CONCENTRATION AND PERFORMANCE
In all the performing arts, in athletics, and in many other areas that require performance over a given period of time, we hear the same lament, "I was able to perform my task while practicing, what happened during the performance?". In general the perceived answer is the same — "I just got nervous," or, "I choked under pressure". This problem also applies to the student taking an important examination, or an attorney arguing before the court. In every case, the person who fails or partially fails wants to know why he was unable to perform to the best of his ability. If we take two people of similar talents or abilities, and one can perform under pressure and one has trouble with it, the difference is, in almost all cases, the difference in their methods of preparation for the event — in other words, "Who concentrated better while practicing or studying? " Teachers of all disciplines need to stop ignoring this variable; it makes a profound difference in the outcome; it marks the single most important difference in success and failure.
Let us examine two metaphors to clarify this idea. A gardener has a prize potted plant that he will be entering in a contest. He is nurturing the plant from its seed state, and every day he waters the plant with much interest and care. However, there is a problem — though he waters the plant regularly, he is not careful while pouring the water from the container, and most of it spills around the sides, thus avoiding the roots. When the time for the contest draws near, the gardener is frustrated. "I gave my time and my energy to this plant, what went wrong? I watered it every day, it got plenty of sunlight— why is it not healthy, and not ready for presentation?" Although the answer is obvious, most students in the practice room do the same thing the gardener did, and are completely baffled with the results, though the reasons for their failures at performance time are just as obvious. These students are practicing an adequate amount of time, they care deeply about their work, why are they unable to play the same at a performance as they have during the practice? During their practice, their minds are wandering constantly, hopping from one topic to another, with only a part of the time being focused on the real task.
After repeating a difficult piece of music enough times, it is possible to play it while allowing the mind to wander onto other thoughts, and this possibility is the single most important cause of failure. Why do students allow this to happen? Because total focus is one of the most difficult of all things to achieve. Plato said that controlling the mind is like controlling a team of wild horses. Because the process is difficult, we want to believe that a few small successes in practice will translate into success during performance, and that is a huge mistake. Success in performance is completely dependent on the ability to focus the mind during the entire practice, or at least most of it. If a student has never been able to play a Chopin waltz through without attention diversions, then he is not ready to perform it. And this is true even if he ' s been able to play it accurately during practice. It is not enough to wait until two days before a performance, or until the performance itself to start thinking about concentration — this concentration must be nurtured well before that point.
Now let ' s examine another metaphor, this time an unpleasant one. A pilot of a single-engine plane is flying over the mountains and has a blackout. What will happen? Again, the answer is obvious, but let ' s apply this metaphor to the practice room. Every time the student or performer lets her mind wander, it ' s similar to the pilot ' s blackout. Those same places where the attention ceases are the very spots that become problem areas in performance memory lapses, inaccurate sections, intonation problems. Performing a piano or violin concerto is a very difficult task; so is flying an airplane. Both require undivided attention, and for the musician, the undivided attention must come during the weeks of practice before the performance.
I once talked about this subject. with a group of extremely good string students at a fine arts center. Four of the members who were in a string quartet played a few measures of a piece from their repertoire, and then I asked them to play it again, this time attempting to play with total focus. After playing the same section, they all confessed that they were only able to play for about ten seconds, and then their attention started to waver. Now these students were and are very good string players, so you may ask, " Why burden them with this talk of concentration? " As I said, it is possible through repetition to play well for small sections in certain situations. Let us place this same quartet at Carnegie Hall in front of 3,000 people. What would happen now? As the stakes get higher, the need for focus in practice becomes greater. Also, string quartets play with printed music. Again the stakes become much higher when we remove the music. What if one of these students had been performing a concerto from memory? Who wants to risk performing a concerto and having a memory lapse? The orchestra comes to a screeching halt and the audience is waiting. Such a situation may not be as bad as a plane crash, but for the performing musician it ranks as total disaster, an experience to avoid at all costs. Yes, the metaphor of the airplane and the performing is real — there ' s no reason to risk a performing " blackout " because of inadequate preparation in the practice room.
So let us assume that you accept this thesis: focus will bring about performance success. Then you try to achieve it and find that your mind wanders after a few seconds. At this point I would direct you to the section in this site on concentration and learning. Focus on a small goal ( two measures ) and then add two more. Through effort and task division, you can change your whole concept of practice, and become a disciplined learner in general, for this concept need not be confined to music — the student taking an exam, the actor learning her lines, the baseball player trying to hit a 90 MPH fastball—all of these individuals need focus during the learning stage. Next to innate ability, that focus will be the single most important factor in success.Artist in Residence