The word always reminds of that amazing moment in the eye doctor’s office when he adjusts the machine in front of my eyes and everything comes into focus. I’m extremely near-sighted, so the change from my unaided eyes to the corrective lenses is startling and almost profound. The world is transformed from an impressionistic blur into well-defined reality.
I’ve had similar moments of clarity in lessons. Perhaps you have too, maybe in lessons, workshops, masterclasses or concerts, those moments when you are sure that you really get it. You can see the path before you and you step on to it.
Then you get home. You start to practice with all the momentum from your lesson, but gradually the edges of the path seem to blur again. You can feel the fog descending, and you try to practice through it, but you are increasingly uncertain that you are doing the right things the right way.
Although focus can arrive in a single lightbulb moment, focus is truly more of an action, less something you have and more something you do. Focus is active, purposeful and results-oriented. Focus is directional; it is the ultimate cure for circular practice.
This is why you feel so much more focused when you are working with your teacher or learning at a workshop. A teacher or expert is clearing away the brush and fog from the path, pointing clearly to not only the path but to your destination.
When you focus the same way in your practice, you experience similar clarity. First, focus shines a spotlight on everything you do. You begin to notice what needs fixing, enabling yourself to direct your energy and take the steps necessary to fix it.
Then you realize the true power of focus. Your practice becomes intentional and concentrated on the results you want to achieve, not just the “lather-rinse-repeat” method of rote repetitive practice. Focus puts all your efforts into high gear.
I don’t know anyone who is always focused. There are too many easy distractions and unwanted intrusions on our time. I readily admit that focus can occasionally be a problem for me. But I can share with you 3 ways that I regain my focus to practice even when myriad other things clamor for my attention.
- I pick one. Focus is the laser beam, not the overhead ceiling light. It illuminates a single item, not a landscape. So when I choose one object for my focus, distractions fall away and my vision clears. Sometimes it’s one passage or one technique. Sometimes it’s one piece or maybe just one chord. But when I put everything else aside, I can gain momentum and achieve the results I want.
- I schedule a small block of time to accomplish my goal for the day. You’ve probably noticed that however large your closet is, it will become filled. The same is true for a schedule. When you have hours ahead of you to do your work, you tend to be less disciplined and – yes – focused. When I really need to get something done, I schedule a small chunk of time – maybe 20 minutes or a half an hour – to get it done. I have to firm with myself to adhere to the schedule and very concentrated in my work to make those 20 minutes count. But when that time is up, I will have achieved what I set out to do, or at least done some very focused work toward my goal.
- I repeatedly ask myself “why?” Focused practice is focused on a goal, a desired outcome. If you can’t articulate why you are doing something in your practice, then you probably shouldn’t be doing it. Every practice technique should be directed to solving a particular challenge, even if it’s only gaining more familiarity with notes and fingering. When you develop the habit of asking yourself why you are practicing in a particular way or spending time doing a particular thing, you will find that you are much more aware of being productive and efficient and you will make better choices as a result.