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How to focus in practice


When I am busy with a lot on my mind, it’s easy for my practice to suffer. Even with the best of intentions I can be off in the world of mental chatter within seconds, 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 chatter endlessly when we let them.


The world we live in doesn’t encourage us to focus. Mobile phones, for example, lead us so easily into scattered energy. We can be texting one minute and flicking through photos on social media the next. One of the first suggestions I make to conservatoire students and young professionals when we’re discussing best methods of practice, is to turn their phone off for an entire one-to-two hour stint of practice. And to keep it on airplane mode to prevent the temptation to check a quick message when practising gets tough!


Pianist distracted by his phone

Creating the right environment for focus is the first step. Next, it’s a case of pulling our attention towards one main point. This is the essence of meditation. How much easier is it to focus on a flower, for example, than try to empty our minds? We need to allow ourselves to be curious about what we’re doing, totally absorbed. We need to give that monkey mind a role because once it’s absorbed in an activity, the chatter stops. If we’re caught up in a great novel or film, for example, we don’t get distracted because our mind is involved. We might feel alive, fascinated, intrigued, curious and fulfilled. And of course, this is exactly what we need for good, efficient, focused practice.


Let’s say we are with our instrument ready to practice. Our phone is off and we’re not likely to be distracted by anything externally. One way of finding this focus and keeping our monkey mind engaged, is to be fully in the moment. We might start playing a passage. How does it feel to play that passage? Can we allow ourselves to feel the contact of the bow on the string, our fingers on the keys, our lips around the reed? Can we allow ourselves to be totally involved? We might want to take it apart, repeat sections in different ways and get right inside that particular passage. However we do it, the more we focus on the task at hand, the more involved we will become. This is the essence of mindfulness – or mindlessness, depending on which way you look at it!


But what if we find our mind pulling at our attention like a demanding child? “What about this? And this? And that?” What I do is take a pen and jot those things down on a piece of paper, knowing that I will look at them at another time. It is as if we are saying to the demanding child that is our mind: “Yes, I know it is important. But not now - I will deal with it later.


We always need to gently nudge yourselves back to what we 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. The rewards are phenomenal. Practice becomes something that lights us up, satisfies us, brings us alive and adds immense fulfilment to our life. But not just this. When we really learn to focus this way in practice, we will find it infinitely easier to focus in performance. It’s win-win all round!



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