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Robert Dick | February 2017

Question: While practicing, my mind wanders to other things. How can I stay focused?

Answer: Who hasn’t had the practicing experience of an extended daydream with flute scales in the background? We all know that this is exactly what should not happen, and yet it does. Getting mad at yourself and trying to maintain concentration through sheer self-discipline is basically futile.  You end up thinking more about why you are not concentrating than actually concentrating. The good news is that this is a skill like any other and can be learned and practiced.

What distracts us?
    It is important to differentiate between serious problems and everyday stuff. Most of what we think about when practicing is not all that urgent and can wait until we are finished. School assignments will be there waiting when you are done practicing. Laundry will be content to wait in the hamper. Most things don’t need doing now.
    However, sometimes there may be something so important that it is just not possible to stop thinking about it. When this occurs, it makes much more sense to put the flute away and deal with the problem first.

    Whether in practice or performance, distraction is characterized by lots of inner chit chat. We know this is not helpful but can’t tell ourselves to stop saying words without using more words. We can’t tell ourselves to not think about something without thinking about it. My favorite example is to ask students to not think about a zebra and please do not visualize any stripes. Of course, a herd of zebras marches right through their minds. The upshot is that any strategy you take, based on the negative, will fail. Thinking Don’t! Stop! or Not now! are guaranteed not to work and in fact will make the distraction worse. 
    A more positive alternative is to put the voice in your head singing the music as you play. Whether it is the most ordinary scale or a great piece of art, if you are singing in your mind, you will be playing more musically and will stay focused. 
    Concentration, like any other skill, takes practice. When you first start  this mental singing, you are likely to tire quickly and slip into the old habit of mind wandering. As soon as you realize this has happened, take a short break for several minutes and then start again. At first you may find that after two or three restarts you just cannot keep singing inside. Don’t worry; mental endurance grows quickly when you practice concentrating through singing daily.

The Power of Singing
    This practice not only improves concentration but will also help develop your flute tone. Singing teaches the sound of your musical voice better than anything else. Both singing out loud and in your mind as you play are direct pathways to beautiful, individual tone colors. Teachers often advise students to sing, and the best way to begin is with mentally singing simple scales and then to vocalize gently.
    Flutists who do this daily will find that boredom and mental wandering during practice will simply go away, and that concentration when under pressure in concerts, competitions, and in auditions will dramatically improve.