On My Mind: Concentration
This is one of a series of articles on teaching I originally wrote for the Suffolk Piano Teachers Foundation Newsletter, in a column called "On My Mind".
Concentration has been on my mind this season. A few of my students, all motivated, talented, and intelligent, were experiencing even simple challenges as major hurdles, and it wasn't because they didn't understand or practice their assignments. I was worried because not only were they not progressing according to their potential, I was also certain that practicing and playing piano was not a joyful experience for them.
I began to realize that what these students shared was a particularly tense and hard-focused form of concentration. They were so serious about their playing and practicing that they were literally trying too hard. They had a working attitude that even showed itself in the form of tight facial muscles, clenched jaws, arched backs, and chins that pulled the neck out of alignment. How could I help them to work well without working so hard?
The Tibetan Buddhist form of sitting meditation is practice of pure concentration on the exhalation, of being fully present with the breath. Yet the nun Pema Chödrön, in describing it, says, "The touch on the breath is very light. Only about 25% of awareness is on the breath." Sports psychologist and performance coach Don Greene describes concentration as the focus of a quiet mind, a "still pond." He quotes baseball player Branch Rickey as saying, "a full head is like an empty baseball bat." Concentration, then, according to these experts, is a light, clear-headed focus.
I shared these ideas with my students, trying to help them move into an easier working space. "Do you remember most of the plots of movies you see?" ("Yes!) "Do you focus on movies as intensely as you focused on that piece just now?" ("Oh, my goodness, I'd never enjoy movies if I worked that hard on them!"). Watching a friend escape from painful surgeries and chemotherapy when she does beading, I had the idea of asking one student if she does any crafts. "Knitting! I love knitting! It's so relaxing!" "Is this the state of mind you're in when you're knitting?' "No way! I would never knit then!" Talking with them, I realized how deep their commitment to the piano must be, since they pursued it in spite of making it so terribly difficult.
So far the journey has been fruitful. One girl overcame the Level 5 hurdle by getting into the knitting frame of mind. One woman learned three times as much music in two months as she learned all last year, by lightening up during her practice. One young man successfully prepared his senior recital by trying to enjoy every moment of practice.
Best of all, every one of these students is enjoying playing more! After the lesson in which we turned the corner from hard work to gentle concentration, one of them wrote to me in an email, "Thanks again for Tuesday. I had fun!"
I am interested in your thoughts on this subject! I invite you to share them with me.
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