Focus in practising There is so much that is involved in practicing a piece of music for a performance. I write about the nuts and bolts of practising what needs to be involved to build the security needed to be able to let go in performance, in my book Music from the Inside Out. But this is about the challenges of keeping our focus in practising and these 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 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’s 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. I am not a natural meditator, if there is such a thing, but 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. That’s exactly this that we need when we practise. Think of times when you’ve been totally absorbed by something, caught up in a great novel or film for example. During those times, our mind doesn’t chatter or get distracted, because it’s totally involved and absorbed. If it is a good experience, we can feel alive, fascinated, intrigued, curious and fulfilled. These are the qualities we need for practising.
So how can we focus in our practising? What does that actually mean? Above all it’s being interested in what we’re doing. As a means of teaching a student how to practise, I will often practise in front of them. I take a piece of music, play a chunk of it and speak out loud, showing them what I am noticing. It could be something like this: what speed does this need to be? I think I need to play it under tempo so I have a chance to get those notes right. Ooh, that fingering isn’t working. I need to spend some time on that. I can feel my right arm tensing up. I wonder why? I think I’m getting worried about that octave passage coming up.
This may well seem very scattered when written out like this, but it’s actually a form of focus, a noticing and engaging in what’s happening. Then it’s a case of deciding when we need to stop and focus on your fingering, or when we need to do a mini run of a passage and see how it holds up. There is space for so many different types of practice.
There are times when we’ll feel our monkey mind pulling at our attention like a demanding child. “But what about this? And this? And that?” When that happens to me, I take a pen and jot those things down in a notebook at the side of the piano, knowing that I’ll look at it later. It is as if I’m saying to my monkey mind: “Yes, I know it is important. Thank you for telling me. But not now - I will deal with it later.” And then I nudge myself back to what I’m doing.
Like practice itself, this process takes repetition and attention. It can be a case of changing a habit and building in a new one, that is healthier and more rewarding. The rewards are phenomenal, and how important that they are, when for musicians, practice is our very life blood. How wonderful when practice becomes something that lights us up, brings us alive and adds immense fulfillment to our lives.
And equally as important, is what practice means to us as performers. When we practice focusing, when it becomes enjoyable and meaningful, this process then carries across to the performing space. When focus is normal for us, then we stand a much better chance of focusing in the performance itself. We won’t notice the coughs and programme rattling in the audience in a way that disturbs us, we won’t feel as exposed and conspicuous on stage and we’re much more likely to be involved in the music. And it’s that involvement that gives us a much better chance of enjoying what we’re doing and ultimately keeping nerves at bay.