Focus, part I

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)

Developing a system of practice

A system is a complex whole whose components are related between them. When it comes to practicing music there are many things we work on in order to improve our skills. So we have different components that are related and share a common goal: our growth as musicians.

It is easy then to draw a parallelism between complex systems and our practice. During the last year and a half, I have been trying to figure out how to create a good system for my practice. I had an abstract idea of what I was looking for, but I couldn't find the way to make something real of it. Nevertheless lately I have experienced a boost in my motivation towards this goal. It was after spending a really good time with the great drummer Kendrick Scott.

Kendrick has a really strong system about the way he conceives music and drumming, and how he relates it to his life, and the goals he pursues. That gave me new insights about this topic since I found some important things I was missing in the practice system I was trying to create.

Different elements, different areas

One of the things I liked most about Kendrick's approach to music is the way he includes different elements beyond exercises. Although exercises are an important part of the control of the instrument, they are subject to the main goal of a mission that comprehends everything else. So technique and exercises are one of the four big areas in Kendrick's system.

That made me realize I have to include these elements if I really want to create a tight practice system. In this sense, I have to relate it to the way I conceive music in general, the reason why I play, and the ultimate goal I pursue. This will give coherence to the system, allowing it to be flexible and to adapt to each situation I live.

Creating a musical system vs. creating a practicing system

My new goal, then, is to articulate my conception of music in a system that includes practicing as a part of it. This approach is more organic and makes a lot more of sense. Practicing becomes then an integral part of my musical mission, not a separate add-on. My musical conception will dictate my practice in a more clear way. Practicing has now a sense inside the system. It is not to get better just because, but improving the skills I need to make effective my concept about music. And my concept is related with the primary goal I pursue through music, with this necessity to express myself by means of sound.

So the goal is not to create a practicing system, something that I already have and that helps me in my everyday routines. The goal is to include this practicing system (or subsystem) in a wider musical system that gives it coherence and sense.

Taking the time

Creating this personal approach to music is something that won't be made in short time. However, I think that as soon as you start thinking about it, your relation with practicing changes for better. For me, this is what has happened. I guess this is something that all of us do in some way. However, investing some time to really and thoroughly thinking about it, can bring great benefits. After all, this is precisely what I am doing with my practice: externalizing my thoughts and making them be real through written words. 

Thank you for reading.


Recently I had the opportunity to talk with a great musician and mental trainer, Michael Gustorff, in Arnhem. I knew of him thanks to his book Practising without problems (Music Design, 2004). 

When I went to see him, I was thinking on talking about practice strategies. What I found was far more interesting for me: a new approach to practicing, to music, and to life as a whole.

Practicing from fear

Gustorff system is based in changing your attitude towards music. It is usual for us musicians to think about difficult passages, wrong notes, good and wrong playing, tough pieces... We have programmed our minds to think in that terms. So we have set a framework based on fears and anxiety. Just the fact of thinking in something as difficult makes our brain to put unconscious barriers to our development. 

We can develop a different attitude if we change these words for other ones. We can think in interesting pieces, challenging passages, and so on. In fact, it is all a matter of getting used to something. It isn't difficult to us to speak in our own language. It isn't either to walk, run, jump... even writing or typewriting, what in fact is an advanced skill.

We are able to do a lot of things without fear of failing, or fear of not making the expectations. Do we think we are not going to be able to have a conversation in our own language, due to a lack of skill? Do we face it with fear? Of course not. We know we can do it, it is easy for us. We are used to it.

It can be the same with music. Once you learn to play a passage, a song, rhythm, or whatever, it becomes easy for you. The problem can rise if we tag it as difficult, hard, tough, impossible... then our brain limits its own capacities, affecting our body and our learning process.

Learning a new way

Then, how can we change our mind? what is the alternative? The answer is simple, by starting towork in a different way. This doesn't mean necessarily to change the exercises we are practicing: the most important thing is to change our attitude. We have to forget about the high expectations we put in ourselves, and approach practicing as a exciting activity. Actually it is: when we practice we are investigating, going deep into Music. We are also discovering new things about ourselves. If we put apart the expectations, we can focus on the excitement of learning new things, opening our mind to what it is happening. We get in touch with the moment, and we can be aware of all what it involves: the sound, the room, the feel of our body in relation with our instrument, our breath. We can then flow with the muic, instead of fight to control it.

There are some things we can do to facilitate this state of mind. To invest 3-5 minutes to meditate, just focusing on our breath, can help us to put aside these expectations we have, and set our mind in the open state that I have mentioned.

But, does it really work?

I guess most of us have experienced how a small change in our approach to a given exercise or passage has brought a noticeable improvement in our playing. Thie same principles apply here. Everyone of us is different, and maybe there are people who don't want to give a chance to this kind of approach. I just can say that for me it is working really well. I am enjoying my practice time more than ever, and I am not anxious anymore. Before I was always thinking I didn't practice enough, and there is too much to cover. I wasn't living the everyday improvements I experience, because I was looking at the future. Now I enjoy every moment, and I dig deeper in every exercise. Minduflness gives meaning to my practice. And I've just begun to approach this way. I am eager to see what comes next!

I hope you can get something valuable from my experience.

Thanks for reading!

All images in this post are taken from

Setting goals... and creating an action plan

One of the things I have ever heard is the advantage of setting goals. This is something what I believe in, however I have realized I have not done it properly.

During my practice I usually work in some areas I want to develop. I design or take exercises to practice and to improve. Usually I keep track of my improvements. This has created in my mind the illusion that I have clear, defined goals. But it is not true. The thing is: I have wide, vague goals that guide my practice, but very few times I have set focused targets in my routine.

As a result of my reflective process in my own practicing, I have realized this fact. So I have decided to change it. Now, in my notes I usually set goals when I am working on a new exercise. These goals are clear, and specific: play a passage at a certain tempo, develop endurance keeping an exercise for X minutes, transcribe a solo in X days (being able to play it by hart)...

It seems I have taken the first step into the right direction... However, I have noticed that it is not enough. While I was revising my writings (my thoughts), and my practice journal, I have realized that there are some goals that remain written down, but I am not working towards them.

I am thinking about bring productivity strategies to my practice, but meanwhile I have to take action in these kind of issues. 

So, what can be the reason why I am not properly working on my goals?

The answer is simple. I have realized that, while I have set clear goals, I haven't set a so clear action plan, nor implemented it in my practice routine. So I know I have to work in a specific direction, but I don't have a clear route map. This means I am approaching my goal, but not as fast as I could.

This makes me think about the difficulty to stablish a routine... and the difficulty to change it! When I go to practice I stick to my usual exercises, and leave a few time to work in these new goals. I need to have a clear plan, and I have thought that the best tool for it is to write it down, so I can check it when preparing my next practice session, or just before start practicing. I need to know clearly what I am going to work on, and why.

There is also important not to try to do more things than I can. If I am working in one exercise for a long period of time, that means I am not able to work in too many exercises. So, there are some goals I have to pospone. I am thinking also in working alternating goals, something similar to alternating muscular groups when you go to a gym.

I think I can group my goals according to their characteristics, so I can play with these groups as I achieve some of the goals. This will be related with the productivity strategies I talked about...

I hope my own experience can help you if you are having the same kind of difficulties.

Thanks for visiting!

All images in this post are taken from:

The importance of knowing yourself

It has been some time since I started with this research into how to improve practice. I've realized many things so far, and I am happy I can share my findings and thoughts with you.

One of my main concerns in regarding my practice is setting a regular schedule. I know there are many ways to approach practicing; for me, I think some kind of practicing routine is beneficial. It helps me focus my attention, knowing what to practice and setting goals. It is easier to keep track of my work and development. In the end, when I am able to stick to a regular practice routine, I can say that I get overall benefit since I feel balanced. The reason is I truly believe I am in a right path to improvement.

However, setting a basic routine is not as simple as it seems. I guess many musicians can agree with this point. It gets more difficult as time goes by, and you find yourself dealing with a lot of things that demand your valuable time: work, studies, family, housekeeping...  Even worse, since you want to find time to practice, but you aren't able to do it, this situation can generate a lot of frustration.

I have been experiencing this situation lately, and then a question comes to my mind: how can I find a solution that allows me to practice in a regular way? Is that possible?

The key for me: to be realistic

Well, to be honest, I think it is possible to deal with all these matters. However you have to be realistic, and begin with knowing yourself. This takes time, and you have to be committed to be honest. For me it has been possible through a trial/error process. Usually, I have a lot of plans for my practice. However, there are also a lot of things to do apart from practicing. The result used to be that I was postponing my practice until it was too late. Or maybe I planned to wake up early, but the night before I went to bed too late, so when my alarm sounded I wasn't able to get up.

I was falling in the same error again and again, until I decided to stop acting and to reflect on why I wasn't able to stick to the practice routine I had in my head. The answer was easy: I wasn't being realistic. So, instead of thinking a plan out of the blue I decided to take seriously my habits and make my practicing plan with this information in my head.

This does not mean to put my practicing in a second place, but to know the things I will have to change in order to carry on my planning. So, if I have to wake up early next morning, I won't stay awake until late in the night. Otherwise the best thing is to think of another moment to go to the practice room. The same if I know that I have some other obligation like do the shopping: for me, it's better to think it will take me a lot of time, so I set my practice time according to that. Or maybe I change my practice plan so that I can buy relaxed, not thinking I am losing valuable practice time.

It is also important to know what time of the day you are most productive, and try to set the practice sessions on these hours. But again, being realistic and not thinking in how you would like to be, but in how you know you are.

For me, it has been helpful to try to approach my practice schedule weekly, and with some flexibility. So I know the things I will have to do this week, and how to set or adapt my practice time to take the most of it.

Since I plan my time from the knowledge of myself and my reality, there is no reason to get anxious or frustrated because I am not able to stick to a plan that I cannot accomplish.

Further Reading

If you feel identified in some way, I recommend you to have a look to this article by Dr. Noa Kageyama, which actually was what made me think about being honest to myself:

Thanks for your visit!

Image by Alexandra Person under a Creative Commons license (cc by-nc-sa 2.0)

The Journey Begins...

My name is Rodrigo, and I am a drummer from Spain.  As a professional musician I have always been interested in practicing processes, and how to improve them. After reading a lot of articles and interesting books, I have decided to go deeper into this subject. This is the reason why I am currently studying a Master of Music in Groningen, The Netherlands. 
My focus is set on practicing processes. Actually, it is related to my own practice process. I know that currently there are many research reports that deal with the 'how to practice' issue. However, for me they are too 'external'. They talk about techniques and approaches that are very interesting. But it is not easy to implement them in your own practicing process.
Everyone of us is an independent being who has an individual context. If we want to develop quality in our practicing process, I agree with the idea that we have to look for an intelligent, efficient approach, a good way of invest our time in the 'practice room'. However, we have to know our real situation, where we are, our everyday context, and from there we have to try to find the best way to incorpore the best strategies into our practice.
For me there are two reasons to look for a new approach to practicing. On the one hand, life gets complicated as you grow older, so you have to take the most of your practice time. On the other hand, Art (and Music is an Art) is a discipline that transforms you. It is about communicating, and the more deep are the ideas you want to express, the more command of your expressive tools you have to develop. For me it implies a new approach to practice focused on nuances, subtleties, details.
So, here I am, carrying out this search into myself. I have to find exactly in which point I am right now, how my context and my life affect my practice. This is the way I can begin this process into a new way of practicing.
You are welcome to join this journey.
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