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Concentration v. Focus

In a quest to get over a nasty case of tendinitis I came across Alexander Technique (AT).  For anyone interested in AT, let me give you the clue-in that there are two ways to approach AT:  Metaphysical and biomechanical.  Anyone that knows me knows I haven't a lot patience for the nutty-crunchy, so I took the latter approach.  AT begins with dealing with your physical self and does a great job of it, but the part that really inspired me is what I call "quickening of the mind".  I got phrase this from a book I read and wish I could remember the title so as to give proper credit.  In short, quickening of the mind is changing the way that you "concentrate", wherein instead of trying to spend all of your attention, or concentration, on something in exclusion of everything else, you try to take in as much input as you possibly can.  Through this you can achieve "The Zone" and eventually be able to put yourself there at will.  As a cautionary note, doing this successfully also opens you up to a lot of input you might not rather have.  People that you are playing with and for are broadcasting all kinds of neurosis and attitude that isn't pleasant to deal with.  I also want to note that the Quickening of the Mind goes beyond what I address here, in that there is the idea of the re-integration of mind and body, but this is outside the scope of these few paragraphs.


The first thing that the AT teacher that I had gave me was to stand properly.  By this, I was to not lock my knees or hips, relax up through my back and jaw -- the standard AT stuff.  The focal points for me where the unlocked knees and weight evenly distributed on both feet.  This was enough to force everything else to a healthy place.  And, man, was this tough to do when I was not concentrating on it.  By the end of the week I was starting to check out the difference between concentration and focus as I found it impossible to keep the AT teaching going while I was doing anything else.  Here is where I started applying thought and experimentation to the title of this piece.


A quick and easy example that I run people through when describing this goes as such, and works best in a busy location like a sidewalk cafe or restaurant in NYC, but anyplace with sufficient noise and activity will do.  This is easier to do to someone else for the first part of the example, but do what you can.


Pick a visual point to concentrate on.  A pack of cigarettes on the table or a coffee cup or anything visual on the table will do.  Have your partner concentrate on this item with all the concentration that they can muster.  Ask them to to memorize all the details of this item that they can so that they could draw it in full detail after a few minutes without referring back.  Let them run a minute or so and then start distracting them with any kind of chatter.  When you see them starting to have to work at listening to your babble and still concentrate of the thing, make some sudden noise or movement or call attention to something somewhere in the room.  You should be  able to break your friend's concentration easily.  The other outcome is they get bored almost instantly -- which is a natural response and just as good.


Now, have your friend cast his gaze at the same item and try to take in all of the detail that he can.  Do the same with him and point out all of the detail that you're able to glean from the environment: sights, sound, smells, people and what they're doing, the breeze, static sounds that you tend to tune out like air conditioners and so forth.  This is something that you could do for hours on end and not get tired in the least.  Note that you're not going to be able to to get full detail on any one particular thing too clearly, but you will get enough to recognize the item or event.  It will evolve into a meditative state when you can really get it going.  This is "The Zone".


The reason that this works is that this is the way the human brain is wired.  In the long history of humans we've been prey, on average.  We're not the fastest, strongest, or stealthiest beasts on earth.  Our evolution left us nervous and hyper-aware by nature.  A rustle in the bushes could be a boar sizing us up for lunch, a slight breeze could be a snake swinging out of a tree for dinner.  By embracing our nature with focus rather than fighting it with concentration we are utilizing our abilities for what they are.


In real-time playing terms, my personal focal point is the groove.  This isn't a visual focus so it's a little harder to get going and I didn't start there.  I would choose the power light on a monitor speaker or some other visual thing.  We are visual creatures mainly by nature, so this is the easiest place to start.  Eventually I found a visualization of the groove that worked for me, where the pocket would be the center of a vortex and in the center of that vortex I could see what I was looking at in the room in perfect focus, and the further from the center the more out of focus things where.  At this point, I have to where when things are feeling good I'm at ease and if things are falling away from the groove I start to feel uncomfortable.


Further, I don't let the chaos that always exists in a live performance bother me.  The waitresses floating around, bartenders indelicately tossing empty wine bottles into the garbage can full of wine bottles, the blender, the coffee steamer, the talkative table right up front all become part of the performance.  It is all in context.  And further you go into this state you actually start becoming a third person to your own involvement.  Now -- you are in The Zone.


When you're in the state you have the circumspection to handle almost anything that comes your way.  If your band mate is falling off the log as far as form or losing the beat, you can adjust without panic.  Since you are also so tuned into to the environment and other players with you, you have the sense and the agility to engage fully and keep the music going somewhere interesting.  A beer bottle hitting the floor doesn't distract you.  On and on and on, so I won't even try to bore you with the benefits.


Also be prepared to get instantly pissed at players that are not on the same page.  You've been warned.

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