HOW DO I KNOW WHEN I'M CONCENTRATING?
If we agree that concentration is vital to the success of a host of endeavors, and particularly to success in the performing arts, then we need to be able to define it, and be aware of whether or not we are concentrating at a particular time. Many students think they 're concentrating because they are working hard. This, unfortunately, is not the case. Remember, to be focused, there can be no thoughts running through the mind simultaneously with the performance of the activity. A piano student who is focused is thinking only about the task at hand — not when he'll meet with a friend, an argument with someone, another homework assignment. Strangely enough, it is quite possible to play the piano while thinking about other things, and there are those who incorrectly think this is a sign of something good. The popular term for this is multi-tasking. If we define multi-tasking as the ability to read two clefs at once, while thinking about phrasing and rhythm — then multi-tasking is a good thing. If we define multi-tasking as talking with someone or solving a personal problem while practicing, then multi-tasking is one of the all-time greatest inhibitors to success in learning. Therefore concentration is putting all of one's energy on the task at hand, with no energy being displaced anywhere else.
A few factors will clearly show whether or not a person is focused when performing an activity. The most significant factor is speed. How quickly does the student learn a task? The person who learns faster, learns better. Most individuals think that the student who learns faster is necessarily the one who is more intelligent ( or at least more musically intelligent ). But this is by no means always the case — very often the quicker learner is the one who is more focused, the learner who is thinking about nothing but the task at hand. Imagine a group of second graders who have learned some basic math facts. The teacher tells them that they will receive twenty questions based on basic addition facts, and the first one to correctly answer all twenty questions will receive $20. In this scenario, do you think the students will be concentrated? — I can guarantee they will be more focused than they usually are. Of course money would be an inappropriate incentive in the classroom, but this situation is a model for the linking of speed and attention.
In addition to speed, ask the question, "Is the student task-oriented or time oriented?" This question is vital in music teaching, more so than in other learning disciplines. I would encourage all music teachers and parents to abandon the idea of telling their students to practice a certain number of minutes or hours per day. To indicate to someone that sitting in front of a task for a certain number of minutes will ensure success is to lead that person down a blind alley from which he may never return. If a math teacher gives a homework assignment, she is far more concerned with the accuracy of the completed work, not whether or not the pupil put in a lot of time. We must be concerned with goal completion, not hour accumulation. A piano student who puts in 45 minutes of practice in a day is accomplishing nothing if he's thinking the whole time about a new video game strategy. The student who sits down for twenty minutes with one goal in mind — to perfectly learn two measures of a song — will accomplish far more. No student should feel the practice session is complete if she cannot do something better today than she could yesterday. Yes, the teacher needs to assign enough material that will necessitate the student practice more than twenty minutes in a day — but minutes should never be on the mind of the student — only completion of a task.
Remember the fact that in learning music, we're concerned with a bizarre combination of abstract concepts and basic repetition. We must understand difficult combinations of rhythms, thoughts, and extremely subtle expressions, and yet we must sequence these things in a framework of extreme repetition. It is during that time of repetition that the brain wants to think about other things. And it is precisely during that time that we must discipline ourselves to do exactly the opposite. If you want only to understand the subtle nuances of music and feel it intuitively — then become a listener and connoisseur. If you want to perform it, you must add the Spartan work ethic, and you must be ready to repeat, repeat, repeat, and to do so while fully engaged in the process, while never forgetting the accomplishment of the goal in mind.
While on the subject of goals, let us remember that a system of small goals is much more effective than one giant one. Telling a student to learn an entire song in a week will encourage that student to remain unfocused the entire time. Breaking down goals measure by measure, idea by idea, will foster concentration and accomplishment. The Suzuki violin teaching has done much to bring this idea into the American consciousness, much to our betterment. People in the United States tend to be very impatient, and want to do everything in five minutes. It is impossible to approach some tasks in this manner, and music learning is definitely a step-by-step process.
Not only do we often want things instantly, we want the process to be painless 2 and this is also impossible. Athletes accept discomfort and stress as a fact of life. So do ballet dancers. Why do music students think that such a difficult undertaking as learning music can be done painlessly? It is also very hard work, more so mentally than physically — and the stress of performing a piece of music in public is a major undertaking. To concentrate effectively is a very difficult process that can sometimes take years to acquire. Let me assure you that the effort is all worthwhile. We must remember this while the media bombards us with numerous no-effort messages: "lose weight while eating all you want," "learn to play the piano in seven easy lessons," "exercise on our new machine with no discomfort," "get out of debt without sacrificing,". All of this folly can easily carry influence the learning habits of students of all disciplines.
This no-effort approach has even made its way into attempts to teach children to concentrate. I"ve heard of alternative teaching situations in which the instructors tell their students to relax and breathe deeply. In an effort to encourage the children to clear their minds, the teacher then turns down the lights and speaks in a soft hypnotic voice while encouraging their pupils to think about happy places and golden lights. What happens then? — the students go to sleep. Relaxing and breathing deeply are effective ways to aid concentration, but beyond that the student needs an active, dynamic, and even aggressive mind. Concentration IS a dynamic process that requires a Spartan work ethic, a little of the warrior mentality, and the strong desire to complete a goal. The teaching of an active focused mind should be at the apex of all teaching, not a sideline.Artist in Residence