There is so much that is involved in practising a piece of music for a performance. At some stage, I will write about the nuts and bolts of practising music, what needs to be involved to build the security needed to be able to let go in performance. But this is about the challenges of keeping your focus in practising, which have strong parallels with meditation. I have noticed that when I am busy and when there is a lot on my mind, that I can start to practise, and within seconds, I am off in another world. I can be working out when I next need to buy petrol or if I have enough food in the house. It can be anything, mundane or otherwise. This is what the Buddhists call the ‘monkey mind’. Our minds can chatter endlessly when we let them. It is so easy for us to drift off and let our monkey minds take over.
But when we find a focus, then it is different. Focusing is just that. It is pulling our attention towards one main point, metaphorically speaking letting our eyes focus rather than glaze over or be caught up in what is going on in our peripheral vision. On the few occasions that I have meditated, I have found it so much easier to focus on one thing (a candle or flower for example) than to try to let my mind empty of chattering thoughts. And it is exactly this that we need when we practise.
Think of times that you have been totally absorbed by something – caught up in a great novel or film for example. During those times, your mind doesn’t chatter or get distracted, because it is totally involved and absorbed. If it is a good experience, you can feel alive, fascinated, intrigued, curious and fulfilled. These are the qualities we need for practicing.
So take yourself to your instrument. Decide how you are going to practise for the next 30 minutes or so and then take a passage and start playing it. Notice what you are doing, how it feels to play it, the contact of the bow on the string, your fingers on the keys, your lips around the reed, and allow yourself to be totally involved. Then maybe you want to take it apart, repeat sections in different ways and get right inside that particular passage. The more you focus on the task at hand, the more involved you will be.
If you find your mind pulling at your attention like a demanding child – “But what about this? And this? And that?” – take a pen and jot those things down on a piece of paper, knowing that you will look at it later. It is as if you are saying to the demanding child that is your mind: “Yes, I know it is important. Thank you for telling me. But not now – I will deal with it later.”
Always, gently nudge yourself back to what you are doing. Like practice itself, this process takes repetition and attention. It is changing a habit and building in a new one, that is healthier and more rewarding. And be assured, the rewards are phenomenal. Practice can then become something that lights you up, satisfies you, brings you alive and adds immense fulfillment to your life.