News Alert: I can't score a basket to save my life!

Along with being known for playing the saxophone, I am also well known for my inability to score a basket. Whether it’s on the basketball court or with a wad of paper and a trash can, I can reliably say that I will miss the mark 9 times out of 10. Ironically, the one time I do land the shot is usually the one time I don’t take the initial preparation to think about what my arm is doing to make the shot. 

Could the same phenomenon apply to how we approach performing an instrument? I think so! A while ago I was working with a student of mine who was having trouble performing an etude. We tried the usual fixes (slower tempo, different rhythms, changing articulations, etc.) but to no avail. There was simply some mental block that was preventing the young musician from performing at his best level.

At that point I asked a very simple question: “Can you do it again? But this time, focus on how you move between notes rather than what notes you are playing.” My student thought for a moment and then played a full three measures with 100% accuracy! You see, he was so concerned about playing the right notes, he was forgetting the technique he has been building through scales, something that we all do from time to time. (Sidenote: I took the opportunity to point out that this is why scales are so important to practice, something every student needs to know!)

Focus in Free Throws

Let’s continue with my basketball analogy. In 2011, a study was published in the World Applied Sciences Journal called “Effect of Focus of Attention and Skill Level on Basketball Free-Throws under Psychological Pressure.” The study sought to differentiate between two aspects of the free throw: focus and skill.

The study analyzed a group of college level students enrolled in a physical education course and sorted them out by skill level and general anxiety. After being randomly put into one of two groups, each group was then divided in two and each given a different course of instruction, one focusing on internal instruction (mental quiet and focus) and one focusing on external instruction (how to hold the ball, stance during free throw, etc.). After receiving instruction, the groups were put into free throw situations and their results were analyzed.

So did the group that focused the most on internal struggles succeed the most? Well, yes and no. First off, the study found that skill alone had no effect on the performance. In the highly skilled group, those that had high mental focus performed significantly better than those who didn’t. Surprisingly, the group that performed the best overall was the low skilled group with high mental focus, performing better than the highly skilled shooters with similar mental focus. (The study goes on to speculate that as psychological pressure increases, the highly skilled group would begin to be more reliable than the low skilled group).

So what was the difference?

The lower skilled group reported that they used an external source of attention (in this case, the rim of the goal) to distract themselves from psychological pressure. For performers, our “rim” could be a target note in a phrase, or landing on a downbeat, or, in my student’s case, focusing on the space in between the notes and how we operate the instrument between certain intervals.

Make a target!

The good news for us is that we can apply this quite easily in the practice room or when teaching our students. Next time you are working on your technique, or a difficult technical passage (or helping a student with their practice) try focusing on one firm, objective goal as your “external source of attention.” Pick one note or concept to focus on. Maybe it’s ease of facility or aiming for a certain note dynamically. Perhaps you’re more concerned with maintaining tone or color across a certain range. Did it work? Let me know in the comments and happy practicing!