Your attention please

Swimming in the ocean.

 “The mark of a person who is in control of consciousness is the ability to focus attention at will, to be oblivious to distractions, to concentrate for as long as it takes to achieve a goal, and not longer.”
(Csikszentmihalyi, 2008, p. 31.)

When I was ten, I used to swim every day. I already knew how to swim, but I took classes for years because I enjoyed to be in the water. I lived in a place with hot and humid weather. Even when raining, I was there, the only child wanting to swim.

One day in the class, we were starting our laps from one starting track, as if we were in a competition. Imagine all the children in a line waiting for their turn. I was the last, I was there ready for jumping. I heard the whistle and I jumped. When I fell into the water I started to swim, but I couldn’t move forward. My teacher, who was inside the pool, stopped me. Confused, I stood up and I asked what was happening. He told me:

  • “You don’t do it like that anymore. You already know how to do it.”

I smiled. I thought “what did I do wrong?” Without thinking too much, I repeated the jump and, this time, I could continue my way to the other side of the pool.

Many years after, I remember my percussion teacher asking me why I was doing something wrong, if I already knew the right way to do things. He used to say:

  • “You don’t play like that.”

Yes, by observing more carefully, I noticed that I was playing differently than what I thought. There was an awkward new movement in my arms or the sticks were not at the same height, etc.

The swimming and the percussion lessons have something in common: my lack of attention.

It wasn’t that I couldn’t do what my teachers were asking, that I didn’t learn and I wasn’t able to do it without their supervision. It was that I took for granted that I already knew and I stopped paying attention.

When we start learning music (or anything that we love), we are fully engaged in listening to instructions, observing with detail those who model how to play, and trying to achieve something similar in ourselves. But sometimes, we get easily distracted.

Attention then, is related to quality. If we are careful in our actions, if we are focused in the activity we are doing, we will achieve a better outcome. I believe that some of us already know that it is not the same to practice when we are worried about our personal lives as being fully present in our practice. Repeating the same exercise over and over doesn’t guarantee that we are doing it with attention, and therefore neither that we are improving.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (2008) explains that attention is an “energy” that we need in order to create; we cannot achieve our goals without attention. This “energy”, as we work, is consumed as a burning candle. For him, we control attention and the ways we use it shape ourselves. Attention improves the quality of the things we do. (p.33).

If we are not focused on our practice there can be many consequences. For example, we develop bad habits in the ways we play or a division between what we do and how or why we do them; it is a fragmentation within the self. These situations are perfect incubators for more issues, one of them is to have tension or develop injuries in the body.

I imagine attention as a spiral. It starts in myself and it spreads out to the things that I want. Attention is our chance to be engaged with our whole self in what we are doing. For example, try this short exercise.

  1. Stop reading and feel yourself. That is the first step. Notice how your body is, its position in the space. Are you sitting? Are your legs crossed? Is there any tension in your body? Feel. If necessary, adjust it to where you feel comfortable.
  2. You can shift your attention to the sounds around you. What sounds are in your environment? Cars? People practicing?
  3. Return to the attention to your body. Notice that you can switch your attention from the self to the sounds around. Notice that you direct where the focus goes.

This exercise is not different from what we do when playing with others. We listen to them carefully, so our sound fits with theirs.

We can take a similar approach when we are practicing, whether we want to improve technique, interpretation, etc., we could start our practice like this:

  1. Before producing any sound, focus on your body. Are you sitting? Are you standing? How do you feel your legs, or your arms? If there is any tension, change something. Feel free before playing the first note.
  2. Play a couple of notes by improvising or from a piece. Feel your body while playing. Do you change anything in your body? Do your arms or legs get tense?
  3. Listen to your sound. Do you like it? Why or why not? What do you need to do to improve it?
  4. Stop playing and return to focus on your body. Make a commitment to always return to ask how you feel.

Being attentive is also a matter of practice, it is a skill that we need to develop. A skill that I hadn’t developed when I was taking swimming classes, nor in my percussion lessons. In those years, attention used to come and go in relation to teachers’ approval or disapproval.

Now, realizing the effects of not being attentive and thanks to my experiences with people who believe in the importance of being aware of our actions, I can say that attention is a practice that one can start at any moment and it develops little by little. In music, Body Mapping is about that: developing attention to connect our body with the sounds we produce. We find that we are in charge of that attention and its direction.

Work cited:

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2008). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York; Harper Perennial Modern Classics. (Original work published 1990).