In sharp contrast to the usual method of practicing, which is locating and correcting mistakes, my approach could instead be described as looking for blind spots. As always, I stress awareness over correctness. True change and improvement can only come from this place.
What is a blind spot?
As I have written about, there are many things you can choose to focus on while practicing. Pick one and stick to it. It could be the breath, it could be the dropping of the arms, or the sound of the metronome, or anything else you choose.
The idea is to observe, without judgment, without trying to control anything. You may find that you start judging, or that you start trying to control. This is not a problem. Just bring your attention back to the point of focus.
A blind spot is a period of time where you are lacking awareness of your focus point. Again, the object is to keep your attention fixed on one place, exclusively.
You need to observe the breath as it happens while you are playing. You need to observe exactly what your playing does to the breath. You need to observe every temptation you have to take your mind off of it.
What causes blind spots?
If I ask you to play a piece of music and focus exclusively on the breath, you will find many things that you pull your attention away.
- You will play a wrong note and start thinking about that.
- You will suddenly notice that your hands are in the wrong place for the next chord, and will rush to move them quickly.
- You will remember something your teacher told you about how to phrase this particular section.
- You will feel tension in your hands and try to relax them.
- You will notice yourself holding your breath and try to breathe more freely.
All of this takes your attention away from the sensation of the breath itself, which is the target of your focus.
A few suggestions
Choose a focus point, set a timer, and commit to returning to that focus point whenever your attention wanders, for the duration of the timer.
Try “zooming in”. Play a section fast, noticing how steady your attention is (or isn’t). Stay there for a bit. Let yourself explore every crevice of the activity, every detail of the music, every moment in time. Then, slow it down bit by bit, observing what effect this has on your focus, on your experience of the sensation you are trying to focus on. The waterfall technique is based on this idea.
If you are like me, you might be asking “doesn’t checking if I am focused ruin my focus?” Yes, it does. However, the idea is not to insist on 100% focus. This is a completely impractical goal. Instead, the idea is to experience what happens when you try to focus, to notice what tries to pull you away, and to have the chance to decide for yourself how you want to react to it. Until you notice it, you have no choice.
This is what practicing is.
It is not “repeating something perfectly” or “trying to get it right” or “getting more comfortable with it”.
It is simply looking for blind spots.
You want to distract yourself. You want to find something you are good at and vary it slightly in order to completely mess you up. That is the whole point.
Try it and see what happens.
The role of a teacher
You don’t need a teacher to practice this way. All of the teaching is fundamentally within you, and within the exercise itself. Nonetheless, a teacher could be helpful, as it is often easier for an outside observer to identify areas in which you might have a lot of blind spots.
I need to emphasize the role of acceptance in this process. When you commit to focusing on one thing, you are simultaneously making the commitment to let something else go. A lot of students are completely stuck on this point, and insist that everything I am saying is crazy as a result. I need to stress that if things aren’t working for you, you may need to change what you are doing in order to get moving again. And, this may involve letting go of some cherished rules you may have (e.g., “I must never make a mistake or it will be there forever”, or “I must always play musically”, or “I must learn the notes first before I add expression”).
Then again, if things are working, don’t take anything I say as an insistence that you must change anything.