Is Lack of Focus All that Stands Between You and Consistently Great Performances?

Have you ever had a gig where you found it easy to lose yourself in the music? Maybe it was just a short section of one tune. Concentration was effortless. External distractions faded into the background. Self-criticism and self-doubt were strangely absent as your focus was entirely on the music.

How did you feel that performance went? How much did you enjoy it?

Chances are that your answers are very positive in both cases.


This is the power of focus

When ​you get it right like this, playing music becomes easier.

It becomes more enjoyable.

I'm not talking about trying really hard to concentrate. That’s often going to actively hold ​you back.

What you’re after is a more relaxed concentration.

You’re interested enough in what your focusing on that it would almost take more effort to move your focus onto something else than to keep it where it is.

Focus is one of the most powerful tools in your arsenal

Deployed skilfully, it can ensure that your mind gets all the most important real-time information it needs for a high-level performance. And it can simultaneously help you stay away from thoughts that will compromise your performance.

On the positive side, you might pay attention to movements of your fingers and the pressure they exert. It might be really hearing the exact sound you’re producing. It might be really listening to what other musicians are playing.

Depending on the musical situation, any of those things might be the feedback your mind needs in order to fine tune your performance to perfection.

When you’re really locked in on that ideal point of focus, whatever it is, your subconscious will be using the information in an ongoing feedback loop to keep you on track and refine the details of your performance.

There’s more.

When you’ve given your mind something specific to focus on it’s extremely good at ignoring everything else. It’s rapidly sifting through all the incoming information and ideas and filtering things out which don’t fit the required description.

Since this happens below your level of consciousness, it means that distractions and annoyances no longer get a look in.

You won’t even be aware that you heard or saw the things that your subconscious mind has filtered out in this way.

Worries about what’s just happened or what’s yet to come don’t intrude.

Unhelpful thoughts and self-criticism quieten down.

If you can pick a good target for your focus and learn to keep it there, then you can tap into the “deep now”.

So not only does focus give you all the individual benefits mentioned above. It also gives you a chance of getting into the zone.

Of being in flow.

What are the key components for “good” focus?

1) You only want one or two things that you’re focusing on. 

Trying to keep track of all the little technical details that come together to produce a great performance won’t help. That spreads your attention too thinly. Or it leaves you constantly jumping between different focus points.

You need to decide what the most important thing for you to focus on is and then be willing to let the other things go.

Trust that they’ll look after themselves.

2) Pick something positive rather than negative to focus on. 

Concentrate on what it is that you want to happen rather than on what you’re trying to avoid.

There are several reasons why this is important, but it’s enough to say for now that if your focus is on something “bad” then you’re actively inviting that concept into your mind rather than using the opportunity of strong focus to exclude unhelpful thoughts.

It doesn’t even have to be actively positive. Often you’ll find that objectively observing something relevant is a great option without any particular need to actively desire a particular result. Just observing is frequently enough that the desired corrections happen naturally.

3) Make sure it’s relevant.

Losing yourself in gazing at something out in the audience might successfully help you drown out any negative thoughts.

But it’s not going to provide the same amount of useful feedback that you’d get from watching one of the other musicians intensely.

How to pick YOUR point of focus

There’s no one “correct” answer to the ideal point of focus.

Your instrument, the genre, and the particular piece of music you’re playing are all going to come into it.

Everyone is different, so your personal preferences will play a big part too.

Start, though, by thinking about the key components we’ve just gone through.

If you were only allowed to pick one thing to focus on in order to give a great performance, what would be most useful?

How do you express that in a positive way?

Where exactly does your attention need to be to monitor that? And is the key sense physical feeling, sight, or hearing?

Ultimately, though, you’re going to need to experiment and see what works. Theory is a useful starting point, but results are the only true test of the best option.

If possible, find something that you find inherently fascinating to observe.

When you pick something like this, it will take almost no effort to keep your attention there. This gives you a much better chance of sustaining your focus over an extended period. It’s also much easier to achieve the state of relaxed concentration this way than if you’re having to “force” your attention onto something.

If it’s working, don’t change it

One potential pitfall that I sometimes see people fall into is that they lose focus once things start working well.

If they’ve chosen their focus point well and successfully kept their attention there, then the music tends to go really well. At this point, there’s a temptation to break off from your point of focus and transfer your attention to enjoying how well you’re playing. Or potentially, to put actual effort into making a good thing even better.

Be aware if you notice that happening.

Acknowledge it, but don’t give into it.

Just keep your attention resting softly where it is.

Moving forward

Next time you’re working on performing a piece, identify a good point of focus.

Experiment with putting your attention there and gently letting everything else fade into the background.

The ability to focus on one thing, and the ability to maintain your concentration are skills. The more you practice them, the stronger they’ll get.

Let me know how you get on in the comments section below.

Oh and before I go

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  • This is so analogous to a golf swing. There are about 57 swing thoughts when making a golf swing, but there is really only one thing you can focus on at a time.

    • Very true. I don’t play golf, but I’m very conscious of this when I play tennis (and I imagine it’s the same). One of the interesting things for me is that you not only need to keep your focus to a very small number of things when practising (and be willing to let the rest of the technical details go for a moment) – you also want to pick a different “one thing” to focus on when performing. Typically something that’s much more about the big picture and your overall intention than a small detail.

      • I think part of the process is learning to put the mechanics into “auto-pilot” mode, while directing your attention and focusing on the music itself…

        • Absolutely.

          You need to really focus on the details in order to learn the mechanics in the first place, though, and this can become a habit. The tricky bit is often in getting comfortable moving your focus elsewhere once you’ve done enough.

  • I enjoyed reading that article. It shows me how other people like you Mark, think inside themselves. What are their opinions. I usually focus on solutionism the more i can. If this can help someone…I believe it’s the most important reason to live for…Nice day / life .
    Keep away from the covid…The end is near…

  • As someone with ADHD, focus is an issue I continually struggle with. On the one hand there are those moments where the one thing you are obsessing on blots out everything else. On the other hand, if you’re not in that state, it’s so easy to become distracted.

    For me, controlling the environment is key – creating an environment free of distractors.

    I do know that music helps me function with ADHD, of that there is no doubt.

  • “One potential pitfall that I sometimes see people fall into is that they lose focus once things start working well.” – So true! I guess, just that happened to me yesterday. I was recording one of my practice pieces, and concentrated mostly on how I could hold the melody “sing” throughout the piece. Managed in that task quite good – but the piece was ABA- form, and when the D.C al Fine came, I let that thought “well, now it was quite good” come into my mind, and started the A with unexpected and really silly mistake, started it with wrong note & chord :0

  • I guess I have been lucky in that I have always naturally focused on the overall sound the band is producing rather than my individual instrument, but I have frequently lacked belief in my own playing ability, while in a contradictory fashion felt it did contribute to the overall package.

  • My focus when playing the flute is listening to my tone. It makes the difference between just playing the notes and making them sing

  • You should write a book about all that you’ve said so it reaches more people. Your information is invaluable.

    • Thanks so much, Ethan! I’m definitely keen to write a book at some point. Not sure yet what the exact topic or angle would be, though. I want to end up with something that’s more than just a huge dump of information (even if it’s very good information).

  • PS. I forgot about the e-book you already have written. But I think a longer book is something you should consider.

  • Thank you Mark for such a wise and important aspect of playing music well.
    I have been told that the band is not a democracy (in jazz).. in this case meaning that the bassplayer is all dominant and holds the main responsibility of keeping the ‘Form’ – my biggest stumbling block in an otherwise successful career as a bassist..

  • A part of what you presented here has provided for a perfect driving record in 40 years of driving. I referred to it as a relaxed alertness rather than focus but really one goes with the other. If you are pushing too fast it is more likely you will encounter errors in distracting yourself.

  • Absolutely. Focus is the key, at least for me. Sometimes I think my practice sessions are focus sessions. A teacher once told me his technique for not getting nervous on stage (as a trumpet player) was to focus deeply on the current soloist, while watching the chord changes play through his head with a bouncing ball over the current change, just like in a singalong.

  • LOVE your articles Mark! Remarkably insightful reminders that help us along this journey of life and learning!

  • All the lessons Mark presents in his “Play in the Zone” program, videos and articles are fabulous and so well thought out. My practice and performance has significantly intensified from the time I started this program 9 months ago. What a great investment this has been for me.

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