Are you unbelievably consistent? Once you’ve learnt something, do you deliver it perfectly every time?
Or are you like most of us? Sometimes it’s there – and sometimes there’s something lacking.
Your ability to focus is one of the keys to that holy grail of consistency, and it brings benefits in many other areas too. If you can strengthen it, then you immediately kick your performances up a notch. I’m going to show you how.
Why is focus so important?
Music is hard.
That’s a simple fact.
You need to make hundreds of small, precise movements with different parts of your body. These need to be perfectly co-ordinated so that they happen in the right order. And you need to do all this with rhythmic accuracy stability and accuracy.
Mess any of that up and the results will be – not good…
This is an awful lot of work for your brain to manage. You need its full capacity to be applied to the music if you want to have a chance of performing at your best.
Amazing technique and hours of conscientious practice become worthless if your mind isn’t on the job when the time comes for you to actually play. Unless your focus is fully on the task in hand, then your brain simply doesn’t have the bandwidth to translate your abilities – however great – into the music you want.
That’s the key point, but strong focus also brings extra bonuses.
You’ll get much more out of your practice. 15 minutes of really focused practice delivers much more progress than half an hour where your mind keeps wandering.
Who wouldn’t like to do less AND get more?
Also, strengthening your ability to concentrate reduces performance anxiety. Your mind can only really focus on one thing at a time (it might feel like you’re multi-tasking sometimes, but what’s really going on there is that you’re switching rapidly between different focus points). When you can keep your focus firmly locked onto the music you’re playing, then other thoughts – like anxiety – simply don’t get a look in.
How do I train my focus?
It’s pretty simple. You need to devote some time purely to working on improving your focus.
This doesn’t need to be a lot of time, but you will benefit massively from doing some specific training.
Anything which improves your concentration is good. If you practice meditation, mindfulness or anything similar then that’s a great start – it will definitely help, so stick with it. And, if you’ve been thinking of getting into something like that, then maybe knowing that it’s helpful for your music will be the nudge you need to get started.
But that’s not my number one recommendation.
While they’re excellent general tools, those things are not music-specific. You’ll get faster and stronger results if you do some specially designed training.
There are plenty of exercises for this. I’ve got one simple, but very effective one that I’m going to share with you today.
A focus exercise
Once you’ve got your sax and you’re ready to play, imagine there’s a bubble around you. You might like to give it a specific visual form – a giant soap bubble, for example. Or maybe you could picture yourself on a darkened stage in a sphere of light that illuminates you and nothing else. Whatever it takes to make this as real for you as possible.
This bubble is going to set the boundary for your focus. As long as your attention is somewhere inside this bubble – you’re fine. As soon as your thoughts go anywhere outside the bubble – however fleetingly – you’ve officially lost concentration.
Note that the bubble isn’t just around you in SPACE – it’s also a bubble in TIME. We’re talking four dimensions here, not three. If you find yourself thinking back to what you just played, or ahead to what’s coming up, then your thoughts have gone outside the bubble.
The exercise itself is very simple:
- Start playing from the beginning of a exercise or piece of written music.
- As soon as you notice that your thoughts have gone outside the bubble – stop playing.
- Take a second to reflect on how far you got and what happened.
- Start from step 1 again.
Repeat this maybe five times or so, and then move on to a different practice topic. If you come back to this exercise repeatedly over a period of time, you’ve got a great ongoing practice which will strengthen your ability to maintain focus.
Not only that.
Tracking how far you usually get before your focus slips gives you a way of monitoring your progress. As well as this, it’s also useful to note WHAT typically causes your attention to slip (e.g. are there specific points in the exercise/piece?) and WHERE it tends to go to. Over time, you might notice patterns emerging – you can then work out how to address them.
Some final tips
One of the keys to rock-solid concentration lies in picking the right thing to focus on in the first place.
If your only aim is to STOP your focus from going outside the bubble then you’re going to struggle. In fact, that’s an almost impossible task.
To give yourself a fighting chance, you need to have something positive to direct your focus TOWARDS. I can’t tell you what that focus point should be – it’s a personal choice, and the specific musical situation you’re in will affect things as well. Try a few different ideas out and see what works for you.
If you have no idea where to start, though, here are a couple of things which work for me:
- Really listening to the detail of the sound I’m producing
- Noticing the physical sensations of playing the instrument
- Locking into the groove
Feel free to give those a whirl. And add your own ideas as well.
How good is your ability to focus? Is it something you’ve ever worked on specifically before? Let me know in the comments below.
Your mindset and mental skills are some of the key aspects which determine how well you play. But, if you’re like most musicians, then you’re way behind in this area compared to where you are with technique and theory.
What we’ve covered here gives you a place to start, but it only really scratches the surface. Explore the articles at https://playinthezone.com to find exercises that will take you further. There’s even more material and guidance available if you sign up for the free email lessons.
And if you really want to go deep, then I’ve got a course launching shortly (or may have already launched by the time you read this) that guides you through my complete system. Find out more at https://playinthezone.com/unlock-your-performance/ (and make sure you sign up to be notified when it goes live so that you don’t miss out on your chance to grab the limited-time launch bonuses).