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Jim Besser

Focus, Concentration And Practice

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My biggest problem as musician has always been a wandering mind. As I practice or play in public, it's a struggle to keep my brain focused on what I'm doing.

 

What I'm wondering is how do people stay focused on the task at hand - ie playing the tune as well as possible? What are the mental processes you go thru as you play a tune? Is it a conscious process of thinking about what comes next in the tune, is more a question of intently listening, or both? What, exactly, do you focus on as you play? How do you prevent brain drift?

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Relaxation is really the key I think. You certainly want to avoid over-concentrating (in my experience anyway). Meditation can help curtailing the wanderings of the mind. After that it's a matter of letting the music flow as naturally as you can.

 

That said, I remember well instances like sitting in a recording studio (you'd expect some focus, wouldn't you?) realising in mid track I was thinking of the shopping that needed to be done for the dinner later on.

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Here is an interesting analysis for practicing that I read yesterday about keeping focused while practicing. (sorry about the banjo stuff)

 

http://www.banjohangout.org/blog/33294

 

Some good advice there. Practising is one thing, playing in public is another. Like Jim, I've often found concentration a problem. Even starting a tune in a session, if others don't join in reasonably quickly, there's always a risk of going wrong, despite knowing the tune very well, because your mind has wandered off your playing. Sometimes muscle memory carries you through, sometimes not. As Peter says, relaxation is crucial: you're more likely to lose the tune if you're anxious about playing in front of others. Interested to hear what others do.

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Another thing I used to do when learning was practicing in front of the television, watching subtitled movies so the wandering part of the mind was kept occupied while the part of the brain involved in playing music was doing its bit. I felt, and still feel, that was beneficial but YMMV.

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Another thing I used to do when learning was practicing in front of the television, watching subtitled movies so the wandering part of the mind was kept occupied while the part of the brain involved in playing music was doing its bit. I felt, and still feel, that was beneficial but YMMV.

 

This is kind of interesting since I used to read my books or do serious writing as a student whilst listening to Mahler, Bruckner and the likes in order to have some surplus energy occupied and thus calm down for better working... :)

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Another thing I used to do when learning was practicing in front of the television, watching subtitled movies so the wandering part of the mind was kept occupied while the part of the brain involved in playing music was doing its bit. I felt, and still feel, that was beneficial but YMMV.

This is kind of interesting since I used to read my books or do serious writing as a student whilst listening to Mahler, Bruckner and the likes in order to have some surplus energy occupied and thus calm down for better working... :)

 

Working at something whilst listening to music can be very beneficial and perhaps we can reverse this idea by playing music whilst our brains are working on some other project.... this is somewhat like the playing music whist watching the television.

 

The initial process of learning a new piece of music will, of course, need much of one's concentrationary focus but later, when all the notes are 'in-place', it should become possible to listen to our instrument playing the music, as an outsider, like listening to a recording of oneself. At this point it is possible to add feeling , dynamics and rhythmic emphasis for instance .

 

By this time it can be possible to think of something completely different whilst playing, so the action of operating one's instrument becomes as automatic as walking or breathing . I often find at this stage that if I interfere with the music playing operation by concentrating too much on it this is when things go wrong.

 

For playing solo in public one ought to have practiced so much that mistakes cannot happen, unfortunately this is something that the amateur musician usually does not have the available time to do. When one is put on the spot to produce a solo it is very usefull to have a couple of 'party pieces' that have been prepared earlier, perhaps something that has been absorbed with mother's milk so to speak.

 

The French verb for Practicing is répéter , translate this as 'to repeat' or even in a noun sense 'repetition'.

Edited by Geoff Wooff

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My biggest problem as musician has always been a wandering mind.

 

This is a problem I grapple with constantly. It's something I don't worry about too much when practicing but as a solo performer the pressure is on when one gets on stage. Nervousness can come into play and also... it's just different up there. Things happening in the audience can be distracting too. But at least there is the audience to remind one of the task at hand. As you say Geoff, knowing the material inside out a great start. Doesn't always work though.

 

As a singer when performing I try to concentrate on the words. Half way through a line I'll try to think of the beginning of the next line and doing this can help to maintain concentration to the end. (unless the MC signals 5 minutes during your second last item - oh what is that next line? - silly woman). I'm not sure what you tunie looneys can do. When I reach an instrumental break in a song I usually have to put my head down and concentrate hard.

 

When rehearsing, which is different to practicing, I'll often try to imagine the audience in front, set myself up as would be on stage and sometimes record with a digital recorder. Usually I don't listen back, but it puts a bit of pressure on to get it right.

 

Sympathetic audiences are good, like local music nights or sometimes I play at ages care facilities, all good for practicing concentration. (as well as practicing the tune, practice concentration). Of course sometimes I'll loose it, sometimes can scramble back with a few strange chords, occasionally collapse in a heap. What can one do? Perhaps appeal to the audience, "Did you like that jazzy bit I put in the middle?" or "Sorry, I forgot to take my medication this morning!". That'll have 'em guessing. Or just ignore it. A bit of a blunder is not a big deal for an audience, especially if the rest of the show is a dazzler.

 

Cheers Steve.

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I have come to think of it parallel to what one must do while driving. Yes, we listen to music, talk, and think while driving. But there is a baseline minimum of attentiveness to the road and to the task at hand that is required, and it is a matter of life and death. I do not have attention problems with practice, because I love the music. This is why they say, it is not "talent," but passion for the music and the instrument that enables people to endure the tedium of repetition aka practice. I certainly have found distraction a worry with solo performance, not due to wandering attention, but due to things like anxiety and unwelcome variables on the scene. Thank God this has lessened a good bit over time . . . . I feel the ideal perspective must be, you are not there to be measured, to be tested, or to be judged. You are there to provide a gift or service that is a necessary to many folks, but that not many can give or provide themselves. But . . . that perspective is an ideal. . . . :ph34r:

 

regarding what thought processes are going through the mind while playing the tune . . . that is a good question. I just came from a practice period before checking in here. it is interesting to analyze that question. if I am practicing tunes, I have a dream or vision or ideal of the tune in my head that I have internalized from listening to players who are touchstones for me. it involves rhythm, swing, expressive touches, setting, etc., and especially a kind of feeling. and I am trying to achieve that dream of the tune in some way. I am trying to hear or feel that exemplar, which is really an amalgamation of examples along with some of my own vision, in what I am doing. if I am not getting that feeling, then I am trying to identify why, and try something different that will put me in the place I want to travel to.

 

 

if I am not practicing the tune in a general sense, but am working on a specific problem, then there is analysis and critical thinking going on, attempts at identifying and addressing issues or problems. I have recently begun to wonder why there are not specific workshops and classes addressing tune-starting (setting a beat and rhythm, etc) and segueing from one tune to the next in sets. These are skills discrete, separate, and different from instrument technique, ear learning, etc., yet no one tells you this or addresses it. We've all seen that phenom of people who can play, but who can't do these things, or don't do them well. I am working on that stuff right now, and it involves a lot of critical thinking and repetition. It's more a problem-solving, attentiveness mode.

Edited by ceemonster

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... These are skills discrete, separate, and different from instrument technique, ear learning, etc., yet no one tells you this or addresses it. We've all seen that phenom of people who can play, but who can't do these things, or don't do them well. I am working on that stuff right now, and it involves a lot of critical thinking and repetition.

There is a whole bunch of separate skills that one has to learn, but are often not highlighted. I am learning, on a slightly different shaped box, to play for Morris. Learning to play with other people, and in front of other people, are two examples that players are usually just expected to "pick up along the way" but can be absolute blocks to progress.

Workshops on how to do ornamentation and snazzy bits are quite common, and beginners workshops increasingly so, but intermediate/improvers/"soft skills" seems IMO much more scarce.

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I find it helpful to have a set of things for practice:

 

2 boxes in different keys, to vary the sound.

Some tunes I know well to play through and remind myself I can actually play reasonably well.

Some tunes I can play but am still working on.

Some tunes in a trickier key.

A new tune I am still learning.

Some easy tunes to wind down at the end of the session.

Something else I ought to be doing.

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To my mind the key to performing well is to appear relaxed - after all nobody wants to watch a nervous performer, while actually being completely concentrated on the job in hand. In my own experience, if I start letting my mind wander, it's a sure recipe for disaster! I think what I do is to have the melody running in my head, while I concentrate on the chord sequence, the section/tune sequence and any particular 'problem areas' that are coming up. These I'll have practised well beforehand, sometimes memorising fingerings, sometimes bellows reversals and so on. I find performing very enjoyable and fulfilling, but it is work and I don't think I can ever afford to be totally relaxed about it.

Singing is a bit different in that I try to have my accompaniment so well in my fingers, that I can concentrate fully on the words and sound. - That said, there are always points in the tune or in the arrangement that require a little extra thought as you go into them.

The only time I ever try to go into an 'automatic' mode is for example: I've just made a clanger in the A section. If I think to much about it and try to remember the sequence/notes or whatever, it's pretty much guaranteed I'm going to make the same mistake again in the repeat! In these moments, I try to relax, to image I am playing only for myself and hopefully my hours of practising will pay off and I'll get it right the second time.

With the greatest respect and without wanting to ruffle any feathers or upset anyone, I wonder if there isn't a big difference between playing in sessions and performing concerts? It seems to me that the 'risk' factor is quite different, as are the expectations of both player and listener? For example, I certainly wouldn't drink beer before or during a performance and I even avoid caffeine in the hours before for the same reason. But in a session, I imagine that a beer or two would go down very nicely? I'm not making a quality judgement here, just pointing out that there are differences. I also find it very different to rehearse for a recording, rather than for a concert - both are difficult but require a very different mind-set.

To get back to your original query Jim, perhaps you just need a challenge to get your concentration going? Try playing with people you don't know, play a familiar piece a tone higher, or make a really complicated arrangement?

 

Anyway, I hope this helps.

Adrian

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To my mind the key to performing well is to appear relaxed - after all nobody wants to watch a nervous performer, while actually being completely concentrated on the job in hand. In my own experience, if I start letting my mind wander, it's a sure recipe for disaster! I think what I do is to have the melody running in my head, while I concentrate on the chord sequence, the section/tune sequence and any particular 'problem areas' that are coming up. These I'll have practised well beforehand, sometimes memorising fingerings, sometimes bellows reversals and so on. I find performing very enjoyable and fulfilling, but it is work and I don't think I can ever afford to be totally relaxed about it.

 

 

LOts of great suggestions in this thread, thanks to all.

 

Yes, there's a big difference between sessions and performing. I do both, and generally I don't have the 'wandering mind' problem when doing that. THe problem is mostly during practice. Without the tension inherent in being before an audience, my mind goes into multi-tasking mode, and my practice becomes ineffective.

 

I like the suggestion of treating every practice session like a performance, turning on the recorder and trying to simulate the experience of being on stage.

 

I"m also trying to organize practice sessions more effectively - determining in advance what I'll work on and what I want to come away with.

 

And I've started keeping a practice log, noting problem areas, passages I've worked on, changed fingerings, etc.

 

Several people mentioned meditation, and I think that makes a lot of sense.

 

Keep the suggestions coming!

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Nerves on stage have always been a problem for me and I too have a wandering mind when on stage.My apologies if I am repeating something I have said before ,but a group of us musicians started a new band and decided to try it out at a small folk club in Kent.When we arrived for our first gig as a band ,we were horrified to see the BBC Outside Broadcast lorry was there, we were being recorded by BBC Radio Kent.

It may be hard to believe and thankfully it has only happened once that my concentration was so great I actually left my body and was watching myself play.This put me off so much I made a mistake which quickly shot me back into my body again.The night was a disaster,but one tune we played was brilliant,outstanding and I thought as we played ,thank goodness they will be able to use this one.At that very moment one of the mike's swung through 180 degrees and crashed onto the floor.

I decided later that I wanted to do my own thing and play my own compositions, or those tunes which I liked and were not chosen by other band members and started to play solo.The problem was that I could not reproduce the performances I could do at home.I decided to work on it.I went to lots of folk clubs and did many more performances.When I had a big gig I did not let it build up to a massive performance I treated it the same as the others.I prepared though,I played safe going for those tunes ,monologues etc that I almost did not have to worry about.Introducing more difficult pieces only when I had the same confidence as the tried and tested ones.Of course I get nervous when I get up on stage, but it is much more controlled.I do not look at the audience (a big mistake I used to do).I try to enjoy the tunes ,as most are my favorites and I am getting much happier with my performance ,my worse critic is myself..Above all it is getting up on stage with a determined and aggressive attitude that you have put the work in now ,DO IT.

Recording for fellow members to listen to on this site is a great help and we are very lucky that we have this facility for us all to try things out amongst friends.

Al

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I think you have to find your own method for this. The playing, or singing, needs to flow without too much conscious thought. I find if I concentrate too hard I start to think too much about the mechanics - which finger goes where - but as soon as I do that it all falls apart. It needs to be automatic. On the other hand, not concentrating hard enough is equally risky. The trick is to find the right balance. In part, it means being sufficiently rehearsed that you don't have to struggle to remember what you're meant to be playing, and partly it comes from experience of performing (and of getting it wrong, and having to dig yourself out of a hole)

 

I'm the opposite of Steve Wilson, if I'm singing a song I find it fatal to think about what comes next. Sometimes half way through a verse I'll have gone blank and have no idea how the next verse starts. Worrying about it invariably means disaster,but by relaxing and going with the flow the verse will nearly always pop into my head at the last moment. If it doesn't, the ability to go into an instrumental break or to improvise some words can leave the audience none the wiser.

 

There are exceptions - some songs, and some tunes for that matter, have bits where you know it is easy to go wrong. With those a bit of forward thinking can avoid some unfortunate consequences. One song where I have to be particularly careful is the ballad "William Taylor". There are two occasions at different points in the song where "the captain stepped up to her". It's very important not to get them muddled, or you'll sing the one where he's "pleased well with what she's done" just after she's exposed her lily-white breast. I've only done it once.

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I think you have to find your own method for this. The playing, or singing, needs to flow without too much conscious thought. I find if I concentrate too hard I start to think too much about the mechanics - which finger goes where - but as soon as I do that it all falls apart. It needs to be utomatic. On the other hand, not concentrating hard enough is equally risky. The trick is to find the right balance. In part, it means being sufficiently rehearsed that you don't have to struggle to remember what you're meant to be playing, and partly it comes from experience of performing (and of getting it wrong, and having to dig yourself out of a hole)

 

IMO this is very true, and the best of advice too!

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I think you have to find your own method for this. The playing, or singing, needs to flow without too much conscious thought. I find if I concentrate too hard I start to think too much about the mechanics - which finger goes where - but as soon as I do that it all falls apart. It needs to be utomatic. On the other hand, not concentrating hard enough is equally risky. The trick is to find the right balance. In part, it means being sufficiently rehearsed that you don't have to struggle to remember what you're meant to be playing, and partly it comes from experience of performing (and of getting it wrong, and having to dig yourself out of a hole)

 

IMO this is very true, and the best of advice too!

 

 

Yes I agree. "Too much conscious thought" for me though isn't thinking of the next line of a song. That's just enough thought and the fingers fall on the buttons automatically.

 

I certainly wouldn't drink beer before or during a performance and I even avoid caffeine in the hours before

 

Adrian

 

 

I remember hearing about some research where spiders were given a tiny amout of caffeine after which they spun some pretty wacko webs! Don't know if the scientists tried giving alcohol. You'd think perhaps the spiders could be too involved making merry to bother about making a web.

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Stve, I wasn't suggesting you are wrong. Your way works for you, but for me thinking ahead has the opposite effect, unless it is to avoid a known pitfall. This is why I said everyone has to work out a method for themselves - what works for one person may not work for another.

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