Distraction: An Enemy of Great Performance

One does not have to be a very keen observer to conclude that ours is a society that is continually distracted. The devices that give us instantaneous access to so much information and were ostensibly intended to simplify our lives have instead become agents of repeated diversion. I have heard and read a number of accounts from educated, well-read individuals lamenting their own loss of the ability to sit and read a book for an extended period of time without looking away at email, social media, or some other electronic fix. I’ll readily confess myself to be far from immune to this problem, and am aware of its far-reaching effects in my own life and work.

For the Christian, this loss of concentration is especially acute, since ours is a faith that, at its best, sometimes demands extended periods of reading, reflection, meditation, and prayer. While that is an interesting topic of consideration, that’s not where I’m going today. Instead, I’d like to address something of less eternal significance but still of importance for me: the effects of distraction on musicians. Although I have no way of measuring this with precision, I am comfortable saying that distraction is the primary cause of both musical and technical errors in my own practice, and I suspect this is the case for my students, as well. Playing music at a high level simply demands a singular focus upon the task at hand; performance quality suffers tremendously when the player’s attention is otherwise directed.

While I have yet to arrive at a definitive solution to this problem, I’d like to suggest the most common causes of distraction observed in myself and in my students, and then suggest some possible solutions or strategies for improvement. Readers with other ideas they would like to share are welcome to do so in the comments on this post over at The Reforming Trombonist page on Facebook.

Causes of Distraction

1. Insufficient familiarity with the music being played.

Last week I reposted on our Facebook page an article from a few years ago entitled “‘How it Goes:’ A Missing Element in Many Students’ Thinking.” That article, in a nutshell, stated that too many music students approach practicing with little or no internal concept of how the piece at hand is supposed to sound, and that having a well-developed end goal in mind would lead to more effective practice and improved performance. One could say that not knowing how a piece should sound is a species of distractedness, since in the absence of a clear conception of the desired result one’s thinking will be directed to any number of unproductive things that are not “it should sound like THAT.”

2. Wandering mind.

This is the one of which I am most guilty, particularly when practicing fundamental exercises, scales, etc. My mind will turn to all kinds of things other than what I’m playing, and this tendency is not helped by the usual presence of a smart phone, tablet, and computer in the same room, all continually seeking my attention. Add to that family members, students, or others knocking on the door, and focusing on the task at hand becomes very difficult, indeed.

3. Obsessive focus on errors.

While this might seem at first glance to not fit under the umbrella of “distractedness,” focusing too much on one’s playing errors prevents due attention being paid to the music going forward. This is one reason that each mistake made in performance seems to beget two others in short order—the mind stops focusing on the music being played and instead fixates on the error that occurred.

4. General or performance anxiety.

I have over the years worked with many students carrying diagnoses of anxiety, depression, and similar conditions, and I myself suffer from not a little performance anxiety from time to time. Whatever the nature of one’s anxiety, it becomes a significant barrier to quality playing in that attention is fixated on one’s heightened emotional state rather than the task at hand.

5. Anxiety due to pride.

When I attended the Alessi Seminar several years ago New York Philharmonic principal trombonist Joseph Alessi rightly—and pointedly—indicated to me that performance anxiety was often the result of being more concerned about one’s reputation than about the music itself. While not all performance anxiety stems from pride, I am forced to conclude that much of mine does, a matter that required then and now a certain amount of honest self-examination and then repentance.

Ways to Fight Distraction

1. Know how the music goes.

If one type of distraction is due to lack of familiarity with the music, then the obvious solution is to learn the music better, even before beginning to practice and play the piece. The tremendous number of recordings, scores, and other resources now readily available means that one should rarely if ever have to approach a new piece without some kind of reference. Of course, sometimes in the real world one must sight read the gig, so ear training is important for learning to know how a piece should sound simply by looking at it.

2. Make yourself focus for extended periods in practice.

Often when I make a practice mistake that is entirely due to distraction I will make myself go back to the beginning of the piece, movement, or etude and try again. This forces me to focus on what I’m doing rather than continuing to make mistakes due to a wandering mind.

3. Change habits that limit focus generally.

One tremendous downside of our hyper-connected society is the expectation that one be able to be located and communicated with at practically any time of the day or night. While it might sound reasonable to say “if you find the phone, tablet, and computer to be a distraction, then turn them off,” disconnecting completely during practice sessions is often impossible. Still, to the extent that you can do so make your practice space one that is free of interruptions and distractions. Looking at social media, answering text messages, or even watching videos between exercises or pieces during a practice session wastes time, and causes a loss of focus when playing. Train yourself to focus on your practice goals during breaks or rests, and begin preparing mentally for the task even before you start.

4. Learn when to wear the “Investigator’s Hat,” and when to wear the “Performer’s Hat.”

One of the greatest distractions encountered by musicians is precipitated by a missed note or some other error. While “nobody’s perfect,” obsessing over and trying to diagnose a problem while continuing to play takes the player’s focus off of the music being played and instead fixates on what has already been played. The result is inattention to the music at hand, and predictably results in additional errors. The famous tubist and pedagogue Arnold Jacobs (1915-1998) described musicians as needing two “hats.” The “Investigator’s Hat” is used when practicing or listening with the intention of correcting errors, while the “Performer’s Hat” is worn when giving or practicing for live performance. Wearing the Investigator’s Hat while performing causes one to lose focus on the big picture, becoming mentally bogged down in details of error correction instead of putting on the Performer’s Hat, thinking of “how it goes” as mentioned earlier, and thus giving a quality rendition of the piece as a whole. If you must analyze a performance (or performance-practice) do so via recording after the fact, not while playing.

5. Address causes of anxiety, develop coping mechanisms, or both.

Anxiety is undoubtedly the most difficult of these distractions to overcome, and depending on the source of the problem might be addressed in a number of ways. Generalized or clinical anxiety disorders beyond performance anxiety experienced in the moment should be diagnosed and treated by a qualified healthcare professional. Even those who experience performance anxiety only might find counseling, antianxiety medications, or other medical interventions to be helpful. Others might overcome their issues by simpler coping mechanisms like visualization, deep breathing, developing awareness of and eliminating unnecessary muscle tension, or measures to replicate the feeling of a performance situation. Examples of the latter might include aerobic exercise to elevate the heart rate just before practicing, recording oneself, or performing for family and friends.

Anxiety due to pride is more insidious, since often the person experiencing this is unaware of the underlying attitude. Indeed, sufferers of performance anxiety often believe themselves to be not prideful, but rather humble to the point of self-deprecation. When Mr. Alessi suggested that my own anxiety might be due to concern for my own reputation I was initially taken aback, but I quickly concluded that he was correct. Those who share my Christian faith will understand this attitude to be sinful, requiring both confession and repentance. Both Christians and non-Christians might find this anecdote to be helpful.

During a talk at the 2001 International Trombone Festival in Nashville, Los Angeles Philharmonic associate principal trombonist James Miller stated that he won his current position after a string of unsuccessful auditions when he realized that “it’s just a trombone.” He described his previous attitude as attaching some sort of existential importance to the result of each audition, or at least overestimating the long-term importance of who won each position. The humble realization that the success or failure of a given audition or performance bears practically no long-term significance goes a long way toward curing anxiety of this type. While being a musician is rewarding work, hopefully uplifting to both performer and listener, it is freeing to remember that, in the end, “it’s just a trombone.”

About Micah Everett

Micah Everett is Associate Professor of Music (Trombone/Low Brass) at the University of Mississippi, Principal Trombonist of the North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra, Tubist/Bass Trombonist of the Mississippi Brass Quintet, Bass Trombonist of the Great River Trombone Quartet, Assistant Editor (Audio/Video Reviews) for the International Trombone Association Journal, and an S.E. Shires trombone artist. He is the author of THE LOW BRASS PLAYER'S GUIDE TO DOUBLING, published by Mountain Peak Music, and released his first solo recording, STEPPING STONES FOR BASS TROMBONE, VOL. 1, on the Potenza Music label in 2015. In addition to his professional work, he maintains an avid interest in the study of the Bible and of Reformed theology. He holds doctoral and master's degrees in music from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, a bachelor's degree in music education from Delta State University, and a certificate in systematic theology from Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. The ideas and opinions expressed here are not necessarily shared by the employers and organizations with which the author is associated.
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