April 29, 2011

We live in a focus-less society, or rather, a society with so many things to look at that or brains have adapted to shift focus continually. But music, and music directing especially, is a long-term focus game. The longer I music direct, the more I realize how important my focus is and how pretty much every mistake I make can be traced back to a lack of focus.

When you’re music directing, and particularly if you’re directing from the piano, you will need a focus broad enough to include the actors, the players, and your own playing, but no broader. I find if I start thinking about the previous scene’s mistakes, the next scene’s potential pitfalls, or a disagreement I had with another team member, I am dangerously out of my ability to multitask. I recently completed a run of a show in which I was playing almost constantly. I dialed my brain back a few seconds from each flub I made for a week or so, and found that I had pretty consistently been thinking about my career and whether my music directing met a professional standard during the moments before I forgot how many times I had repeated a section, or didn’t change a patch. To my shame, occasionally I was thinking about how I looked in the monitor.

Now certainly, keeping tabs on your professional standards is a good idea. (that’s what this blog is about, to a certain degree) But when you’re at the helm of the orchestra, there is only one focus: the scene at hand and the music that operates in and for it. The same holds true for a general chorus rehearsal. As I accompany choirs, sometimes I see a director clearly focused strongly on the music as he gives instruction, and then when he runs the section, he does not appear to hear whether or not the mistakes have been corrected. I find myself doing the same thing. When I’m beating time, my mind wanders to topics tangentially related to the thing at hand: “what will I do next? How much time is left? Is my fly open?” All good things to think about, but again, the focus needs to continually be drawn back to the task, and the central focal point MUST always be the music and its function. And if you find yourself preening, focusing on your image, as I have now and then, you’ve lost. This isn’t about how good you look. It’s about the music.

It seems like such an easy task. After all, you’ve been practicing this music for months; you know it better than anyone in the room, why shouldn’t you be able to do it with a laser sharp focus? Well, to give you just one concrete example; I completed the essay you’re currently reading over the course of 3 days, a few sentences at a time. Simultaneously, I wrote a piece of music for a tenor, arranged for the purchase of some orchestral music, answered some e-mails, texted my wife, took an occasional nap, negotiated the timing for a commission, and broke to teach some students. At each point, I had complete control over how much of which task I was thinking about, and if I became bored with one task, I quickly toggled to the other. This is how our minds work these days. We even operate fast moving heavy machinery every day while simultaneously listening to the radio, checking our e-mail, and talking to people on the phone!

The theatre is not that place. Theatre music demands your attention, and does not allow you the luxury of choosing what you pay attention to. And further, there can be no autopilot in the theatre, everything that happens is so fluid. A track of yesterday’s performance is not going to line up with tonight’s performance. There is only one way out, and that’s deeper into the music as it functions in the scene. You do have control of the thoughts that pass through your head. Take that control and apply it to being exactly in the moment of the piece and nowhere else.



  1. Great article, Peter. This is a skill learned (sometimes painfully) over time with repetition like any other. I think those who learn to practice such focus in rehearsal settings improve much more quickly in their performances, but it still takes doing it (performance focus) to learn how to do it!

  2. sage advice – thanks a lot!

  3. So true! Worst moment for me at the piano in Sound of Music? Realizing I didn’t have a bowing lady, just as Max stepped up to the mike in the concert scene. I spent the scene frantically mouthing to my sister in the audience that SHE was going to come up and be the bowing lady (she was thrilled, but still).

    It was a fun idea, having a new bowing lady in six different shows, but not exactly practical. The parents loved it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: