Difficulty Staying Focused in the Practice Room? Why “Airplane Mode” May Not Be Enough.

From as early an age as I can remember, there were always two main challenges with practicing.

One, was simply getting started. The other, was staying engaged and focused once I got going.

Staying focused in the practice room can be difficult for lots of reasons, but I saw an article recently which suggested that our phones might play a role in this too.

Which initially struck me as being almost a little cliché, and besides, good luck getting me to give up my smartphone for a phone that only makes phone calls.

But then again…you know how we all like to think that we can drive perfectly well while talking on the phone? But anytime you see someone being an idiot at a 4-way stop, you look, and almost invariably, they’re on the phone?

Is it possible that our phones are having a greater effect on our efforts in the practice room than we realize?

Limited cognitive resources

Have you ever found yourself turning down the radio in the car when you’re lost, and GPS is being less than helpful?

As illustrated by moments like this, our attentional resources are limited. We are constantly surrounded by way more information than our brain can process.

Typically, that’s not such a big deal, because most of what’s around us isn’t related to what we’re doing. And the most important thing in the practice room is that we be focused on listening, planning, and reflecting, not how good the person in the next room over sounds, or what that last alert on our phone might have been about.

And while tuning out things like traffic noise is not a big deal, there’s something qualitatively different about our phone.

Our phone is more than just a phone

Studies have found that our phones have become such an integral part of our lives, that we react to it in much the same way that we do to our name – like when we’re talking with a friend at a party, but suddenly overhear our name being mentioned in a different conversation behind us.

Because it’s not just a phone. It’s our connection to a huge, exciting world of news, information, friends, work, and a life outside the practice room.

So there are two major ways in which our phones can thus undermine our efforts to get the most out of our practice time.

1. Orientation of attention:

The most obvious way is when they ring, buzz, or vibrate. This shifts our attention away from thoughts about the phrase you’re practicing to thoughts about other parts of your life, and what you might be missing out on. But there’s an easy fix – airplane mode!

2. Allocation of attention:

The second way phones can degrade our focus is actually more subtle – and more interesting. Our brain’s tendency is to perk up when something interesting (like a phone) is nearby. And apparently, it takes cognitive resources to inhibit that automatic attention. In other words, it may not matter if our phone is on airplane mode. It’s mere presence could be diverting some of our brainpower away from the task of figuring out a better fingering or bowing.

A test of attention

To see if this theory has any merit, a team of researchers at the University of Texas recruited 520 undergrad students, and asked them to complete two challenging mental tasks.

One involved completing a series of math problems while updating and remembering a random sequence of letters. The other was a set of puzzles that required completing a pattern. Both tasks were designed to be cognitively demanding, so that the scores would be sensitive to how fully a participant was able to focus on the task at hand.

To see what sort of impact phones would have on performance, one group was asked to leave their phone and belongings in the waiting area. Another group brought all their belongings into the testing room, but kept their phone wherever they normally would (about half kept their phone in their pocket, the other half in their bag). A third group was asked to put their phones on the desk in front of them, face down, with all sound/vibration alerts turned off.

Out of sight, out of mind

As expected, those who left their phones in the waiting area performed the best. By a statistically significant margin over those who had the phone sitting on their desk.

But despite the difference in performance, the vast majority of participants (~86%) didn’t believe that the location of their phone during the experiment had any influence on their scores. Which suggests that we may not be aware of the impact our phone is having on our ability to concentrate.

As summed up by the lead researcher, “…as the smartphone becomes more noticeable, participants’ available cognitive capacity decreases. Your conscious mind isn’t thinking about your smartphone, but that process – the process of requiring yourself to not think about something – uses up some of your limited cognitive resources.”

Practicing concentration

When you think about it, there’s actually quite a lot on our plates in the practice room. On one hand, you’re improving your physical execution and coordination, your ears, problem-solving skills, and deepening your understanding of the score and the musical and technical aspects of your craft. Which requires as much of your cognitive resources as you can get.

But ideally, you’re also strengthening your ability to focus intently on the task at hand, past distractions of all kinds. A skill that is essential in performance, and must be developed in the practice room (as violinist Frank Almond makes a point of in this interview).


So while I don’t know that I can say it’s absolutely critical to put your phone in a different room while practicing, it certainly wouldn’t hurt to experiment with. And airplane mode seems like a no-brainer.

Because when you think about it, what do you really have to gain from keeping your phone within arm’s reach? And isn’t it perhaps a good thing to disconnect from the outside world on occasion?

Can you imagine going to a martial arts class, for instance, and seeing students stop during training to answer a call or check their email? I had an instructor who once admonished a student for being late, not because it was an issue of respect, but because of how important it is to have a few moments before class to transition away from one’s life, and get into the right mindset for training. To leave behind work, family, etc., and focus on being open and present. He emphasized that those who show up late, get dressed in a rush, and can’t make this transition, not only learn less, but are more likely to get injured too.

Though perhaps a bit idealistic, wouldn’t it be interesting if we could approach practicing in a similar way? As a quiet escape from our busy, chaotic lives, as opposed to just another part of our day in which we allow interruptions to disrupt our experience of whatever is actually in front of us at the moment?

And if you think you may have a smartphone dependence issue…

A follow-up study by the same authors factored smartphone dependence (the degree to which participants felt they would have trouble getting through a day without their phone) into the equation. They found that the greater the participants’ dependence on the phone, the worse they performed on the challenge tasks when their phone was readily accessible.

So if you tend to be pretty dependent on your phone, you may find it particularly beneficial to keep your phone out of sight when practicing.

While not the same assessment the authors of this study used, it might be fun to take this short quiz developed at Iowa State if you suspect you have a bit of a smartphone addiction:

Nomophobia Questionnaire (aka smartphone addiction quiz)

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

For most of my life, I assumed that I wasn’t practicing enough. And that eventually, with time and performance experience, the nerves would just go away.

But in the same way that “practice, practice, practice” wasn’t the answer, “perform, perform, perform” wasn’t the answer either. In fact, simply performing more, without the tools to facilitate more positive performance experiences, just led to more negative performance experiences!

Eventually, I discovered that elite athletes are successful in shrinking this gap between practice and performance, because their training looks fundamentally different. In that it includes specialized mental and physical practice strategies that are oriented around the retrieval of skills under pressure.

It was a very different approach to practice, that not only made performing a more positive experience, but practicing a more enjoyable experience too (which I certainly didn’t expect!).

If you’ve been wanting to perform more consistently and get more out of your daily practice, I’d love to share these research-based skills and strategies that can help you beat nerves and play more like yourself when it counts.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing, and start enjoying more satisfying practice days that also transfer to the stage.


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