Focus, part I

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This is the first of a series of posts where I will summarize the main ideas I get from Daniel Goleman’s book Focus.

The book is about developing full attention, which is very much related to one of the subjects that have become a central issue in my approach to practice. It has a lot to do with the concept of mindfulness, which is very trendy right now.

One of the things I like is the fact that this book is written from a scientific perspective since the author is professor of psychology at Harvard University. This means we can find a scientific explanation on how attention works and the way it operates on our brains.

In this first post, I will focus on the first chapter of the book, and my intention is to dedicate a post to each one of the other chapters; this way I can grab the main ideas and review them whenever I need, getting the most of the book. 

Of course, anyone is invited to read and share their thoughts on my interpretation of the book.

Anatomy of attention

The first thing we should know is that attention is a conscious act that requires energy. This is because we have to ignore distractions in order to be able to focus on something, and nowadays distractions are everywhere (this is a side effect of the growth of new technologies such as internet or smartphones). But not all distractions are easy to ignore; there are two kinds of distractions: emotional and sensorial

Sensorial distractions are easier to fight, but emotional distractions hold deep onto our brains. This has a reason: our brain is configured to pay attention to things that affect us, in order to solve them (this is a survival tactic). However, if we are not at risk, or if we cannot solve the problem that keeps our brain busy, we will spend our time speculating fruitlessly.

Another interesting concept mentioned in the book is the limited capacity of our attention to focus on chunks of information. It seems that the limit is around 7 +-2 chunks. I can imagine this has a direct effect on the way we practice, and I hope to come back to this in the future.

Ascending and descending attention

But the most important idea in this part of the book is the one that has to do with the two different kinds of attention: ascending and descending.

The former one is intuitive, fast, and carries out our routines. It runs in the background, selecting the things that it considers important for us and discarding the rest. It is linked to our emotions.

The descending attention, on the contrary, is voluntary and conscious. It is slower because is linked to a process of analysis, and requires more effort. It is the one that can keep our auto control when our emotions arise. 

The ascending attention is very useful for creative processes because it runs in many different places of our brain, linking information from different places. However, it can also catch all our attention triggered by stimuli that are close to our emotions. That can make us lose our control and react in an excessive way (it shoots up our adrenaline).

When we are talking about learning a difficult skill (like learning how to play an instrument) it is important to find the right balance between both kinds of attention. In the beginning, we will need to pay a lot of attention to all our movements. The goal is to fix them in our automatic mode, making a routine. This will liberate our attention (it will transfer from descending to ascending), and then we can use it to focus on new goals (for example, new nuances in what we are playing, or focus on what is happening on the stage in order to contribute to the music in a better way). 

This has a lot to do with flow, this state of mind where you are absorbed by the task, and focus your attention on it. In this case, the task is to play together, and you can focus on it because you don't have to focus on your individual playing since you have mastered it.

How to screw things up

When we have mastered (converted in a routine) a task or skill (a musical passage, a groove, a fill...), the best way to mess it up is by allowing our descending attention to come into play. As soon as we start analyzing things, our rational brain will interfere the process and our performance will suffer. 

So, if we are performing with a band, ensemble orchestra... we should rely on our skills, the ones we have mastered, and then focus on the music the is being played, not in an analytical way but paying our attention to the sounds, the feelings, the joy of play. That way we will create the context that will allow us to get into the zone (this last paragraph is a personal interpretation of the text, trying to apply it to music).

Then... Isn't the descending attention needed anymore? Well, actually it is very important since our ascending attention tends to get lost in negative thoughts whenever any emotional trigger appears. So, we need to be able to focus again on what we want (the performance) instead of any other problems (the fact to be playing at an audition, or that great musician you admire appearing among the audience, for example).

The ability to bring our attention back to our control is known as emotional resilience and can be trained.

Advantages of the ascending attention (our errant mind)

As we said, our ascending attention is the one involved with creative processes. We can use it in the practice room, then, in order to improve our creativity with the instrument. 

In order for it to be productive, we should look for a relaxed context, and have clear goals we want to achieve. Then, play with that goal in mind, but without thinking analytically about it. We should allow our brain to be free in order to activate different regions that will lead to an original solution. 

For this purpose, the best option seems to be as open as possible, playing freely, letting go. However, we need to be aware when we find something interesting: it is then when we need to put our descending attention to work, in order to internalize what we have played and make of it a part of our musical language.

Finding the balance

So we have talked about the two types of attention, and the need to find a balance between them. Our ascending attention can lead us to a labyrinth of negative thoughts if cannot find the way to control it. But how can we do that?

Well, the answer to that is to cultivate our open mind. This means to be able to notice what is happening around us without being trapped by emotions, but enjoying the moment. A good way to do it is to focus on our senses. This is one of the tools meditation uses to keep the focus of our mind when we notice it is starting to wander.

This ability is something we can train and is closely related to mindfulness that, as I said, is something I find very interesting despite the fact it has become a trendy word. I think we can take a lot of profit of this practice, and it is worth a try.


So far I have talked about the central elements Daniel discusses in the first chapter of his book. I have tried to link them to music practice and performance since this blog is aimed to improve it. However, as we can see, it applies to any aspect of our lives.

I encourage you to buy the book and read it. 

Goleman, D. (2013). Focus. Barcelona: Kairós Editorial

Picture credits: 

1. Piano with new camera by Chris Isherwood on (CreativeCommons license, certain rights reserved: CC BY-SA 2.0)
2. Focus by Dimitris Kalogeropoylos on (CreativeCommons license, certain rights reserved: CC BY-SA 2.0)

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