The Concentration Factor
Concentration is a crucial factor for practice or rehearsal efficiency. But also, and especially when performing concerts, a high level of concentration is necessary.
What concentration is not
As a teacher of the Alexander Technique, I often become aware of things others wouldn’t notice. By that, I mean the smallest changes in muscle tonus and coordination. But often it’s obvious and visible to the untrained eye when someone tries to “concentrate.”
This idea of concentration I would rather call “self-constraint;” you constrain or force yourself to stay focused. Your senses will always register many things, and thoughts in your head will seem more attractive than the exercise or the piece you actually want to be dealing with at the time. So, as a response to that, you try, forcefully, to push all this stuff out of your mind. This is visible as increased muscle tonus, tensed eyes, etc. This kind of “concentration” is well-intended, but it is actually counterproductive:
- there’s tension instead of poise
- poor flexibility caused by increased tension (e.g. breathing) followed by poor sound quality
- external awareness diminishes, which is bad when playing with others
The belief seems to be that you have to make a massive effort to perform well. There’s a point to it, of course, but the question is: what kind of effort is applied?
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A more constructive way to concentrate
The difference between this destructive way of concentration and a more constructive way is actually very small. The idea is to keep your awareness where you intend it to be by making the subject more interesting. This can be achieved e.g. by focusing on different aspects of an exercise with each repetition. By doing so, you’ll have a “new” exercise every time.
If your thoughts start wandering, simply become aware of it, and bring them back to your chosen subject. Don’t try to cut out all the other stuff. Instead, allow it to remain there in the background, and pick a center for your awareness. As Cathy Madden puts it, the root of the word concentration is “with” center (con=with), not “only” center!
So, the fundamental difference is that you shouldn’t force yourself to stay with the subject, but to become aware of the distractions, include them in your overall awareness, and then decide to make the exercise or music the center of your attention.
It’s the same in meditation. There, you would e.g. observe your breathing, notice thoughts, feelings or sensations and decide not to stay with this stuff, but rather direct your awareness back to your breathing.
In this sense, playing the trumpet can also lead you to become more aware of your inner life and to train yourself to choose where you consciously focus your attention. In my opinion, both being aware of oneself and the skill to decide consciously, are absolutely necessary skills for any musician.Take a bold step forward, today!