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Finding Focus

An important question facing musicians both in the practice room and on stage is “What should I focus on?” There is a great deal of research in the fields of movement sciences and sports that suggests that adopting an external focus of attention – focusing on the intended effects of one’s movements – can be beneficial both for learning and for performance of complex motor skills. There has been very little research done on the effects of external focus on musicians. The aims of this study on external focus were as follows: to translate the idea of external focus from movement science into the field of music (how can external focus be characterized for music-making?); to design several ways to use, test and explore the application of external focus in field situations; and to collect data and find information to elucidate the effects of external focus and the instances in which it can work for musicians. A series of three empirical projects were designed and carried out in both semi-controlled as well as natural environments. The mixed methods research approach included both quantitative and qualitative elements. A music-pedagogical practice tool based on external focus was designed and used in all three projects. The first project involved natural trumpet players (n=7) who practiced fragments of repertoire using an external focus practice tool. Results were compared the their ‘usual’ practice methods. Quantitative data was collected to show the effects of external focus on accuracy, self-efficacy, confidence and motivation of the players. In the second project the same seven players participated in the preparation and performance of a chamber music concert for trumpet consort. The third project involved a chamber ensemble of 18 players including string players, trumpeters and keyboard players. In projects two and three the performances were prepared and rehearsed by using tools and techniques based on external focus. Qualitative data was collected from questionnaires, surveys and interviews. Results from the three projects tentatively supported the overall hypothesis: External focus is beneficial to musicians’ learning and performance experience. Statistical results showed positive effects of external focus on accuracy and suggest a positive trend for confidence and for self-efficacy in performance. Qualitative data from interviews and surveys over the three interventions showed the performers’ ensemble playing was enhanced by using an external focus approach, and that they suffered much less from performance anxiety than usual. External focus could play a larger role in music pedagogy for musicians at every level and stage of learning. The kind of procedural implicit learning that results from using tools based on external focus means that technique (motor control) is being informed by musical intention and not the other way around.

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