For several summers in a row during college and just after, I was a student at the International Festival Institute in Round Top, Texas. During my time at Round Top, several of the faculty sat in with the student orchestra, including the concertmaster. Her standards were high and she was unabashed in insisting on them. For example, she would turn around in soft passages to make sure all the violins were in exactly the same part of the bow and yell, “AT THE POINT” at any stragglers. Playing in her section was somewhat traumatizing but also rewarding—by the end of the summer we sounded great, and we knew that her ferocity was one reason why.
The violin sections rotated seating, and for one concert cycle I found myself sitting next to her. There was a private drama to sharing a stand with her. She would whisper heated instructions to me during rehearsals: Count! Don’t rush! I remember one moment in particular. We were in the midst of a passage—the whole orchestra playing around us—and she hissed at me, “Who are we playing with?” I was confused. Who are we playing with? The Round Top Festival Orchestra? I didn’t say anything. “Who are we playing we?” she asked again. We were still playing. I looked blankly at her. “WHO ARE WE PLAYING WITH?” I found it difficult to play and talk at the same time. So I just shook my head. “THE BASSOONS!” She was definitely no longer whispering. “WE’RE PLAYING WITH THE %$*& BASSONS!” And I suddenly realized that for this entire time, we—the violins—and the bassoons had been playing the same melody together and I was too busy playing my own part to notice.
Playing a musical instrument in an ensemble requires intense focus on the task of playing that instrument. But if we focus so much on our own part that we become oblivious to the musicians around us, then we will no longer be much service to our section, the orchestra, or the music.
This is not just true for musicians. Before scrolling down further, I want you to watch the video embedded below this paragraph. It’s very short. In it you will see two teams of three players each, passing basketballs. One team is wearing white shirts. One team is wearing black shirts. When you watch the video, count the number of passes made by the white-shirted team. This is very important. You must count the number of passes made between members of the white-shirted team. The future of the Republic hangs in the balance.
Did you notice anything unusual? Many thousands of people have watched the video and about half of them don’t notice anything out of the ordinary. Daniel Kahneman writes about this experiment in Thinking, Fast and Slow:
Intense focusing on a task can make people effectively blind, even to stimuli that normally attract attention… The most remarkable observation of the study is that people find its results very surprising. Indeed, the viewers who fail to see the gorilla are initially sure that it was not there—they cannot imagine missing such a striking event.
My teacher at Oberlin, Greg Fulkerson, used the terms hard focus vs soft focus. With hard focus, we’re so oriented to the task in front of us that we’re not in the room. With soft focus, we are able to both attend to our part and be aware of what is going around us at the same time.
Since our attention is inherently limited, you can use soft focus to know whether or not you’re prepared for rehearsal. If you can play your part, but it requires so much concentration that you became oblivious to your surroundings, then you need to practice it more. One way to practice soft focus on your own is to use your body as a focus of attention. If you can play through your part while attending to your whole self—from the dynamic balance of your head on your spine all the way down to the contact of your feet on the floor—then you are probably fluent enough on the part to use soft focus in rehearsal with others.
Of course, there are always exceptions. Some composers write music of such intense difficulty that it overwhelms your ability to broaden your attention—you just hang on for dear life, switching your attention as the next crisis demands. But in most music, it is possible to be prepared. Being able to choose where you place your attention is one of the most important ways you can contribute as a musician. It puts you in the room, not only with the music and your peers, but ultimately your audience.