What should you do with your mind – with your conscious attention – whilst practicing, or whilst performing? What kinds of focus help to learn or to stay engaged on stage? The mind is often busy with analysis, judgment, comparing yourself to others, wondering what others think of you, not making mistakes, or about the outcome of your performance. Learning to control your focus will affect the efficiency and effectiveness of your learning and your ability to stay in the moment whilst playing.

Focus (PA)

Focusing on something could be described as submerging oneself in what one is doing. This means that the outside world disappears from one’s conscious mind and the focus turns more and more towards the actual task. 

A musician needs different types of focus for different situations. Playing solo requires a more narrow type of focus than playing in an ensemble or an orchestra where you have to be aware of what other musicians are doing. 

The best way to practice focussing is to try to focus on what you are doing and be present in the moment. In your practice, if you let your thoughts wander it also becomes harder to focus in performance situations. Breathing and relaxation techniques are good concentration exercises and can be used alongside mental training techniques. 

It is essential to realize that we need different ways of focussing for different situations. Whilst practicing happens mainly on a conscious level, in a performance situation you should focus mainly on the musical communication. Thinking too much about technical details, such as how fingerings and bowings go, creates a self- focussed performance and limits communication. When you are under pressure your focus will naturally turn to your inner thoughts rather than projecting the musical intention. If you lose focus in a performance, you can concentrate on touch or movement and you can use inner hearing or singing the music inside your head. 

How do we explain focus? (WK)

Musicians (both pupils, students and professional musicians) are supposed to focus at any time and at any place. However, describing what focus is, appears to be quite hard. When talking about focus, many different words and phrases are used, amongst which are concentration; over-concentration; focus; attention; awareness; consciousness; to be in the here and now and to be present and mindful. 

Different methods and techniques use different ways to define focus. In Alexander Technique they make a difference between inclusive awareness (on only one focus point) and exclusive awareness (on more than one focus point). In sports psychology several models are used, for example the Attentional Personal Styles by Robert Nideffer (1976) or the Circles of Attention by Hans Eberspächer (1990). In motor learning, a difference is made between internal focus (on the body) and external focus (on anything else but the body, including mental representations). 

Focus in the brain (WK)

Focus is firstly the ability of our brain to make us notice something. For example, we pay attention to the conductor in the orchestra. We can then keep noticing (keep our focus), we can shift our focus to something else or we can lose our focus (we drift away). Scientists believe that the ability to focus is an important mechanism for survival. We experience a great part of our daily life on a unconscious level. For example, we don’t notice people that are standing next to us in the tram unless something is drawn to our attention. The most basic function of focussing is the brain’s ability to draw our attention to possible danger. In language we have several sayings that indicate these meanings, ‘to raise our antennae’ or ‘to burn our ears’. The more dangerous the possible threat seems to be, the higher our focus. We can then talk about concentration. 

Focus and concentration are direct results of activities in the brain. Noticing the outside world is primarily connected to the use of our senses. Our senses provide information to our brain, about the outside world (our special senses: vision, hearing, taste and smell) and about our own body (touch, proprioception, kinesthesis or body awareness). In our brain, specific parts ‘organize’ the focus, for example the intraparietal sulcus on the left side of the brain and some parts in the top of our frontal lobes. Damages to these parts of the brain have an effect on the ability to focus. 

Focus and the use of our senses (WK)

When we focus, neural activity in the brain can be seen in those brain parts that organize focus, as well as in the sensory parts, like the visual or aural cortex. Interestingly enough, through time, the ability to focus has developed into an extra function which is the possibility to imagine. For example, when we think about an apple, many sensory parts in the brain show neural activity. We create an image on a visual level (colour, shape), about the taste and smell, about the experience of the surface, about how heavy the apple is etc. When we say we ‘think’ about the apple, we actually focus on the imagery of the apple, a so -called ‘representation’. In music, representations are extremely important, as that is what we activate when we use our ability to focus on the music. From this viewpoint, focus is mainly a non-verbal activity. 

Task focus (WK)

Being able to focus makes it possible to direct the use of our brain in a specific way, for example, during practicing or performing. This is what we call task focus. Task focus makes it possible to enforce specific neural activity which can create new neural connections or strenghten existing connectivity (= learning).  Also, specific neural activity makes it possible to receive a certain result (to perform). That’s why we say that proper practicing and performing cannot be done without (task) focus. There are many reasons why the brain is not always able to focus, for example, when we are tired or hungry. Also, there is a biological limitation to the amount of time we can keep our focus.

The circles of Attention by Hans Eberspächer (WK)

German sports psychologist Hans Eberspächer (1990) describes what or where sportsmen can focus on (or pay attention).

  1. Me and my task
  2. Direct distractions
  3. It is versus should be distractions 
  4. Winning / losing
  5. Consequences of winning / losing 
  6. Question of essence: what am I doing here? 

The model of Eberspächer is used as a tool for training task focus. As long as athletes focus on their role in the game, they are fine. Changing the focus to anything else is a distraction, even if it is as close (in team sports) as the opponent. Instead of focusing on the opponent, it would be better to focus on the ball and where the ball should go (the goal or the team players). The higher the number of the circle of attention, the more the focus has drifted away from the original task. 

The circles and music making (WK)

Over  the last few years, I have adapted the model by Eberspächer to making music. I choose to do so because I felt that although music making is as well about optimal performance as sports, it is usually not about winning or losing, unless of course we attend competitions or auditions. Learning new repertoire, which will continue lifelong, is a typical aspect of being a musician, as is performing on stage and communicating with an audience. This all asks for different definitions. These are the adapted circles: 

  1. Conscious awareness
  2. Verbal: instructions, analysis and reflection
  3. Oh no
  4. The environment
  5. The past and the future
  6. Question of essence: what am I doing here? 

The circles explained (WK)

1) Conscious awareness

With conscious awareness we pay attention to or focus on what we want to learn or how we want to perform. Attention or focus is primarily achieved by consciously using our senses. Listening to a certain sound, feeling a part of our body, looking at the conductor, are ways to explain and find focus and attention and are primarily non-verbal activities. Next to this sensory activity, representations and experiencing emotions are part of circle 1 as well. 

2)  Verbal: instructions, analysis and reflection

In the 2nd circle the use of thinking helps us to find the focus for practising and performing (circle 1). With thinking is meant: verbalising, using words. In circle 2 we verbalize the choice of focus: I want to listen to a certain sound, I want to feel a part of my body, I will look at the conductor.* *

3) Oh no

The difference between the thinking in circle 2 and circle 3 is judgement. In circle 2, the thinking is based on a ‘to do’ instruction, analysis and reflections. In circle 3, the thinking is not instructive but subjective. ‘Oh no, that was wrong! It was out of tune!’ *Most of the time the judgements will be negative, as many students regard making mistakes as failure. *Some students wrongly assume that criticism can only be done in circle 3. However, circle 1 can be even more critical, as sensory observation (listening, watching or feeling the body) offers clear and objective information about the actual playing. 

4) The environment

In this circle musicians worry what passers-by might think of their practising or what their teacher might think of their progress. On stage musicians worry how the audience or jury might judge their playing or they pay attention to the acoustics of the hall. 

5) The past and the future

In circle 5 musicians keep thinking about how they should have acted differently in the past (I should have started practising this piece much earlier…) and they worry about coming concerts, auditions and exams as well as about the future as a whole.

6) Question of essence: what am I doing here?

Although all circles, specially in a non-negative use, offer interesting food for thought, the goal is to only be in circle 1 during music making. Circle 1 and 2 are vital during the practising process. Therefore it is necessary to recognize the different circles and  to learn to switch between circle 1 and 2. 

Focus context

Focus Contexts (GM)

Practice strategies will vary depending on whether the student is focussing on learning a piece, striving to achieve depth, speed and continuity, consolidating elements already learned, or preparing for performance. Different priorities will apply to these practice situations, and when students have a ‘toolbox’ of learning strategies, they can reflect and apply these in an independent and succesful way.  

The necessary dialogue and reflection on the learning techniques themselves is often overshadowed by the discussion on how to play a particular piece in the repertoire. Focusing of ‘learning to learn’ is important because the student can then take a greater responsibility  for their own development. 

At the other end of the spectrum, performance focus requires a different set of preparation strategies, which range from securing memory work to developing physical and mental stamina and learning to use  tools such as visualisation and communication. The ultimate goal is finding an optimal balance between self expression and faithfulness to the musical text in order to bring the music to life.

Focus and the learning timeline (WK)

Focus and learning are closely connected. For practicing (deliberate learning) we need focus, so, neural activity creates new connectivity, strengthens existing connections or provides result in performing. The type of focus and the amount of focus depends on the stage of the learning process. When learning something new (new repertoire, new skills or new interpretational ideas), full focus is needed to activate a certain part of the brain. When, by practicing, the new network strengthens and works ‘by itself’ (internalized), less or no focus is anymore required. This is the essence of acquiring automatisms. For performing, another type of focus is needed: focus that makes our brain deliver results. During learning, internal focus is quite essential to musicians. However, for performing, internal focus will not necessarily provide the highest result.

Types of focus

Focus preparation (WK)

A common unconscious ‘bad habit’ for music pupils and students, is to start to play the instrument without proper mental preparation. Often this lack of preparation causes a lower result then expected or intended. Preparation focus means we deliberately activate a specific task focus, so we activate our neural networks necessary for our instrumental playing. In the moment, this takes time. According to practitioners it takes a few seconds. A good starting rule can be to prepare focus points on four elements: being aware of the concert hall or practice room around us, looking for body awareness, feeling the pulse of the music and mentally inner singing the music. In additon to this, any  task focus can be added. 

Flow and focus (EN)

Did you know that our minds usually wander away from our tasks about 50% of the time? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to be so immersed in your practice that you remain focussed, energised and on task? Every musician can remember the feeling they have had when they are so completely absorbed and focussed on their music-making that the everyday world disappeared from their awareness. They also know what it is like to feel distracted and lose focus and have too much ‘mind chatter’ while playing. When we are in flow or ‘in the zone’ we are focussed in the present and all thoughts about the past or worries about the future disappear - we feel at one with our instrument and the music. 

Train your mind to focus

To have more of these wonderful feelings of flow you can train your mind to have clear intentions so that you maintain focus and avoid distraction. You can do this by focussing on the most immediate sensory and expressive elements. These elements give you something to focus on that you can get feedback from in the exact moment of sound creation - the feedback is not delayed like it usually is in every day life. For example, you can focus on the subtle feelings of your fingers on the keys or strings as you listen to the notes or your breath going through the instrument across a phrase or the vibration of the strings as you manipulate the bow. If your mind wanders away while practising or you start over-thinking, gently bring your focus back to what you would like to achieve and pay attention to the subtle sensations of the body and the expressive feelings that are happening in the exact moment of playing.

Focus with flow questions

When you are relaxed then you can focus more easily, so before playing relax your body with whole body movements such as gentle walking or tai chi movements. Avoid beginning your practice with repetitious, mindless activities, instead play easy and fun music while you turn your attention to enjoyable and achievable sensory and expressive goals. As you do this, ask yourself non-judgemental, open questions such as: ‘What can I feel as I play?’  and ‘What is the expressive purpose of this passage?’ These types of flow questions give you something specific to focus on and get immediate feedback from in the moment. 

Check your focus regularly

Practising is a continuous process of setting goals, working towards them and overcoming them. Choosing appropriate and realistic goals is crucial to maintaining your focus and getting into and remaining in flow.  To check that your goals are ‘just-right’ during practice, ask yourself regularly, ‘What am I focussing on now?’ and ‘Do I need to change my focus?’ Training your mind to focus during practice not only helps you to learn more and enjoy your practice, but also enables you to maintain a strong focus in performance. To develop this habit and discover what works best for you, apply the sensory and expressive flow focus points during practice and enjoy the feeling of being immersed in the present moment!

Focus (SW)

One of the most important questions for a musician in the practice room and on stage is: “What should I focus on?” This determines whether the cognitive and unconscious parts of the brain are functioning efficiently and in harmony with each other. As playing music relies on the motor cortex and not the conscious cognitive mind, many suffer from trying to ‘control’ the movements of their body consciously. The solution to this problem is to engage the conscious mind in what it does best: imagine. Focus on what you want the music to sound like – in as much detail and with as much nuance as possible.

Internal and external focus of attention

Sports psychology has shown in the last 15 years, the importance of an external focus of attention.  It has been found that by focusing on the result of the body’s movements will bring about a better performance and more enhanced learning that by focusing on how to make the movement. This is the same for musicians. The external focus for a musician is the imagination of the desired sound and phrase, or even, the meaning and expression behind the music.

Although making music is a motor activity, the way to master it is through focussing on the music itself (external focus) and not on the individual muscles and parts of the body (internal focus). Arnold Jacobs explains it is better to focus on the imagination of the ideal music: “… get your mind off the body and allow the bio-computer part of the brain to control bodily adaptation by developing conditioned reflexes”. Psychologists have found that individuals tend to choose a lower (more internal) level of focus during a performance (perhaps due to being careful) and this results in a less optimal performance. The more expert the performer, the more external the focus needs to be.


Great brass pedagogue Arnold Jacobs said “Listen to “ideal music” while playing; don’t listen to yourself”. This is a surprising and counter-intuitive suggestion. Try it out before you make a judgement. Jacobs understood the power of anticipatory auditory imagery and audiation. “The sound in the mind will eventually train the body… When playing, the musical product should be the motivating factor.” It is more effective to focus on artistry than bodily mechanics, as we can’t control each muscle and movement. The mechanism needed to play music is far too complex to be controlled consciously. (See audiation, external focus)

Practicing musical intention - Audiation

Being able to hear the music in your mind – inner hearing – is a very important attribute for any musician. Those who are capable of rich auditory imagery have a distinct advantage, as this is the message the conscious brain sends to the motor learning parts of the brain and to the body. Imagery improves with practice! Auditory imagery is imagining the sound. To have a sense of the music as something to say or communicate involves understanding meaning and pattern in the sounds. This is called audiation. Audiation is a term coined by Edwin Gordon in 1975 and refers to the ability to understand the meaning of a phrase or musical piece. This enables one to be able to predict patterns in unfamiliar music, thus experiencing music as a language. Gordon argues that auditory imagery (or inner hearing) is imitation and therefore a product and that audiation is a process. In order to audiate, Gordon believes a musician must be able to do the following:

  • Sing what they have played
  • Play a variation of the melody
  • Play it in a different key, tonality or different fingerings 
  • Demonstrate with body movements the phrases of the melody

Audiation is an important concept, which can aid both the learning of new skills, improving what you have and also for performance. By focusing on the result of what you want to achieve (i.e. imagining the ‘ideal’ phrase and what it is expressing) you are more likely to play in a coordinated and efficient way (see external focus). For an idea of how you can practice by using audiation try APT (Audiation Practice Tool). This is simply based on the above definition.

Instructions for practicing with APT:

  • Imagine the phrase/motif you are about to play with as much nuance as you can evoke (pitch, tone quality, volume, articulation, transition from one note to another…)
  • Sing and gesture the phrase/motif dramatically 
  • Play the phrase
  • Play another version(s) of the phrase
  • Repeat the procedure with a new phrase/motif
  • Be aware of singing and gesturing as dramatically as you can!

Focus limitations (WK)

During practicing, it is not always possible to maintain a certain level of focus. There are many reasons for this, depending on different aspects.  Being focused asks for a lot of brain energy, and on a daily basis, at a certain level, this energy can be lacking. Our brain needs 25% of our oxygen supply and about 20% of our glucose both provided through blood circulation and the neuroglia. Logically, this cannot last forever. Also, the brain seems to have difficulty keeping  energy for a longer time on one network. The ability to focus for a long time also depends on the job you need to do. During learning more energy is required then during playing through our music. On average, musicians might think of a focus span of 8 hours a day including long enough breaks, which then results in 4 hours of practising. During practising, it is recommended to observe the focus, which might drift away quite often. When this happens, it is recommended to change subject, to take a (short or longer) break or to do some physical activity.