To learn to play music successfully, musicians must focus their attention on the most important details of their music while practicing.  No matter if you play guitar, piano, violin, trumpet, flute, or drums, there are always certain details that matter more than others.

You need to decide what to pay attention to while you’re practicing your instrument.  The main reason to narrow your focus?  There is just too much going on to pay attention to everything at once.

Unfortunately, it’s impossible to focus on your physical technique (posture, positions, pressure, fingerings, breathing, staying relaxed), your sound (tone, intonation, attacks), and your phrasing (tempo, timing, dynamics, accents) all at once.  You could drive yourself crazy if you attempted to think about all of these issues simultaneously!

So, before you go through a certain exercise or section of your music, decide exactly what you will focus on for that particular try.  Don’t worry about the other issues.  Let go of those and realize you can’t control all aspects of your playing at all times.

Burton Kaplan, the practice expert from the Manhattan School of Music, has a terrific model for thinking about focus.  He talks about “Center” versus “Periphery.”  In this model, you need to decide what to put in the center of your concentration.  The periphery will be outside your control.

Of course, you can shift your center for various runthroughs, but for each runthrough, you’ll only be thinking about one thing.  This is actually a fun way to practice.  By changing your focus, practicing does not feel repetitive.  It’s almost like you’re playing different music each time you play something.

Let’s say you’re working on a 16 bar section.  You can go through it once or twice focusing only on your tone.  Then, play a couple more times thinking only about being in tune.  Shift your focus for the next one or two runthroughs to your rhythms and timing.  Finally, play as you concentrate on phrasing and dynamics.

Give this a try next time you’re playing your instrument.  You’ll find that going over a section of your music 5 or 10 times is very easy when you center your focus on just one aspect of your playing each time.

You will also notice more aspects of your playing that can be easily improved.  It’s easier to make changes to your playing when you fixate on just one aspect of your sound at a time!

Center your focus and you’ll make faster progress than you usually do while practicing.

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