A 19-year old pianist recently showed me the power of focus. I heard Aaron Petit perform at the Young Musicians and Artists Camp in Salem this past summer. He played with impressive passion and precision, and drew us all very deeply into the music with his noteworthy power of focus.

When asked about his focus, he replied,

I had to develop it over years of work. I started playing piano after turning 12 and for the fist 4 or 5 years, I didn’t/ couldn’t do it that well. Its really been in the last 2 years where things started to click. I teach a studio of 9, currently, and I have had to train all of my students to focus well. Over the last years of teaching, I have thought about it non-stop so I could communicate it to them. Through that experience, I learned to do it better myself. 

In addition, my teacher, Mark Westcott, helped my to understand that the performance experience is a dirrect result of everything you do in the practice room (good and bad) so he showed me ways to change the quality of my practice in order to focus more. I also learned quite abit about this issue from observing around 10 hours of masterclass teaching from the great Santiago Rodriquez. 🙂 

It’s really a process but I have learned that with the right steps, anyone can do it. It is not an issue of “some people can and some can’t”.

String and wind players can manipulate notes midstream. Pianists, guitarists and percussionists get one chance to shape the articulation of the note before the inevitable decay begins. What can they do to keep the audience’s interest? This is especially challenging in this day and age of diminishing attention span, which has fallen from 12 seconds in 2000, or around the time the mobile revolution began, to eight seconds.

What do they do during the long notes? A pianist friend of mine says that she keeps the sound alive with her imagination. My hypothesis is that the more the mind of the performer wanders, the greater the audience’s impulse to take out their phone.

To test this, the next day at YMA camp I experimented with other young pianists and guitarists to see if their focus could influence the experience of the listeners. They took turns playing a short passage with great focus, and then absentmindedly, without telling us which was which. Sure enough, we could all tell. Their absentminded performances were much less “electric“.

A word about energy.

This sense of an electric performance cannot be scientifically measured yet, but it is something we’ve all experienced. We also use powerful and magnetic to describe when we’re drawn into someone’s performance.

Could it be that focus produces some kind of an energy field?

I recently had another experience that points to that possibility.

Joshua Bell played at our BRAVO Youth Orchestra program last Spring. In the elementary school music room with acoustic baffles, the sound of his Strad wasn’t what it would be in a concert hall. I wanted to see what else was going on.

I closed my eyes and tried to sense the space in the room. I perceived an incredible power, a sphere of energy emanating from him. The children were spellbound, not only from his perfect technique, but also, I believe, because of his ability to pour his entire concentration into what he was doing.

Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel gives the performer the opportunity to create music through bow control and focus. Below is my attempt at filling very long notes with my best focus.

So how can we improve focus?

Meditation is an excellent tool to build focus. But it’s humbling. I remember trying to play through a page of music without my mind wandering. I couldn’t do it. But over time, I’ve built the power of focus which helps me greatly.

Here’s a simple exercise to build focus:

Find a comfortable upright sitting position. Keep the chin parallel to the floor, and gently close your eyes. Begin to watch the breath, using “I am” as you inhale, “peace” as you exhale. As you notice the thoughts pulling at your focus, let them go and return to the breath, which will serve as your lifeline to focus.

Your assignment:

Take a scale, and bring your focus to bear on each note. Go as slowly as you can. Notice when your mind wanders, and bring it back again and again. When you are finished, notice what has changed. Has your breath changed? Your heart rate? Your thoughts and awareness? I’d love to know! Please leave your comments below.

2nd of 10 Obvious Inaudibles: Focus

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