Thursday, February 27, 2014

What the … Focus?

Perhaps you've seen this television commercial for 5-Hour-Energy. It demands an answer to the question, "What is focus?" then goes on to define it for the viewer. "It's getting in the zone and getting things done and with 5-Hour Energy you're sure to have focus all day long."

I certainly am not promoting 5-Hour-Energy drinks. I've never consumed one, and honestly, those energy concoctions scare me a little bit! But the advertisement made me think about FOCUS, how important it is in all areas of life and how it relates specifically to our success as musicians. Intuitively I know that being "in the moment" is a good thing. I also know that the present moment can be an elusive place, and once found, a difficult place in which to stay.

In our current fast-paced culture of excess stimulation and multi-tasking mania I wonder if many people actually experience being "in the zone" on a regular basis  or ever. I am most likely to be in the flow while immersed in some creative process  putting together a quilt or a photo book or a tune arrangement.

What surprises me, though, is how easy it is to fall out of the flow when I'm in the act of playing a tune. The voices in my head keep up a steady stream of commentary that is very distracting. The thoughts run quite the gamut!

  • Useful tidbits such as where I am in the music and what's coming next.
  • Useless opinions - positive and negative - about how everything is going.
  • Random junk such as the grocery list or the weird noise outside the window.
  • I could make a LONG list of distracting thoughts. How about you?
I recently came across a blog written by Tara Gaertner. She writes about training the musical brain, and she should know. She's a PhD neuroscientist … and a piano teacher. What a combo! The blog is not as active as it was a few years ago, but I enjoyed reading some of her earlier posts, particularly the series of writings that address how important focused attention is for music practice and performance. If you like to know the science behind how the brain works and how all that plays into what we're trying to do as musicians you'll enjoy her easy-to-read essays. Here are a few blurbs taken directly from the "Training the Musical Brain" blog to whet your appetite. Follow the links to read more.

"When we perform music, we need to use both implicit memory and explicit memory.  Many pianists have had the experience of playing the piano using implicit memory only; it seems like the hands can play the piece without any input from the brain!  That’s actually not true: unconscious parts of the brain like the cerebellum and basal ganglia are telling the motor cortex what commands to send to the muscles, but it feels like the brain is not involved because these are unconscious processes.  The downside of this automatic type of playing is that often pianists find that if they start thinking about what they’re playing, they make a mistake and are unable to continue playing the song.  What’s happening here is that the conscious parts of our brain are sending commands to the motor cortex that interfere with the commands coming from the cerebellum, and so we get mixed up.  The solution to this problem is that we should not let the performance of a piece get too automatic.  How can we accomplish this?  The best way is to form explicit memories of the piece alongside the implicit memories.  For instance, you could analyze the chord structure of the piece and memorize that, so you would know what chord you should be playing at each moment.  Or you could form an explicit memory of what notes you should be playing at the beginning of every fourth bar (or each phrase).  Or whatever works for you.  The key thing is to at least have some explicit memory of the song, even if it is just every few bars, that way if you lose your automatic train of thought, you have an explicit landmark to go back to, so you can get back into the song and continue playing."

" focused attention is a critical component of music practice ... in general, we should focus on improving the sounds we produce."

"You might think (and we often do think this) that simple repetition is enough to make us learn.  If you play a tune enough times, you’ll eventually know it well, whether or not you were paying full attention while you were playing it, right?  Well, yes and no.  You can learn something up to a certain level of proficiency without giving your full attention, but it takes a lot longer, and you won’t master it to the same level you could if you were really focusing on learning." 

Bio from the blog:
Tara Gaertner leads a double life. As "Dr. Tara", she is an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia, teaching Neuroanatomy in the Department of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy. She holds a Ph.D. in Neuroscience from the University of Texas in Houston. As "Ms. Tara", she is a piano teacher to young children, offering Music for Young Children classes for beginners, and private lessons for older students. She has two school-aged children of her own.

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