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Concentration: How May It Be Acquired?

The young student is constantly exhorted to concentrate his mind upon his work. He reads: “Two hours of concentrated practice accomplish more than four with the mind wandering.” And, again: “Concentrate your mind upon the matter in hand during every hour and every minute of work, if you would make that work yield the desired result. Hours, and sometimes years, of so-called study bear only a tithe of the fruit they might have borne had the pupil’s power of application been rightly trained and rightly used.” Also, his teacher assures him that he might better be playing ball than violin if his mind is not concentrated on his studies.

Now, the student really desires to play his instrument well; so, after each fresh admonition, he resolves anew to acquire this much-lauded power of concentration. With zeal he commences his scale-work in the morning practice-hour. Several weak places in the first scale. He repeats and improves it somewhat; but as it is still very rough, he continues repeating till his neighbors are reminded of the brook which goes on forever. This constant, mechanical repetition dulls his critical faculties; and when, a half-hour later, some disturbance causes him to pause, he is startled to find himself still at work upon that first scale, the weak places still weak, and no commensurate progress made for the expenditure of time and strength. Again he renews the oft-renewed determination to “concentrate”; but the shock he has just received does not serve to rivet his attention on more than half the scales on his list. Presently the slip of a finger again brings his mind down with a dull thud to the business in hand. After frequent, disheartening experiences of this kind, he asks: “How can I learn to concentrate my mind?”

Replying to such a question, one able writer says, in The Etude: “It can never be learned from other people’s writings. It is a habit which must be formed by means of practice and experience.” It is true, concentration, before it can become habitual, must be learned by practice and experience. But there are a few simple rules which, if remembered at each practice-period, will certainly aid the earnest student in forming the habit of concentration.

In purely technical work do not allow one mistake or imperfection to escape either correction or improvement. But in seeking to grasp the idea of a composition as a whole, or when endeavoring to discover weak points, or when engaged in measuring one’s progress, it is not always best to stop for imperfections. Piecemeal practice, pure and simple, is detrimental to both unity and breadth of style, just as playing the piece always uninterruptedly from beginning to end is fatal to accuracy and finish. But in general work this first rule is an admirable one for pinning the attention to each note as it is produced. The ear listens eagerly, ready to stop the fingers for correction at the first fault. But when an error is detected, it requires judgment to choose a starting- point for beginning work upon the difficulty. Do not rebegin the piece in order to correct a mistake made twenty measures from the beginning. That is an extravagance. On the other hand, it is seldom wise to begin work on the mistake itself. Return rather to some neighboring measure. In simple interval work one note back may suffice; but often the cause of the fault is farther removed. And this brings us to the next rule.

Having found the error, seek its cause. While in some instances the cause is transparent, often its discovery requires close analytical study. Some cases can be explained only by the experienced teacher, but the student should always make a serious effort to discover the cause.

Have some definite aim in each exercise, some particular point or points to be mastered. In this the accomplished teacher will aid you greatly. He will not simply say to you: “Learn the next etude and this new piece—work hard—good-bye.” He will point out the special purpose of each new etude, and will call your attention to the peculiar technical and musical details that may be new to you. He will suggest special brief exercises for overcoming the individual weaknesses which reveal themselves in your playing. But he cannot do all. You must be your own teacher in the practice-hours, and strive to use understandingly the ideas he has given you. More than this, you should as soon as possible invent brief exercises calculated to aid you in mastering special difficulties. If you find a certain passage stubborn, dissect its difficulties. Does a certain leap seem long, and does it embarrass you each time you approach it? Increase the distance, and the first interval will seem short by comparison. Is the difficult figure in sixteenth notes, staccato? Try it in half notes, legato. There are countless devices for rendering difficult passages familiar and, eventually, easy, which will suggest themselves to you when you become familiar with such methods of work.

Strive to make each repetition of an exercise an improvement on the previous one. Do not blindly repeat the study, hoping it will be bettered at the end of the tenth or twentieth repetition.

Aim at perfection. As a child, I habitually applied the test of trying to play exercises three times in succession without making one mistake. When that could be done, I complacently considered it “learned.” The principle was good. Endeavor to make each note, each scale, each little exercise, perfect—a thing of beauty.

Try these rules. You will soon find yourself listening more keenly, more critically; and, in time, concentration will become a habit.—Gertrude M. Potwin.


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