Monday Matters: Practical Practice Tips — Focus

Focus is the act of honing in on one particular thing with laser-beam precision to the exclusion of all else. I think that focus during practice is centered on active listening (from last week’s tip). When you’re practicing, you ideally want to be thinking about practicing, not about what to fix for supper or if you remembered to turn the iron off. Adults especially have difficulty with being singleminded practicers. We are accustomed to multitasking on a regular, if not constant basis. It’s harder for us to give one thing our constant and exclusive attention. Kids, on the other hand, tend to be more absent-minded: focusing on not focusing. Inattentive might also be a good descriptor for lack of focus. Focus is not difficult to learn, but it is helpful to start very small. Maybe even smaller than you think you can do, because we are occasionally surprised at how short our “focused” time really is.

Pick one small action to work on — it could be a fingering pattern, a rhythm, a series of pitches — and focus exclusively on that thing for thirty seconds. Set a timer and stop when it goes off. Reset for another thirty seconds. Spend a couple or three days working on these tiny focus exercises, then bump your time up to forty-five seconds or a minute. This is an extemely efficient manner of practicing: the repetition of tiny focus sessions teaches your brain the steps in the muscle memory sequence that it needs to learn to make whatever you’re focusing on seem natural and easy. There is no “overload” because you’re keeping the sessions very small. If you use a timer (highly recommended!) it gives you an objective stopping point. It’s hard to argue with a timer. And we tend to feel really stupid when someone (spouse, kids or strangers) catches us arguing with an inanimate object.

There is a time when more general practice, or focusing on an area or a broader skill set, is appropriate. But, when you’re just starting out with lessons or learning on your own, or when your training your brain to focus, or when you feel the urge to make a serious dent in a trouble spot, the key is to keep it very small — shorter than you think you are capable of doing — and zero in on one point that you need to learn, and listen actively to what you’re doing.



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