After years of practice, most of us have a finely honed “focus muscle”. As professional musicians, we are used to working with other focused, attentive professionals, and we can get a lot accomplished in a short period of time. But when we are teaching non-professionals, it can frustrate us to realize that they don’t have the same focus, and they can likewise be frustrated by their lack of progress. What you may not realize is that your own years of musical practice have strengthened a part of the brain called the executive function, located in the prefrontal cortex, that makes it easier for you to stay focused. Here are some tips to help you teach your students to develop their own executive function and get more out of practice.
One clear goal at a time
Every time we switch between tasks, we lose a little bit of mental clarity, and it gets harder to focus with each switch. Think about how most students practice: play through until an error, stop and try to fix the error, then keep going. The student is switching focus between specific tasks and the big picture every few seconds. That means that they aren’t recognizing nuances and variations in the error they are trying to fix, and so they end up fixing it at a very surface level (or often, not at all). Teach your students to look at the big picture at the beginning of the session, plan their goals, and then focus on only one goal at a time and you’ll quickly see an improvement in their practice.
Immediate feedback can foster better focus by adding an element of intrinsic motivation to a practice session. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, whose research helped define the “flow” experience of peak performers, says that immediate feedback on your goals allows you to achieve “complete involvement” in an activity. That complete involvement is not only good for focus, but also for enjoyment: complete involvement in challenging activities is one of the clearest indications of quality of life (Csikszentmihaly, 1990). Help your students take responsibility for their own feedback with simple games like “play it without a mistake ten times in a row.”
Create a routine
Every choice has a cost. Car salespeople know this, and they’ll try to get you to make a ton of decisions about options before they start negotiating costs, because it weakens your mental defenses and you’re more likely to agree to a higher price. The same is true of practice: the more choices you have to make in your practice session, the less mental energy you’ll have to focus on the music. Steve Jobs wore one outfit nearly every day: jeans and a black mock turtleneck. Your students, too, should have one routine every day.
Simplify the environment
You already know that distractions ruin your focus, but did you know that it takes up to 20 minutes to regain complete focus? In fact, “being in a situation where you are trying to concentrate on a task, and an email is sitting unread in your inbox, can reduce your effective IQ by 10 points.” (Levitin, 2014) That’s as good a reason as any to keep cell phones out of the practice room or turned completely off. Studies of expert musicians have found that most of them keep a very sparse, boring-looking practice space. Every distraction has a mental cost.
Health, rest, and recuperation
Top musicians get an hour more sleep each night than average musicians, and are much more likely to take an afternoon nap. That’s because they understand the power of rest and recuperation. The executive function gets depleted over time, and although you can strengthen it by sustaining your focus and attention a little longer than is comfortable, there comes a point of diminishing returns. A short, five-minute break in the middle of a practice session can improve your willpower, focus, and attention for the rest of the session.