The crisp snap of the opening Coke can was followed by the rude guzzling of the ice-cold refreshment. The fizz of carbonation gradually lessened after its owner noisily placed the soda on the folding table in the makeshift band room. The entrance of a second soda-wielding woman was announced by a slamming door, causing the snare drums to sizzle. As the two soda-slurping women discussed their lunch options, I focused on the manipulated sound of the electric keyboard playing the accompaniment to the lyrical movement of Carl Maria von Weber’s Clarinet Concerto No. 1 in F Minor, Op. 73. This wasn’t a casual practice session – this was the final round for an international competition.
While this may be an extreme case, every musician has had to deal with distractions during their daily routine. Latecomers opening doors during recitals, coughing during dress rehearsals, friends stopping by to gossip during practice sessions, iMessages, e-mails, phone calls, not to mention the lure of social media (Facebook! Twitter! Instagram! Tumblr!) – it’s a wonder musicians get any work done! We pride ourselves on our multitasking abilities, but balancing too many things at once can be disastrous. Musicians are innately multitaskers – adjusting pitch, remembering fingerings, checking posture, listening to accompaniment, and taking breaths are just a few things that go through our head when we play. Outside distractions can prevent an optimum performance if you let them, but preparing for these inevitable distractions can improve your mental focus and make you a better performer.
There is some debate as to whether musicians should avoid or embrace distractions. I’ve known clarinetists to practice with the TV on to become used to outside distractions (or possibly to keep up with the Kardashians?), while others remove all electronic devices from the rehearsal area to promote a focused space. There are benefits to each method: including distractions during your daily practice routine will eventually increase immunity to interruptions, while a distraction-free zone with promote concentration during preparation stages. I’ve mentioned several times that I try to keep my phone on silent when I practice, but even without technology, there’s always a trusty jackhammer, ambulance, motorcycle, or other “natural” phenomenon to decrease our mental focus. It is impossible to completely rid yourself of distractions, so here’s how to embrace them to become a stronger performer.
Always do complete run-throughs of whatever section, passage, or piece you are practicing. Do not stop for texts, phone calls, or any interruptions until you have finished the music. This will train your brain to block out anything unrelated to the music, making it easier to tune out slamming doors, shuffling feet, or continuous coughing during the actual performance. Audiences don’t care that someone came in late or that the air conditioning is a quarter tone off of your tuning pitch. They came to hear good music. They don’t even care if a butterfly lands on your face during the Carl Nielsen flute competition (this girl can write the book on concentration!).
Besides not stopping for distractions, don’t stop for mistakes either. No matter how big of a mistake you think you made, keep playing until you have completed your section, movement, or piece. I am a big advocate of practicing for performance, which means not stopping to correct every mistake that happens. We do not get the opportunity to correct mistakes on stage, so it is crucial to practice recovering mentally from errors. Performing music is a lot like driving a car – if you focus too much on what is behind you (mistakes), you will crash into what’s in front of you. Practice recovering quickly from mistakes so that you don’t create a snowball effect of more mistakes. You can always analyze your performance after you leave the stage.
Being a musician requires strong mental acuity. Audiences are tough, and critics are tougher (but we’re still the toughest of all, at least on ourselves!). In a perfect world, each practice session, rehearsal, and performance would flow smoothly, without any interruptions. Every session would not be abbreviated by iMessages, e-mails, or friends stopping by to gossip. Scales would not be punctuated with FaceBook, Twitter, or Instagram. Unfortunately, this is not a perfect world. Distractions will happen (and usually at the most inopportune times), but it is important to practice recovering from these breaks in concentration. This is not an excuse to practice while binge-watching Netflix, but using small distractions to improve your concentration will prepare you for the screaming babies and perpetual throat-clearers of musical audiences everywhere.
Happy (distracted) practicing!