Preparing a focused mind

I find that in performance my mind isn’t always focused on what I would like. I’m easily distracted by conditions in the performance space, audience reactions, or, especially, the ways that my playing isn’t everything I would like it to be.

When I get distracted, and especially when it turns into negative self-talk, it’s easy to spiral. I feel bad about my playing, so my playing gets worse, and then I feel worse still.

When I talk about this phenomenon with my students, often their strategy is “just don’t think negative thoughts.” Maybe that works for them, but it sure doesn’t for me. Rebuking myself for having negative thoughts doesn’t really improve my frame of mind mid-performance.

Instead I find it helpful to focus on something positive and constructive. And in the heat of battle it can be hard to think of something, so it helps me to pick one out in advance. In other words, I have an advance plan for what to focus my mind on if and when it starts wandering in unhelpful directions.

The best positive thing to think about might depend on what works for you. But as a woodwind player, my go-to thought is air. I focus on the sensations of air moving through my body and into the instrument.

This works well for me for a few reasons. Because air is at the core of my tone production technique, paying attention to it usually helps me play a little better. If I’m taking good breaths, my brain and body are better oxygenated and able to function better. And air is closely tied to expression, so focusing on it can help my thoughts redirect toward that. Plus, air is a relaxing thing—lots of meditation and mindfulness practices use breathing as a method to achieve calm and clarity.

Having a plan like this gives me an easy way to get past a distraction and return my thoughts to the moment. Good luck!

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