Photo by Bryan Rosengrant
Q: I play at a semi-professional level. I work a regular 9-to 5-job and play in the evenings. I am lucky enough that I get a few hours every evening to just shed and work on my playing and lately I’ve been doing a lot of classical etudes to work on technique and maintain my reading chops. My question is more related to concentration though, after a long stressful day at work sometimes it is really hard to concentrate on playing pretty much anything and on days like that I often feel I don’t get out of my practice time as much as I’d like to. Would you have any advice on centering or meditative techniques one can do before practicing/playing so that one can really delve and concentrate on the music?
A: A few things come to mind here.
1. Eliminate distractions.
It is crucial to eliminate potential distractions. Shut down your phone – email, texts, alerts. This may be obvious to many, but it’s a lesson that takes some people a long time to learn.
2. Set a clear goal.
Don’t just work on things that you are supposed to work on without a clear goal in mind. Decide on your destination before you start. What do you want to improve? Technique? Articulation? Phrasing? Speed?… Once you have your specific goal in mind, you can then decide on how you want to work on it – and for how long. You might want to set a timer too, so you’re not having to watch the clock. Just go until the timer dings.
3. Take breaks.
Know your attention span and plan around it. If your mind starts to wander after 20 minutes of doing anything, then set 20 minute goals for yourself and take a 10 minute break before starting up again. It’s important to know how you learn and whatever your limitations area and work with them, not against them.
4. Work on material you find interesting.
If the material bores you, it can be hard to maintain focus. This can be tricky because much of the meat and potatoes stuff that we truly need to internalize early on can be mind-numbing to practice (like scales). Find ways to make things interesting for yourself. If you learning the major scale, map out the pattern and play with different rhythms while you play the scale, for example. I’ve mentioned this before: I used to try and make my scales sound funky. I would force some kind of groove rhythm into the scale pattern and try to make it sound good. I figured that if I could make the major scale sound funky, I could make anything sound funky. As goofy as it was, it helped me to pay attention and focus more than I could when simply running the pattern up and down the neck.
I often find that transcribing tunes that I love and/or just really wish I could play well helps me stay focused for much longer than anything else. They also get me excited to learn and will enhance my focus for the more tedious things I want to work on afterward.
5. Don’t forget to breathe.
And to your specific question, I try to breathe and clear my mind before doing anything that demands clear focus. I often take meditative naps before gigs, for example. Twenty minutes on the couch in a quiet room before I leave the house helps me to play well that night. The same could hold true for practicing. Simply shutting your eyes in a comfortable chair and focusing on your breath for 5-10 minutes might serve to center you enough to forget about the work day and anything else that distracts you.
This is another column that is ripe for thoughts from readers. How do you guys unwind and focus when you practice? Please share in the comments below.