Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Distracted? 6 Practicing Tips to Improve Your Focus

Does this conversation sound familiar to you?

Friend: “Hey (your name), how are you?”
You: “Great, and super busy!

I’ve definitely been busy lately. I’ve been busy for the last…10-15 years, really. It took me a while to realize it, but “busy” is my style. I say “yes” to a lot of things, and I am comfortable maintaining seven different agendas. It’s not necessarily good for me, but I’m good at it.

The truth is, we’re all busy. We have so many options in our lives for work and entertainment, there’s no way we could be bored. 

The problem is when my busy-bee mentality gets in the way of my focus, which is something I must have as a musician. I notice my focus wandering especially when I practice. I have so many other things running through my mind that I struggle to quiet my constant train of thought. Then I catch myself writing three emails in the middle of a practice session – and I don’t even know how I got there!

Luckily I realized that I had a problem – no, it did not take an intervention! I started trying out some practicing techniques that would me focus on the task at hand: playing beautiful music.

I’m sharing these with you so that you will benefit from these practice techniques. We’re all different people, so some may work better than others. But one thing is for sure: we’re all busy! So I challenge you to incorporate at least one of these techniques into your practice routine this week. Which leads me to my first tip…

1.  Build a Routine
Wouldn’t it be ridiculous if we slept at different times every day? Like you know you need to get 8 hours, but you worked it into your schedule whenever it happened to fit? That would be crazy! We need our sleep to be consistent and regular. Humans like routine. So, why not use the same approach with your practice? If your daily routine is to wake up, shower, eat breakfast, and warm up, soon it will feel so natural, you won’t remember a time you didn’t warm up first thing in the morning. And then you don’t need to waste any time or energy worrying about when you will get your practice time in.

2. Schedule It
And why stop at the morning? Try scheduling all of your practice sessions. If you’re a person who uses a daily planner or the calendar on your phone, this one is for you. I find that if I write down my practice time in my calendar, I am more likely to stick to the plan and less likely to do something else instead. Here’s an example of my daily schedule on Google Calendar:

      3. Commit
Don’t half-ass your practice session. If you’re not totally in it, step back and evaluate why. I make sure I fully commit by going through all of the important fundamentals in my morning warm up: 8 minutes of Breathing Gym, 2 minutes of buzzing, long tones, slow slurs, fast slurs, articulation, high range, low range, etc. Sometimes I catch myself wanting to skip the breathing exercises and then I think, “What’s the point? You’re too good to spend time doing this halfway. Either commit now or do something else.” If you know a method to achieve superior practice and performance, why wouldn’t you follow it every time?

      4. Make 1 Goal
So if you’re having trouble committing to a practice session, design a goal for yourself. There are three rules for this goal:

Your goal must be:
·      Specific
·      Measurable
·      Achievable

This is especially good if you have less than 30 minutes to practice. Here's an example of a good goal:

“In this practice session I will practice my memorization of Bolero. I will divide the excerpt into phrases and play each phrase once with music and once without. I will repeat this process until 30 minutes have passed.”  

My goal is specific; it outlines the exact process that I will use.
My goal is measurable; at the end of 30 minutes, I can report that I did it.
My goal is achievable; notice it didn’t say that I would memorize Bolero, because I don’t necessarily know if I can do that in 30 minutes. I do know that I can play phrases back and forth, with and without music. I set an achievable goal that would take me closer to memorization. I am practicing my memorization in small chunks so that it is more likely it will be memorized at the end of the session.

Not only will your goal direct your focus, but you’ll have the added bonus of feeling accomplished at the end of your practice session. And who wouldn’t want that?!

      5. 10x10
This is for those mornings when I have to get some work done on the computer, but I also have to practice. I set the timer on my phone to 10 minutes, repeating. And then I go! For the first ten minutes, I play my trombone. When the timer rings, I work on my computer. Rinse and repeat. Once an hour, take a ten minute chunk to go outside and run around in the sun. Then get back to it. This technique works for 1-2 hour increments. It helps keep me focused because I have a sense of urgency in everything I do.

      6. Metronome ON
Still getting distracted? Take out your loudest metronome, turn it on, turn the volume all the way up, and then don’t turn it off. Trust me, it’s really annoying to have a loud click in your ear while you’re trying to check Facebook. It’s a good reminder to get your head back where it should be: in the music.