Have you ever noticed how going on vacation helps us to feel better both mentally and physically? That may be partly due to how vacations also tend to encourage us to broaden our attention. We are no longer at home, focused on bills, focused on scales, focused on responding to emails. When we go to a new environment that is relaxing, we begin to allow ourselves to indulge in the pleasure of noticing all the new, lovely information coming to us through our senses. For example, if you imagined yourself lying on the beach in Jamaica, you would notice the smell of the salt water, feel the soft sand around your feet, hear the crashing of the waves, and somehow that tropical drink in your hand would taste far better than the one you had before you left town. As our attention opens up, we experience an immediate and powerful effect on the entire nervous system.
The Stressed Performance Preparation
Perhaps you have a personal experience you can reflect back upon, when you were very stressed about preparing for an upcoming performance. You might even recall a specific piece, or passage that felt especially difficult and stressful to practice. Did you tend to focus all of your attention on the one thing that you were stressed about? Perhaps you weren’t yet happy with the rhythmic integrity of the passage, and so you decided to focus all of your attention on the rhythm. When this happens, we are more likely to respond with movements that are rigid and effortful (which impacts the quality of our sound, rhythm, pitch, etc), and our mind may respond with emotions of fear or even anger. Well, that certainly doesn’t set us up for an enjoyable, productive practice session!
Don’t be a Hater
We tend to focus our attention in a very narrow way frequently in our culture. No doubt the saturation of computers and smart phones in our lives further encourages this narrow focus of our attention. However, it really isn’t fair to hate on narrow, focused attention entirely, because in some instances it allows us to perform tasks very well. Imagine, for example, trying to schedule a doctors appointment on the phone while your kids are screaming in the background. If you didn’t focus most or all of your attention on hearing the person on the other end of the phone and what’s written in your schedule book, it would take you a lot longer to complete the task, and you may even be more likely to make a mistake like double-booking yourself. Narrowing our attention in this fashion is great in the short term, but when used chronically it becomes exhausting and stressful both psychologically and physiologically.
Have you ever walked onto stage, felt nervous or scared, and then focused all of your attention to the notes on the page? By the end of the concert you find your head buried in the music stand (oops!); and as an added bonus, your neck muscles are screaming at you. Narrowing our attention is something that occurs reflexively when we feel our well-being is threatened in some way. Interestingly, this can cause our visual field to be narrowed because our visual system is hardwired to our emotions.
What Musicians Pay Attention To
As musicians, we cannot afford to focus all of our attention exclusively on one thing (like the notes on the page). We have a long list of things that we must give attention to. Let’s take inventory of just SOME of things on that list:
…notes on the page, conductor, our sound, which specific instruments we are playing with and the quality of their sound, our intonation, our intonation relative to the people we are playing with, our rhythm, how our rhythm fits with the people we are playing with, the shape of the phrase, where we need to breathe, how much air we need for a specific breath, the quality/character of that breath, the quality of the movements we are using to create the music we are playing, the size of the hall we are playing in, the acoustics of the space we are playing in…
How Do I Pay Attention to EVERYTHING?!
Do you feel overwhelmed yet?! It’s an impressive list, and of course there are many more things we could add to it. How is it possible to give attention to all these things at once?! We can do this by expanding our awareness (a.k.a. attention) to be more inclusive.
I’d like to share an analogy that was shared with me by my Andover Educator (Body Mapping) trainers. Let’s use the analogy of a flashlight to help us better understand a more relaxed, diffuse, inclusive way of utilizing our attention. If you were sitting with another person in a dark room with a flashlight, and shined that flashlight up close on the person’s knee, all you would be able to see is the person’s knee. This is what we do when we focus all of our attention on one thing (like the notes on the page). It requires a fair amount of effort. Back to the dark room. If you wanted to see the elbow of the person you are shining the flashlight on from your close proximity, you’d have to move the entire beam from the knee to the elbow. To place all of our attention on the notes on the page, and then suddenly move all of our attention to making sure we play in tune with the strings, requires a great deal of effort, and can feel disjointed or even disorienting. Let’s go back to that dark room one last time. If we decide to back up, and take the whole person into the beam of the flashlight, we can see both the knee and the elbow, and understand how they relate to one another. This allows us to be able to easily and fluidly shift from looking at the knee and the elbow, because we are never losing sight of the other entirely. We do this in music making too. We can see the notes on the page, but also see the conductor with our peripheral vision, we can hear the strings, and monitor our body for free, coordinated movement, etc. It may feel that one piece of information is more ‘in focus’ while the other items are a bit more ‘fuzzy’, but that is ok. As long as we allow those other pieces of information to continue living in the ‘fuzzy zone’ we still have the option to be able to fluidly and effortlessly shift our ‘focus’ to one of those items if we choose.
One Simple Step
A simple, effective way to begin training the way you use your attention during music making, is by allowing yourself to notice what falls into your peripheral vision. Take a look at your music on the stand. Now notice what other things you are able to see using your peripheral vision: the music stand, a person sitting next to you, the colors & textures around the room.
My family chamber music ensemble (Sherry Family Band, seen below) experimented with this recently during a rehearsal, and the results were staggering. People commented that the rhythm was improved, they could hear other people’s parts more clearly, they felt more centered and poised. All of that, just from allowing an opening of one’s awareness to include information from peripheral vision!!!!
Continue including further visual information. Notice your three-dimensional physical space (this is a trick I learned from Fehmi, “The Open-Focus Brain”). Notice the distance from your eyes to the music on the page. Observe the distance between you and the people you are playing with if they are in your visual field. How far is it from you to the walls or the ceiling of the space you are playing in? How does this information about your three-dimensional physical space effect you?
Want to take it to the next level? Read my previous post here about how to become more aware of the information coming to you from inside your body.
We may need to narrow our attention sometimes to get certain tasks done, but when it becomes a chronic condition, stress begins to accumulate in our minds and our bodies, and we actually become less productive over the long haul. The way we use our attention when we are in vacation mode (inclusive attention), leads to greater creativity, efficiency, accuracy & flexibility, both in our movement and our problem solving skills. All of which we know are essential for great practice and performance. Try it out and let us know what your results are in the comment area below.