My mind’s distracted and diffused

My dad once asked me why I still make occasional mistakes on the piano, despite having played for so many years. Why indeed. Often it’s because the written music is quite complicated, and I can’t take in the notation quickly enough to find the correct keys. Or I misread a note, or fail to notice that it’s supposed to be sharped or flatted. Sometimes my fingers simply do not follow my brain’s commands. And then there are the distractions…

I fumble at the keyboard from distractions of all shapes and sizes. Some I create for myself, others arise from what’s going on around me.

How do I distract myself? I let my mind wander. I glance up and notice that a listener looks a little worn out today, and wonder if her arthritis is acting up again. I give in to temptation to eavesdrop when I hear a bit of intriguing conversation: And then she got mad and took off with his walker, so he was stuck there. Or an item from my to-do list pops into my head, or I have a thought about what I’m cooking for dinner. Once when I was playing music with friends I got distracted by the thought of bacon. Bacon. I’m not kidding.

I can slip up if I evaluate the quality of my playing when I’m in the middle of it. I might think, gee this is going well, only to lose the thread of a piece and grab the wrong chord or, worse, the wrong note in a melody line. Or maybe I notice that the audience seems bored, so I start rifling through a mental index of songs for one that will liven things up, instead of keeping my attention on the song I’m already playing.

I usually pay a price when I try to play and talk at the same time. (I know a professional jazz pianist who has trouble playing and talking at the same time, so I’m in good company here). This is a tricky distraction, since having a listener stop by the piano is, in general, a good thing. But if I’m to avert musical mishap, the person might need to wait until I’m between songs to talk to me.

It’s also hard to concentrate when…

  • An industrious woman from the housekeeping team dusts the piano while I’m playing it.
  • A man uses a commercial extraction carpet cleaner at the opposite end of the dining room where I’m performing.
  • I compete with kitchen staff stacking dirty dishes onto service carts and slinging used silverware into bussing tubs.
  • A cell phone rings in my audience and I hear, No, I’m not busy, I can talk. I’m just listening to somebody play the piano.

So many ways to get derailed. I’ve found good tips for staying focused in a book titled The Inner Game of Music, by bass player Barry Green, in collaboration with W. Timothy Gallwey, who wrote The Inner Game of Tennis in the 1970s. Together they apply the “inner game” techniques to learning and performing music, explaining how to overcome distractions both internal (they call that “self-interference”) and external. All with one goal: being in the zone. Where mistakes are few and far between.

Copyright © 2014 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
All rights reserved.

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3 Responses to My mind’s distracted and diffused

  1. Liz says:

    One of the biggest distractions I ever witnessed was at a performance by the Kansas City Philharmonic at the University of Kansas back in the late 70s. They played a matinee on a warm afternoon at the old Hoch Auditorium, a building since then struck by lightening, burned down, and rebuilt. It didn’t have air conditioning so the doors on the orchestra level were opened on both sides. In the middle of the first movement of a symphony, a golden retriever walked in through the cello section, sticking his nose right in their hands as they were bowing. You can imagine the growing murmurs in the audience and the difficulties faced by the cellists who were not able to keep playing. The conductor didn’t know what was happening for quite awhile and was looking around to see what the audience was buzzing about. Finally he waved the orchestra to a halt with a swoop and turned to be greeted by the dog. The audience roared. The dog was escorted out, the doors shut, and the conductor announced, “You’ve heard the exposition, now the development” and resumed the concert. It was a satisfying and memorable performance. I don’t remember what they played, but I remember the look on the musicians’ faces.

    • What a great story, Liz — and well told! It reminded me of a piano/cello concert I attended a few years ago in a Madison church. A bat showed up and started circling above the heads of the musicians, then homed in on the cellist, dive bombing him repeatedly. He tried to carry on, swerving as the bat came after him, but eventually it was just too much. The audience was completely distracted, of course. A woman came forward and managed to catch the bat using a big winter coat, then deposited it in a room off to the side of the church. The concert continued, but I always wondered what happened when the door to that room was opened later…

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