3 Ways to Improve Focus in Your Practice

by Dave Belcher

As we begin afresh with a new year many of us are thinking about goals we’d like to accomplish over the next twelve months. However, there are many obstacles that can get in the way and often we find within a few weeks or months (or even days!) our goals begin to fade — which is one reason we often find ourselves setting the same New Year’s goals year after year! One of the most difficult obstacles to deal with when working on new goals is maintaining focus. There are so many distractions in our busy world that is easy to lose focus to the point that you lose time . . . and when our schedules are already so limited this is not a good thing. Now I’m not just talking about concentration: the mind does indeed need a certain amount of quiet in order to concentrate on tasks at hand. But there’s an additional layer of focus, which is persistence, the ability to stick with the goals you’ve set and put one foot in front of the other day after day. So how do we maintain focus during our practice and give ourselves the best shot to succeed with our New Year’s goals?

1. Remove distractions:

This one might seem so obvious as to be almost a truism, but it is still the number one thing you must do to help maintain focus during your practice: remove as many distractions as possible. The first distraction you have to get rid of immediately is that small technological device upon which we have all come to rely, perhaps a bit too much: turn off your phone or at least mute notifications and calls for your whole practice session. Not only do we use the phone to distract ourselves from boredom but, because many of us also use the phone as our metronome or tuner or practice app, notifications that pop up while we’re using it can pull us away and it can be difficult to get back where we were when we were interrupted. So just remove the interruptions altogether. Speaking of which, communicate as lovingly as possible to family members, pets, roommates, and others that this is your practice time and you need to be undisturbed. Whether you get 15 minutes or 2 hours for practice, it should be sacred time so you can get the most out of it. So ask others not to interrupt you while you’re practicing.

2. Choose just 1 small thing to work on:

One source of lack of focus, especially in our modern, digital age is having too many choices of what to work on and thus trying to work on too many things at once. Try limiting yourself to just one small thing each time you sit down to practice. This is likely a piece of advice you’ve heard before — perhaps as frequently as the benefits of “slow practice” — but it’s advice worth repeating because, well, it works! One thing that helps identify what to work on is to set very small, doable goals for not only each practice session but for different chunks of your practice time. So you will need to first schedule your time and set some small goals for each chunk (I like to use 15-minute chunks for my practice). And it’s pretty unreasonable to expect that you would get much done on an entire piece of music in just 15 minutes, so you really do have to narrow down the material you want to work on so you can actually achieve your goal by the end of the 15 minutes (or however long your chunk of time is). If you’re working on several pieces at once (perhaps in preparation for a concert or an exam), then just a few measures or, better yet, just one phrase is the best thing to focus on. Otherwise, you might spend each 15-minute chunk to focus on just one element of that single phrase (or handful of measures). Maybe the first 15-minutes is focused on left-hand movement and preparation, while the next focuses on right-hand consistency, etc. This is an approach we take each season with our Member Challenges at the Academy, where members have to focus on just one small thing for an entire month and many members have found it to be a great way to make tangible progress in a short amount of time.

3. Take frequent breaks:

Our mind can only focus intently for a certain amount of time before it begins to wander. So taking breaks is a great way to give our mind a rest and a bit of time to refresh. If you’ve split up your time into 15-minute chunks you might take a couple minutes between each chunk to just walk around the house, go grab a drink of water, or some other way to clear your mind. I would not recommend using this time to look at your phone or turn on the TV. It can be difficult to get back in the right headspace after turning away to a distraction like the phone or TV. I generally take short breaks after each 15-minute chunk by walking around the house or chatting with a loved one and then a bit longer of a longer break (sometimes with a walk around the neighborhood) after every 45-minutes of my practice session (usually I have two 45-minute sessions…so, with breaks, it’s about two hours total). Taking breaks has the added benefit that it gives your body a rest as well. Injuries can often happen when we push our bodies too hard for too long and so scheduling in regular times where you give your body what it needs can be a great preventative measure to keep your body healthy.

While none of these recommendations are silver bullets that will knock out all distractions and instantly give you focus, if you take on each consistently I think you will find your practice sessions are more productive and you will be much closer to reaching your goals for the new year. Let me know in the comments below what strategies you use to maintain focus and best of luck with your goals in 2020!