Distractions are the best way to be bad.
If you want to practice scales sloppily, pull up Facebook on your laptop and Twitter on your phone. Between every rep, check both.
If you want to take a really long time memorizing a tune, than do your homework while you listen to it.
If you want to fail an audition, leave all your responsibilities until the last minute so that you’re very stressed and thinking about everything else you have to do instead of the music in front of you.
And that’s the key right there; never focus on the music in front of you. This is a high priority if you want to be bad and never get better.
Also, stay up late, preferably drinking. Eat lots of sugary foods so that you have almost no energy.
Don’t pay attention to dynamics, articulation, or style. If you want to be bad, just get most of the notes, most of the rhythms, and call it a day.
Play everything at full speed from the get-go. If you miss a note, just play the whole piece over again. If you slow things down and work on small chunks, you might get better. Don’t forget to post a photo to Instagram. You could also start thinking about when you will have time to catch up on the reading you have to do for history class.
Now let’s get serious. I believe that focus is the most important aspect of any practice session. More important than duration, even. I remember in high school I played “Donna Lee’ every day for months. Every day I would play it faster and I would stop working on smaller chunks because I was bored. It was exciting to play it fast. And I never really got it down because I never focused on the little things.
Revisiting it last year, it took me less than 10 minutes. Sure, I’m a better player now, but I also paid attention to the few parts that gave me trouble, fixed them by practicing slowly, and got it down in no time.
Focus is a diffictult thing to optimize. The way to do it is to eliminate every thought that isn’t concentrated on improving the problems you notice in your playing. As I referenced above, those thoughts are commonly other responsibilities, your physical health, or your social plans.
You can make a plan for how to hit every item on your to-do list, but that only solves part of the problem. You can eat well, exercise, sleep well, so that you’re not hungry or feeling tired during practice. But again, that’s only a fraction of the whole issue.
No matter how well I take care of the rest of my life, I found that any thought could appear in my mind and distract me. Especially things outside of my control, such as illness in the family, financial stress, or regrets. The solution I found was to strengthen my fundamental mental discipline.
The method? Mindfulness meditation. This is a form of meditation that does not come bundled with supernatural/religious beliefs of any form; devoid of opinion or judgment. It has been tried and tested in Chicago public schools and among athletes, authors, U.S. Congressmen, and it’s part of nearly every yoga studio.
In a nutshell, most mindfulness meditation begins with paying attention to the breath, then expanding your awareness to sensations you may be feeling right now (the feel of the chair you’re on, the temperature, etc.). The best way to practice this is to find a guided track on Youtube. It took me a while to find the right track for me, and it also took a long time to be able to meditate effectively on my own for even a short time. The brain loves to think about every little problem in your life because it’s designed to be on the lookout for danger. It’s hard to shut this part of the brain off, but well worth the time.
The benefits are numerous, from gaining control over the stress you may feel in daily life, to paying attention in class, to focusing in the practice room.
I’ve found that the best time to use this technique is right before I begin playing. Often I’m coming from a class, meaning I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about an entirely different topic; and if I’m not coming from class I’m still likely to be distracted by a million other thoughts. Taking just three minutes to breathe and settle down lays the groundwork for a full hour of focused practice.
I know not everyone will begin mediating because of this post, and even for those who do, they might not see results instantly (although I believe you will see small results instantly). Still, the idea of disciplining the mind during practice can be applied in whatever way you choose. In a world where thousands of musicians are practicing as much or more than you, one of the few ways to distinguish yourself is through the quality of your practice. And one of the best ways to do improve the quality of your practice is to focus the mind.