A performance is really a continuous series of moments in which one’s sole focus is on executing their contribution to that performance. That’s a heavy statement right there… Learning how to focus in those moments is a life’s work. I believe everyone has this skill, even those who claim to have severe performance anxiety. The difference between all of us is where our performing skills shine. Some of us have the ability to focus when performing music, some have the ability to focus while cooking. I couldn’t possibly stay calm and focused during surgery, but to a surgeon it’s just another day at the office. However, that surgeon might be petrified to play a single triangle note onstage. We all have our areas we are more apt to succeed in. Today we will discuss how to focus onstage.
Earlier I said “one’s sole focus is on executing their contribution to that performance.” This is the crux of performing. If I am playing bass drum on Stars and Stripes, fitting those quarter notes in the right spot is 100% where my mind is. I am listening to the basses and the low brass to make sure my placement is perfect. If they move ahead a smidge, I want to be right there with them. Earlier in the concert I could have been playing the tambourine part to Carnival Overture and in that moment it would be focusing on leading the ensemble. The reason Bolero is so difficult is not because of its technical difficulties. The challenge lies in the ability to focus and keep the group together for the entire 15 minutes of the piece. Having big ears and adjusting and moving the group into some semblance of the same tempo throughout the piece takes a lot of mental energy. This is the perfect example of a piece that demands focus and being in the moment. Learning how to sharpen our focus will be the goal of today’s post.
The first time I really worked on this was at Northwestern’s summer music camp the summer of my junior year in high school. I must admit, it was not a fully conscious effort. The players I was playing with were the best I had ever been around and I certainly didn’t want to be the weak link in the group. It was a wakeup call. I thought to myself, “Hey, you better dial it in here to fit in with these other kids.” That motivation caused me to focus more during rehearsals and especially in concerts. It wasn’t so much that I was afraid to mess up as I wanted to play on the same level as these other fantastic young musicians. I realized that I was learning how to be in the moment and concentrate solely on the task at hand; playing music. That “zen” state I was in was one that I have been working on perfecting ever since.
So how can one get better at this? Learning to focus in the moment is incredibly difficult. And there is nothing less helpful when trying to focus than someone saying…… FOCUS!!! Even those that are great at it still have wandering minds. (I find myself distracted by the backyard that needs mowing as I type this…) I find a lot of the tactics to deal with a wandering mind to be a little too “hocus pocus” for me. I know they work for some people, but I never found them helpful. The drill I have found to be the most helpful is to ask myself the question “What is my goal?”. A very simply question, but one that gets right to the point. What I find is that my mind immediately goes to what I am trying to accomplish. If I am playing the Third Movement of Scheherazade and I ask myself “What is my goal?” my brain immediately goes to:
project a light, lilting style
very steady and supportive
sensitive, round dynamics
energy in the rhythms
Ask yourself the same question about Porgy and Bess. Take 30 seconds to make a list of your goals.
What you will notice is you came up with some very concrete musical goals to accomplish. What you will also notice after the fact, is what you weren’t thinking about! You weren’t thinking about your shaky hands. You weren’t thinking about how you always miss the A natural in that one spot. You weren’t thinking about how out of control the grass is in the backyard either. This is a great way to focus in a performance or audition and essentially distract yourself by asking the right question. That question might be different for you but asking yourself some version of “What is my goal?” shifts your brain to what is important. This is a topic discussed at length in the book I mentioned last week Fearless Golf, with obviously much more of a golf focus.
So why a question and not a statement? A question is a better way to refocus because it causes you to focus on what YOU think is the answer. A statement is merely a list of facts you believe in, but a question engages the brain in a much deeper way. It almost starts a conversation in your brain. For example which thought do you think is going to be more helpful?
“What is the style of this work?”
Asking yourself about the style is significantly more helpful! It conjures up multiple adjectives and thoughts that are going to help your performance. Telling yourself not to rush may prevent you from rushing but will not be helpful in any musical way and may even cause you to drag!
Obviously this is incredibly easier said than done, but it is an exercise that I really believe works. Just like music, being able to focus is a lifelong pursuit. Even when life is great it is easy to be distracted, let alone when things aren’t great. For anyone who has stood onstage in a performance and felt really involved in the performance and been tuned in knows what a rush that is. That is exactly the goal! Good luck with your own pursuit of being a performer; now I’ve got to go mow the lawn!