Here’s something to try the next time you’re in a toy store and have access to an inquisitive 3-year old kid and some electrician’s tape. Tear off a big long piece of tape and use it to mark off a circle on the ground, about 3-feet in diameter. Put the toddler in the circle and see how long it takes for him or her to wander out of the circle.

5 seconds…maybe?

Ok, try to gently steer the little one back into the circle. What happens?

If this child is anything like most, the harder you try to get the little bugger back into the circle, the more he or she resists. Unless, of course, you know the trick (more on this later).

So how does this relate to you and performing at a higher level?

Sport psychologists tell us that the ability to stay focused on the present moment is a key factor in performance success. Untrained, however, our attention tends to behave like a 3-year old child. It will wander, and latch onto anything that seems particularly intriguing. So when we get on stage, the adrenaline kicks in, and we are propelled into survival mode, what does our mind find most compelling? Yep, you guessed it, thoughts and scenarios that relate to “survival.”

Such as, noticing and beating ourselves up for the mistake we just made, wondering what the judges or audience might be think of us now. Worrying about the difficult passage coming up in a few lines and how we flubbed it in rehearsals. A sudden flash of fear about some memory slips that occurred in previous performances. Thinking about how we should have practiced more, mentally crossing our fingers and swearing that we will prepare better next time.

Unfortunately, when we are in the midst of a performance, none of these thoughts are relevant, helpful, or conducive to performing better. More than likely, they just add to our nerves, cause us to tighten up, and become distracted, which only lead to mistakes and a sub-par performance.

Get a handle on your inner 3-year old

Here are a few keys to gaining more control over your inner 3-year old, which for simplicity’s sake, I will henceforth refer to as Harold.

Key #1: Notice when Harold has left the circle
As you probably already know, Harold is rather crafty. Often, he will just sneak out of the circle without our noticing.

Start paying attention to when Harold leaves the circle – not just when you are performing, but in practice sessions, mock auditions, rehearsals, etc. If you’re practicing, stop and write down where your attention went each time you notice you lost it. This is actually pretty annoying. You’ll probably only have to do this a few times because the annoyingness will motivate you to stay focused.

Where did your mind go? Any themes?

Key #2: Get Harold back into the circle
Ready for the big trick that will keep Harold in the circle? Ok, get the biggest, coolest, shiniest, most spectacular toy in the store, and place it in the middle of the circle. Watch how Harold is suddenly very interested in staying in that circle. Now you can’t keep him out.

How can we translate this into performing terms? This is where sport psychologists talk about the importance of staying in the present or focusing on the “now.” What does this mean in practical terms?

It means cultivating the ability to put one’s focus entirely on what is happening in the precise moment of now (not what will happen 1 second from now, or what happened 1 second ago). For musicians, this means paying attention to key aspects of the act of performing such as a) what we sound like at this very moment, and b) what it feels like to produce such sound.

Indeed, most musicians I’ve talked to, whether they be string players, wind/brass players, pianists, percussionists, or singers, all could describe the uniqueness of their sound. It’s fascinating to me that even if two players were to play on the same exact instrument, the sound they produce on this instrument would be noticeably different. It’s as if we each have our own auditory fingerprint.

I was actually a big fan of my own sound. And most people, on a good day, acknowledge that they really like their sound too. Try listening to your sound as you play. I mean, really, really listen for all the different nuances, the textures, the colors, dimensions, and all the little nooks and crannies. Ask yourself, what are the qualities of your sound that you love most? What makes your sound worth listening to? It’s brilliance? It’s clarity? It’s focused power? It’s honey-like texture? Take a moment to reflect on this. Play a few passages if you need to remind yourself what your sound actually sounds like.

When you have immersed yourself in your sound so completely that your mind has no room left for any other thoughts, begin paying attention to what it feels like to generate and produce this sound. What do your arms, fingers, and body feel like? What do your lips and/or tongue experience? What does it feel like to have the air flowing in and out of your body? For me, the ever-changing sensations of friction and brownie-like chewy-ness of contact between the bow hair and strings was (for lack of a better word) a truly delicious feeling to attend to.

Key #3: Keep Harold in the circle
Eventually, Harold will start to get bored. If we want to keep Harold engaged in the circle, we’ll have to let him open the box and begin exploring and playing with his new shiny toy.

For the performer, this means strengthening your ability to stay focused on that precise moment in which you are creating music. Just immerse yourself even more deeply into what you are hearing and feeling kinesthetically – notice how your sound is dynamically evolving from one moment to the next.

What happens if you lose this focus? No worries, just gently reorient your focus to the present (e.g. your sound, and what it feels like to produce this spectacular sound of yours). Remember that trying to force yourself to block out distractions will only make things worse.

After all, how cool is it that you have the ability to produce such sound? Not everyone has the ability to do this — as the perversely hilarious (or sad, depending on how you look at it) lowlights from any season of American Idol make abundantly clear.

The one-sentence summary

Just remember that the greater your ability to truly focus on the present moment while performing, the greater the likelihood that you will enter into that state of focused task-immersion often referred to as “the zone.”