image of doorway amid a green landscape“A concentrated mind is not an attentive mind, but a mind that is in the state of awareness can concentrate. Awareness is never exclusive, it includes everything.”
–Bruce Lee, martial artist

One of the most common questions I receive from music students is, “How can I perform at the consistently high level that I hear from professionals?”

My short answer is that they’ll achieve the results they seek when:

1. They become fluent with practice and performance skills

2. They learn to use their minds like pros

In this post, I look at three mental functions – awareness, focus, and concentration – and describe some ways in which expert musicians use them.

1. Awareness

When we veteran musicians practice and perform, we maintain broad awareness of our music, execution, and coperformers.

We don’t constrict our attention into a narrow laser.

Our inclusive awareness stems from the nature of our learning process in which we merge interpretation and technique into an encompassing knowing.

2. Focus

Upon that sea of awareness, we focus multiple lenses of attention. If we play or sing a folk tune, let’s say, we express the emotion of the melody, we sense our technical actions, we listen to our coperformers, and we actively mold the music into an compelling sculpture of sound.

It’s as though filaments of attention connect the diverse regions of our awareness.

We then expand or contract those filaments to create channels through which we improvise, adjust articulation, express emotions, and so forth.

A 2008 study backs up this view – MRI images of pianists’ brains showed how differently players used their faculties depending on whether they were improvising or playing a fixed melody from memory.

So, whether we’re practicing or performing, we can focus our attention on whatever elements we choose. But the elements available for us to focus on are solely those that we’re aware of.The Musician's Way book cover

Deep practice habits, as spelled out in The Musician’s Way, make us expansively aware.

“The elements available for us to focus on are solely those that we’re aware of.”

3. Concentration

As Bruce Lee said, pinpoint concentration restricts attention, so, in my teaching, I seldom utter the word “concentrate.” Some people use that label in place of “focus,” but I don’t conflate the terms.

As an illustration, in a common meditation exercise, participants “concentrate” on a candle flame – they gaze at the flame and banish everything else from their minds.

Although we musicians also need to dispel extraneous thoughts, I don’t advise that we do so by narrowing our attention. Instead, I recommend that we lightly focus on multiple artistic and technical facets as we play or sing, flexibly adjusting our focus as we play or sing.

In so doing, we become engrossed, and unwanted thoughts turn up less often than they might otherwise. When distractions do occur, we refocus and let intrusive thoughts drop away.

In other words, awareness and skillful focus allow for the inclusive attention that we musicians require, whereas concentration is exclusive.

*  *  *

In sum, the things we’re aware of we can gain control of. The things we aren’t aware of can control us.

Aspiring musicians, therefore, should aim to expand their awareness as well as their mental skills and agility.

From such a place of broad awareness and supple focus, artistic possibilities become limitless.

“The things we’re aware of we can gain control of. The things we aren’t aware of can control us.” – Gerald Klickstein

Related posts
The benefits of accessible music
Clear goals, clear process
Deep practice
Dialing down the effort meter

Mental imaging

© 2010 Gerald Klickstein
Image © S. Pluemruetai, licensed from Shutterstock.

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