Attentional Fitness Training for Musicians

Why would musicians want to incorporate attentional fitness strategies into their routine? 

It makes sense to consider how strength, endurance, and flexibility training help support the goals of an athlete. We don’t think there’s anything unusual about an athlete going to the gym as part of an overall plan for preparing for optimal performance on the field. Attentional fitness strategies can function in similar ways to help strengthen the skills of attention required for performance on the stage.

Athletes and musicians -- and anyone else who has committed effort over time toward the development of a specific skill -- tend to have some advantages when it comes to these strategies. But what if there were exercises and drills to add to the mix that could systematically support the development of concentration, clarity, and equanimity in the context of rehearsal and performance? 

Consider how concentration development might lead to more efficient use of limited practice time. Sensory clarity could benefit the musician both in terms of enriching the external sensory palette (especially hearing) and in regards to the subjective, emotional experiences and obstacles that can impact us in practice and performance. Having greater equanimity with the flow of sensory experience can help prevent us from over-thinking or getting in our own way through the patterns of self-talk we cultivate unintentionally. These skills together can have a profound ability on our ability to notice how often we are our own harshest critics and how effortlessly we assume that we know how others are evaluating our performance. 

What strategies could help address the unique needs of a musician? 

Let’s look at these in three different categories prioritized based on the desire to introduce them naturally over time. There is no right way to go about this and there is no hurry. Curiosity and experimentation are your best guides in deciding what strategies appeal and work best for you. 

Rehearsal Strategies

This would be the best place to begin exploring these exercises. Start with using them for some portion of your warm-up time. Then begin testing them out when you are going over a piece of music that is familiar to you. Eventually experiment with adding them to the process when you are learning a work that is new to you. 

Track OUT and IN

Every few seconds, notice if your attention is focused on:

  • OUT: External visual field, ambient sounds and sounds you are producing, or sensations in the body that seem to be more physical than emotional

  • IN: Mental images, verbal thinking or internal melodies, or sensations in the body that seem to be more emotional than physical

Focus OUT

  • Try to restrict your attention outward. Every few seconds, notice if your attention is anchored in sights, sounds, and physical sensation in the body.
  • If your primary focus has switched to mental images, verbal thinking (or internal melodies), or sensations in the body that seem to be more emotional than physical, gently slide it back into seeing externally, hearing sounds you are producing or other sounds around you, or sensations in the body that seem to be more physical than emotional.
  • If you are aware of mental images, verbal thinking, and emotional sensations that are operating in the background, just let them continue to be there. A good analogy for this is how you handle the reality of diners at other tables in a restaurant when you are paying attention to the people you are sitting with. You are aware that other conversations are happening around you, but your primary focus is on the conversation at your table.
  • Alternatively, you can practice restricting our primary awareness to external sounds. To do this, include sights and physical sensation in the mix with the other components you allow to operate in the background of your awareness.

Pre- and Post-Performance Strategies

This exercise provides opportunities for you to become more familiar with the sensory components that lead to anxiousness and emotional overwhelm. The tangling of these components distort you’re your evaluation of your performance. Working in this way can help you see more clearly into the tendency to accept imagined criticism as real. 

Focus IN

  • Try to restrict your attention inward.
  • Bring your attention to the space just in front of or just behind the eyes where mental images seem to occur. If there are mental images there, try to notice them without regard for their meaning. If there are no mental images present, savor the mental screen at rest. Try to notice without preference for either state.
  • Bring your attention to the area near the ears where verbal thinking seems to occur. If there are words, phrases, sentences, or melodies taking place, try to notice them without regard for their meaning. If there is no internal sound present, savor the quiet in this space. Try to listen without preference for either state.
  • Bring your attention to the central core of the body where emotionally flavored sensations tend to be more detectable. If you are aware of sensations that seem to have emotional flavors, try to hang out with them and savor the physicality without regard for the meaning and without trying to do anything to solve the presence of unpleasant sensations. If you are unable to detect any activity like this, enjoy the restfulness in the body. Try to observe without preference for either state.
  • Cycle through these three domains at a nice, leisurely pace. Check in with each location observing activity or rest. Try to be clear about the state as you find it and allow it to be as it is for a few seconds before moving on to the next location. 

Performance Strategies

Wait until you feel comfortable with the impact of these strategies before introducing them into your performances. First find out which strategies seem to help you focus. It could be the case that the work you do during your practice sessions are enough to build up some momentum in your concentration, clarity, and equanimity. This would be like a runner realizing that squats have helped improve the power in his or her stride. It could also be the case that you find focusing your attention on the specific sounds you are producing have a positive impact on your rehearsals and you feel like experimenting with this when you perform. Maybe you discover something different or modify one or more of these approaches or stick to processing the thoughts and feelings that are stirred up before or after a performance.

In addition to the work you do as a musician, consider experimenting with these strategies in other contexts. The skills are generalizable. One excellent place to explore would be when listening to others perform. See if listening in this way over time has any impact on your perceptions of your audience when you are performing. Does making an effort to pay close attention to other performers change your relationship to the composition of your thoughts and feelings when it is your term to navigate the vulnerability of the stage?

You can also try them out when listening to someone talk. See how it goes with lectures, conversations with friends, on dates, when arguing, during movies, at concerts, in the grocery store, and any other situations you find worth exploring.