The Tools of Attention

Angel (1494) by Michelangelo on the Shrine of Saint Dominic, Basilica of Saint Dominic, Bologna, Italy - Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

“I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” – Michelangelo

This is an excerpt from the ebook, “Midnight Arpeggios”.

Did you ever notice how right everything seems when you are busy doing something you love to do? At those times it doesn’t matter how much money, power or status you have, how well liked you are by your peers or how good a job your boss thinks you’re doing. In a word you are happy. It’s not a stretch to say that happiness is what most people are after most of the time.

For musicians these are the times that you feel like you are in the groove, the zone, you got your mojo, or are “in the pocket”. It is the same for writers, architects, athletes, computer programmers or for anyone at all doing any activity they really enjoy. These are the things we call fun that, if we are lucky, we also get to call work.

For many of us, these times are too few and far between and we end up depressed and angry that we have to spend so much of our waking hours doing something we find no joy in. But by controlling what our mind chooses to focus on, we can turn any activity into one that challenges us in a way that makes it fun and rewarding.

This is the subject of the recent book “Flow” by Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who describes how learning to control our conscious thoughts determines our overall happiness to a greater extent than does money, affluence, fame or fortune. He points out that although this has been recognized for a long time (or at least since Aristotle) things haven’t gotten much easier.

“Control over consciousness is not simply a cognitive skill. At least as much as intelligence, it requires the commitment of emotions and will. It is not enough to know how to do it; one must do it. Consistently in the same way as athletes or musicians who must keep practicing what they know in theory. And this is never easy. Progress is relatively fast in fields that apply knowledge to the material world, such as physics or genetics. But it is painfully slow when knowledge is to be applied to modify our own habits and desires.” – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

I’m only about half way through the book but it inspired this post because the theme of the book is so central to what musicians face in the every day struggle to progress and improve our proficiency.

When you think about it, attention is a series of choices. It is making a connection between one thought and the next – or not. It is how we create our experience of the world around us and within us. It is why this happens instead of that. It is why “Moonlight Sonata” is more than Beethoven’s ephemeral thoughts in a garden at midnight two hundred years ago or why there are cars and computers and telephones in the world.

“What this power is I cannot say; all I know is that it exists and it becomes available only when a man is in that state of mind in which he knows exactly what he wants and is fully determined not to quit until he finds it.” – Alexander Graham Bell

Alexander Graham Bell - Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

It is fascinating how the mind can filter so many options. In each and every moment the mind is tasked with choosing from an infinite array of thoughts, observations, emotions or activities. In a single, brief moment it may be the birds chirping outside our window, our inner voice urging us to practice, the bosses demands for that report, a family member telling a story, a newscaster on TV, the book in our lap, the dog begging to be let outside, the wilting plants silently crying out for water, the neighbors stereo system blaring, we are continually immersed in a world calling out for our attention.

To maintain our sanity we prioritize these stimuli by focusing on each for a while and moving on to the next thing. In this spastic digital age, many people pride themselves on the ability to multitask and handle several things with equal attention. The jury may still out on how effective or healthy too much multitasking is, but multitasking at the most basic level is a skill everyone needs just to survive.

Narrowing the Focus

If we are to accomplish anything in life, we know we should focus mainly on one thing; if for no other reason than to have an answer when someone asks “what did you do today”. So we eventually choose to focus our primary attention on something and then assign it top priority in our conscious awareness.

If you are a musician this means you will decide to practice, so you tune out the birds, put the book away, shut off the TV, continue listening to our family member’s story, go let the dog out, water the plants, ask the neighbor to turn down their stereo and hopefully remember that the reason for all this was so that you could focus on practicing.

But what happens once you have finally managed to clear you calendar and your head and focus your attention on your practicing?

Now you simply face a new and different level of choices. You pick up your guitar and the mind starts creating a whole new set of choices and challenges for you to deal with: which song, which part, the anticipation, the doubts, hopes, fears, the bark that informs you that you forgot to let the dog back in!

The process of narrowing the focus continues until you are finally practicing and nothing else exists in the world except the desire to execute that song, that part, those measures, those notes, this note, this way…

The key to succeeding at anything is to focus attention on it for a long enough time that you manage to create something. Whoever masters this game wins (or at least accomplishes or learns something tangible once in a while and is happier for it). There are many possible names for this game. We are all familiar with the phrases: “pay attention, concentrate, stay focused, be aware.” These are all thoughts that encourage us to prioritize and narrow the focus of our consciousness until we get some resulting understanding or ability from our efforts.

It seems kind of simple really. Attention is a game we play or a sport we practice, or a dance we do with the universe. The random, disconnected, external, everyday chaos of the world is on one team and the patient, connected, ordered, logical, focused reason is on the other team.

Like a sculptor who attends to a slab of rock and attempts to “remove the parts that do not look like a horse”, a musician, using the tools of attention, pays attention to sounds being made in time and “removes the parts that don’t sound like music.”


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