Staying Focused

Question: I can get easily distracted from playing piano, whether it be my phone going off, hearing the TV or going to the computer and listening to a song for a second (which turns into hours). I really want to get good at the piano because I want to be a music teacher but I can’t stay focused. Are there any ways I can stay focused and determined?

– Jimmy (New Jersey, USA)

Albert’s reply: Piano practice largely involves solving problems. If you’re not concentrating, you may not be aware of the countless problems to solve when preparing a piece of music. There should be so much for you to do that there’s not a moment of focus to lose.

Practicing music should be like solving mathematics problems, in that music is highly demanding of your mental resources. It is true that even math problems can often be solved mechanically, whereby the brain can become skilled in following a step-by-step algorithm for a given set of problems. (As in music, the acquisition of skill does not necessarily involve actual understanding; for instance, it’s perfectly possible to learn to solve differential equations fluently without understanding what they represent.) If your piano practice ever becomes purely mechanical, meaning that you’re no longer forced to think hard (i.e., concentrate), you’re almost certainly doing something wrong, and if not, it’s time to move on to new, perhaps more challenging, music.

Problems abound in practicing piano. Most of them involve listening: Are you achieving a beautiful legato in the melody and any accompanimental motives? Are your piano chord voicings even and perfectly consistent every single time you repeat them, or are some notes occasionally louder or softer? Are you playing – and releasing – notes with total control over timing? Do you have perfect balance between the hands? Are you really hearing, controlling and shaping all inner voices?

Problems of listening are simultaneously technical in nature, since realizing all musical ideas at the piano requires coordination of the fingers, hands and often the feet as well. Occasionally, pianistic problems are purely technical. I know of no technical problems that yield to unfocused practice.

Other musical problems are rhythmic in nature. Can you count the rhythm out loud? Can you play one hand while tapping the other? (Never get into the bad habit of tapping the foot.) Can you play exactly in time with a metronome? (Only do so for passages that need to be precisely in time, or as an exercise.)

Problems of memory by definition are problems of concentration. Can you sing each voice independently? Can you hear multiple voices simultaneously? Do you know the chord progressions in your music? If so, can you transpose the harmonies to other keys?

Efficient piano practice can be achieved by shutting out all other tasks and focusing on a particular musical problem until it is solved. Shut down your computer and turn off your cell phone. Schedule a time-limited practice session away from home, in a dedicated practice studio for instance, and you’ll immediately see how forced efficiency increases your productivity. Upcoming performances of any sort will also make your piano practice immediately more effective.

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