Have you ever been guilty of tuning someone out? Like a teacher who keeps harping on the same thing. Or a parent who keeps repeating the same old advice. Or a significant other who keeps telling you to squeeze the toothpaste from the bottom.

Tuning people out comes pretty naturally to us, and it doesn’t even require that much effort. Our brain is often looking to conserve resources, so anytime it senses that what’s about to happen is just more of the same old stuff, it take a mini-vacation.

So when you’ve played the same flute excerpt over and over for 20+ years, it’s hard to fault our brain for going on holiday. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good thing.

The problem

One of the keys to successfully overcoming nerves and performance anxeity is having the ability to focus exclusively on the things that matter when the moment of truth arrives.

But because we have this tendency to space out when we’re playing the same old thing, we (a) have no idea what we’re supposed to pay attention to under pressure and (b) haven’t developed the ability to keep our minds there – even if we knew exactly what we ought to focus on.

We don’t listen to what we hear

Legendary violin teacher Dorothy Delay once had this to say, which speaks to our tendency to only be partially aware of what we are doing (I quote from Book 3 of The Way They Play by Samuel Applebaum):

“The player should be able to tell you what he heard – and he frequently can’t. It is necessary to hear the sound. It is fascinating to learn what the students actually hear during a playing experience. For example, sometimes a student playing a sonata with piano will be fully conscious of the sound of the violin, both tone and pitch, but from the piano he may hear only rhythm, and be quite unaware of the pitch.”

Presence

Most great musicians have figured out that it’s generally most helpful to stay focused on what is happening in the present moment. Not what’s going to happen in 2 lines, or what happened a few bars back, but what is happening right now. Sort of makes logical sense, as after all, that’s the only thing we have any control over.

But being present does not mean we should be focusing on the mechanics and technique of playing our instruments, nitpicking little flaws in our playing, and micromanaging every detail. That’s for the practice room.

On-stage, it means increasing our awareness of what is happening in the moment, by immersing ourselves in the subtle nuances of our sound, the shaping of the line, voicing, blending of our sound with those around us, and so on. The more successfully we do this, the more likely our chances of entering into that peak performance state of flow and having a great performance.

Mindfulness in sport

To that end, sport psychologists are becoming increasingly interested in a concept called mindfulness and how the practice of mindfulness may enhance sport performance.

One of the early pioneers of adapting the practice of mindfulness to psychology is Jon Kabat-Zinn, who describes mindfulness as “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment”.

If that sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because mindfulness is conceptually similar to the state of mind Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow” – that state in which we are completely absorbed by the task at hand, and experiening a unity of mind and body.

To be honest, there isn’t a huge amount of research on mindfulness and athletic performance, but what’s there is intriguing. A couple studies, for instance, have found that athletes who have a greater level of mindfuless are also more likely to experience aspects of flow.

Another study found that golfers who implemented the practice of mindfulness into their training showed a greater increase in their national rankings than those who did not adopt this practice.

And in a study of NCAA basketball players, it was found that greater levels of mindfulness was predictive of increased in-game free throw percentage.

Take action

Below is a great video of Jon Kabat-Zinn leading a mindfulness session at Google. It’s pretty long (1:12:05 to be exact), but worth watching if you have an interest in learning more about mindfulness and/or meditation.

You can also give this listening/awareness exercise a try. It’s a helpful way to wake up your ears in the morning so you might begin the day by playing with your ears wide open and engaged in the present moment, rather than to merely going through the motions with your focus and awareness elsewhere.

  1. Identify your favorite note on the instrument. The note that, if you could only play one note for the rest of your life, you’d want it to be that note.
  2. Play the note, nice and slow, taking your time. Take a breath, change bow, etc. as needed to keep sustaining the note.
  3. Listen. Really listen – as if you’ve never heard sound before, and it’s incredibly fascinating to you. Listen to the way the note starts, how it develops, fills the room, resonates, and how the note ends.
  4. Take your time and quietly observe your sound. It’s not about judging whether what you hear is good or bad, just allow your attention and thoughts to be take over by the resonance of the sound and what is coming out of your instrument at this very moment.

For me, it’s almost like flipping a switch. I can almost feel the deepening of my focus as I become immersed in the sound and have no room left to process extraneous thoughts. You’ll probably have moments of this too as you begin practicing. It may be fleeting at first, but with a bit of practice you’ll be able to sustain this kind of focus for longer periods, and under increasingly stressful conditions.

The one-sentence summary

“Be here now. Be someplace else later. Is that so complicated?”  ~David Bader (author of One Hundred Great Books in Haiku and Haikus for Jews, among others)