The Most Fundamental Skill You Develop When You Practice

There are so many reasons why the study of music is valuable (outside of simply learning to play better). When you practice, you are cultivating a multitude of useful skills: self-discipline, creativity, mathematical ability, aural imagination, and fine motor skills, to name but a few. You’re working “both sides of the brain”, so to speak.

But I think the most essential skill you develop when you practice is this: being able to expand your attention. Specifically, being able to constructively integrate and utilize multiple thoughts and bits of information simultaneously.

This skill not only helps you with many other things in life (part of this involves something called working memory, an important component of skilled learning), but also is absolutely essential in helping you improve as a musician.

I think it is (or should be) one of the primary aims of practicing music. In many ways, it sums up the greatest challenge of playing music with consistently good results: integrating body awareness, artistic intention, time, and aural perception (as well as any other necessary information) into one whole musical experience.

Stop for moment and think of all the things a symphonic musician (as an example) has to be aware of to perform well during a concert: The response, sound and pitch of her/his instrument; articulation; dynamics; the conductor; the notes on the page; breathing (especially for wind instrumentalists). And of course, a constant awareness of the pitch, articulation, dynamics, etc. of the other musicians. Not to mention things like artistic choice and expression.

Yet all this comes together seamlessly for the skilled performer as one thing, really. Just playing music. This is achieved through the discipline and experience of well-directed practice.

There is often an imbalance in this skill, however, with many musicians. Simply put, there is a disintegration of information: too much attention to one aspect of playing at the expense of not enough attention to others.

Perhaps trying too hard to hear pitch or tone color. Maybe too much emphasis on what the hands and fingers are doing (or the embouchure). And of course, too much attention placed on the notes themselves.

When this happens, the most crucial component of the musical process too often gets neglected: You. What are you doing with yourself as you play music?

Are you tensing your shoulders? Locking your knees? Clenching your jaw? Arching your back? Stiffening your wrists and fingers? Holding your breath?

How might these kinds of tension interfere with your ability to perform at your fullest potential?

Of course, you might find that the moment you bring all your attention to what you’re doing with yourself, you lose connection with the music. Maybe you even play worse. This is simply because you have not had enough experience putting this into practice. If you start learning to pay attention to yourself as you practice, you’ll start to reap great rewards.

One of my most dedicated Alexander Technique  students (a professional guitarist) would tell you the same. Each week during his lesson with me, we are working on his ability to expand his attention. He now easily and readily becomes aware of what he’s doing with himself as he plays, and direct his thoughts and energy quite effectively into the music making process.

I’ll ask him as he’s working very well on a difficult musical passage, “What are you thinking as you play this?” He’ll answer something like, “I’m thinking of my shoulders and neck releasing as I imagine the rhythms at this tempo, reminding myself to wait for each phrase and really hear my sound.” It’s not difficult for him to keep these thoughts going as he plays. But that has come after considerable practice.

The same with me. This morning as I was practicing saxophone, I found myself thinking about releasing my shoulder girdle (the area around the collar bones and shoulder blades) as well as my wrists softening, as I listened to the metronome while displacing an eight-note pattern by a half beat every other measure. All the time directing the flow of air into the mouthpiece and reed, and aiming for a dark, round sound (and really hearing it, too).

Even when I practice improvising, I’m able to keep this expanded thinking available. It is not a distraction to my creative impulses. On the contrary, it tends to free me, keeping me both calm and alert at the same time. Truly ready for the experience of creating music.

I realize in my own practice, that as I get better, I do so largely because I’m able to integrate multiple thoughts into one whole. The foundation of this skill starts with learning how to pay attention to yourself first. Even in the most challenging performance situations, I’m able to keep my thinking clear. (Practice helps with this a lot!)

So where do your thoughts go as you practice? Do you focus in on one thing only, losing touch with other important things? Are you able to keep aware of yourself as you play, or is this just another distraction? Can you easily hear your sound? Is the time always clear in your perception? Can you play creatively and passionately as you listen to yourself accurately, perceiving pitch, tempo and tone color?

I encourage you to aim for broadening your attention as you practice. Improve your thinking, and you’ll improve your playing.

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