands of miles without a single accident. Take that same driver and put a blindfold on them and they would not likely make it out of most parking lots! With the proper attention, musicians are capable of solving almost any issue in their playing and performing brilliantly. With the wrong point of focus, a musician’s attention can be a powerful distraction that prevents them from solving anything in their playing or being able to perform in public. Don’t be the brass player so obsessed with that one high note that everything else in your playing falls apart. Don’t be the pianist so worried about that one tricky passage that you start rushing the tempo and tightening up your wrists. Always prioritize your attention or else it will get the best of you. Happy practicing!

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