What am I supposed to be focusing on while playing?
I am quite familiar with the experience of being a student in a lesson and feeling like I have no clue how to fix everything, how to please the teacher, or what the heck I’m supposed to be doing right now. Teachers don’t help matters by encouraging the student to focus on whatever the teacher or student is most worried about. So, it is no wonder that students often don’t have a clear idea of what they are supposed to be focusing on while playing the piano, and seem to lack the ability to focus on anything.
Lack of focus can result from “chasing feelings”. Sometimes, we try to reproduce a feeling we experienced in the past. For example, if I played really well at home and felt confident and in control, I might try to achieve this same feeling in my lesson.
We might also “chase mistakes”. When we are practiced, we might have an intention to work on one thing, and then change focus when we notice another mistake that begs for our attention.
Both of these, in my opinion, can be counterproductive.
In general, I think it is a mistake to focus on the thing you are trying to correct. If you are trying to find a good fingering, don’t focus on the fingering while you play (this is why I am skeptical of the utility of writing in fingerings). If you are trying to correct wrong notes, don’t focus on the notes while you play. If you are trying to avoid rushing, I would advise against writing “don’t rush!” in the music and trying to heed this advice while you are playing.
I suspect this point will be the most controversial one I am making. It is only natural to want to try to fix our mistakes. However, it often compounds the problem. As an alternative, I would suggest focusing on something simpler, with an eye toward trying to identify what is causing you to make the mistake, rather than trying to fix it. Trying to fix mistakes themselves often leads to frustration and a feeling of effort, and is generally not the most efficient way of fixing problems.
When you practice, pick one thing to fix your attention on for the duration of the session. This can help you understand better where you are avoiding putting your attention, and why. For example, you might focus on:
The feeling of the breath going in and out of your nose: The breath can be a remarkably reliable indicator of your physical state in general. When we feel anxiety, we tend to hold our breath, or otherwise interrupt it suddenly. If you keep your attention on the breath, it is amazing what you will become aware of.
The sound of the metronome clicking: Many students who are not used to the metronome find it stressful. The only way to deal with this is to get used to it. Listen to the clicking of the metronome, and listen to how your playing aligns with it. If you are not with the metronome, listen to that as well. There is no need to fix it.
The dropping of your arms onto the keyboard with each beat: I have written about the utility of conceptualizing piano playing as the dropping of the arms. Here, you can focus on the feeling of release in the arms with each beat. Keep the attention on the dropping. Not on the lifting. Not on the notes.
The sound coming out of the piano: Normally, our brains interpret sound coming out of the piano as music. If the music sounds right, we get lost in it, much in the same way as we get lost in the imaginary world of a good novel or film. If the music sounds wrong, it can make us feel physically uncomfortable and anxious. It is good that we have the capacity to experience both of these possibilities, but they also take our attention away from the task at hand. Try focusing on the sound, not on the music. If you play a wrong note, hear it without reacting to it, without trying to correct it. If a chord progression captures you and makes you feel excited, don’t react to it, but rather try to hear it as simply sound, with zero emotional content.
I cannot stress how important it is to pick a single thing to focus on for an extended duration of time. It does not have to be for one hour, or even 30 minutes. One or two minutes is enough to start with. If it helps, use a timer.
Let me repeat this crucial point: There is no need to fix your mistakes. The mistakes will fix themselves when you are aware of their causes. Your job is only to build awareness. There is no way to do this incorrectly.
Focus is a complex issue, and there are many reasons why someone could be having trouble focusing. Nonetheless, it is a skill that can be improved, if done in the manner I am suggesting. At the very least, these techniques should point in a more specific direction as to where the problem actually lies.