Whether it's music, work, or socializing, we've all been guilty of tuning someone out. Sometimes it's because we simply lack interest, or sometimes we're just feeling spacey. When listening to a friend tell a boring story for the hundredth time or playing the same guitar part every night, it's understandable why the brain wants to zone out. But while the brain may be thoroughly enjoying this vacation, it's not necessarily a good thing to do while performing onstage.
How distractions affect musicianship
Playing a gig can be an exciting experience, but it's certainly a different environment than the practice room. Whether playing for a crowd of hundreds or just two people shooting pool, there will be some form of distraction plaguing you onstage.
Your own brain is likely the biggest enemy here. The brain is responsible for things like performance anxiety and anything else that attempts to distract you from the music itself. Add in the factors of the given environment and it's easy to see why many musicians have trouble focusing.
That being said, there is a key to overcoming these distractions. You must have dedicated focus on the things that matter when onstage, which is, in this case, the music.
Saying "just focus more" isn't much help, though. When under pressure (cue the Queen song), it becomes more difficult to pay attention to what matters most. On top of that, most musicians have never practiced the ability to focus. Even if you do know what to focus on, a lack of experience makes this difficult.
The end result is a musician onstage who looks like he's playing and listening, but instead, he's just taking part in a mindless act of repetition. Just because you may be hearing the music, doesn't mean you're necessarily listening to it.
What you should be thinking about onstage
So what should you think about while onstage? It's quite simple, actually.
For one, ignore the past. So you just played a wrong note. Who cares? It already happened. Stressing out about it won't send you back in time to fix that note. Just let it be and move on.
Secondly, ignore the future. Yes, the future is coming up, but the future won't be very good without the present. There's our answer: Complete focus onstage lies within presence.
The present is the only thing we have control over, so it makes sense to put all effort here. Some may think that presence means focusing on just technique or the mechanics of the instrument. Micromanaging every little detail of your playing has no place onstage. Save that for practice.
When you're onstage, presence means increasing your awareness. It'll help to concentrate on the subtle delicacies of the music itself. You should be thinking how to craft your unique voice in a way that fits beautifully in with the others around you.
Once this happens, musicians will find themselves in a realm referred to as "the zone." It's likely you've been there before. Be it by mistake or through concentrated effort, the zone is the ideal performance state. Here, musicians have an effortless flow to their playing that leads to a great performance.
Ideally, this is how every musician wants to play and it's actually quite obtainable – with a little practice, of course. However, this is not the type of practice you may be used to. They're a time and place for technical practice, but for this particular situation, we're going to examine a mental kind of practice.
Psychologists are becoming increasingly aware of a concept called mindfulness. Essentially, it's a state of mind in which we purposely pay attention to the present moment. Using mindfulness, musicians can completely absorb themselves in the music at hand and enter that cherished state of "flow."
How to get in "the zone"
Alright, so we've been talking up "the zone" quite a bit. It may sound like a mythical tale spun by the musicians of years past but alas, it's real. Like most things of value, getting in the zone takes a bit of work. It's not as simple as just closing your eyes and chanting a mantra like you see in the movies.
There are various listening exercises musicians can try to work out their focus "muscles." So find time in your day that you can dedicate to silence and isolation. Bring your instrument of choice and attempt these steps:
- Take a long hard look at your instrument. Hopefully, you enjoy playing it. Perhaps you even have a favorite note of yours on there. Think of that note. If a zombie apocalypse happened and you were stuck in a panic room with one note for the rest of your life, which note would it be? Take some time to ponder.
- Once you've determined your zombie apocalypse note, try playing it. That's right, play it. After all, you have the instrument right in front of you, so just give it a go. Don't crank it up to 11 and blast that note across the world – just start off slow. Take your time, breathe slowly, and really focus on the intricacies of that note. Try to sustain it as consistently and long as possible.
- Now, listen to that note. Really listen to it. Don't treat it like the sound of a passing car or dog barking in the distance. Listen attentively to it. Pretend it's the first time you've ever heard that note and it has taken your full attention. Observe how it sounds when you first play it, and then how it plays out in the room. Listen to how it resonates and, eventually, how it lingers after you stop playing.
- Think about how it sounded. This isn't a competition. Don't judge if it was a good sound or bad sound; just think about how it sounds. The point is to let your thoughts be completely taken over by this sound and the present moment.
This exercise will feel strange at first. After all, you're alone listening to one note over and over. Once you get past the ridiculousness of it all, though, you may find a deep feeling of focus take over you. You'll realize you're so caught up in this one note that there's no other room for distracting thoughts.
Like most things, the more you practice this, the easier it will become. Once you've mastered complete focus in this environment, you'll be ready to bring that same concentration onstage that will ultimately improve your performance.
Anthony Cerullo is a nomadic freelance writer and keyboard player. In his spare time, he can be found reading, hiking mountains, and lying in hammocks for extended periods of time.