When I was 9 or 10 years old, my piano teacher assigned me a simplified arrangement of Scott Joplin’s The Entertainer. At that point in my piano study, I had not yet attempted to play anything that required such independence between my hands – this arrangement retained the typical ragtime style of a syncopated melody in the right hand set against the left hand alternating bass notes on the beat and chords on the division of the beat.
This piece was a struggle for me to learn, but it was the right piece at the right time. Despite the difficulty I had in coordinating my hands to play the two distinct rhythmic patterns against each other, I was captivated by The Entertainer and very motivated to learn it. My parents had taken me to see The Sting and had given me the film’s soundtrack recording on LP featuring Marvin Hamlisch’s marvelous arrangements of Scott Joplin’s original rags. So putting The Entertainer in my hands at that stage of my piano curriculum was timely on the part of my piano teacher and incredibly fortuitous for me. Thank you, Mrs. Stoike.
I clearly remember the day it happened.
I sat at the small spinet my family had at that time, which my parents had bought for my sister and I to practice on when we began taking lessons. It was afternoon and my mother was in the kitchen preparing dinner. I had already been trying to learn The Entertainer for more than a week, and hoped to make a better impression on Mrs. Stoike at my next lesson than I had the previous week.
So I sat there and played the opening phrases, over and over again, until I was able to play the piece correctly. I don’t know why everything lined up for me that day:
- a block of time when I was not distracted by the other things going on in the house (I had 3 younger siblings at that time)
- a clear “image” in my mind of what the piece was supposed to sound like when played correctly
- adequate preparation for the task of the moment (I could already play each hand separately correctly)
- enough patience/determination to calmly force myself to continue trying, over and over, through many incorrect attempts without getting frustrated
…but somehow, they did. And what I discovered changed the way I understood not only practicing, but myself.
So what is it, this force which makes saints, heroes, geniuses, which makes men pursue their destinies to the end? It is given to everyone. It applies as much to Wagner writing his Ring cycle as to the anonymous window-cleaner, or to the baby that we believe has only a rudimentary form of consciousness.
from Mademoiselle: Conversations with Nadia Boulanger
Bruno Monsaingeon, trans. Robyn Marsack
Manchester, England: Carcanet Press, 1985
The Place of Concentration
What I discovered that afternoon was that in order to coordinate both hands playing different patterns at the same time correctly, I couldn’t focus on what each hand was doing the way I did when I played each hand separately – and I didn’t have to. I gradually pulled my attention back from close involvement in the physical action of my fingers and hands to a “place” inside myself where I could perceive what each hand was doing and observe whether they were performing correctly, but which was was not so close to the action. In this state, another intelligence took over the act of playing piano, yet what I had previously identified with as “myself” was present also, observing and comparing what my hands were playing to the ideal image I held in my “mind’s ear”.
I will never forget sitting there, experiencing this new state. It was if a door had opened inside me, to rooms or a view I had not known existed before. This sense of awakening was coupled with a strong feeling of satisfaction at having mastered my goal of being able to play the piece.
Over the days, weeks, months, and years that followed – up to this day, in fact – my practice has continued to lead me back to this place in myself, this miraculous place at the heart of my being. I soon learned that it took delicate maneuvering to find the right “inner distance” from what I was doing, and a unique kind of effort to stay there. Too close, and I would interfere with what my hands already knew how to do. Too far, and I would become distracted by thoughts and feelings in my inner world, or by sounds or activity in the outer world, and lose hold of the thread of attention. Finding the place of concentration was tricky – and the energy to stay there eventually runs out. It as if I have an “attention battery”, a source of attention can be increased by regular and repeated use, but that also is depleted by focused concentration.
Eventually, finding this place of concentration became not only part of the process of learning to play a musical instrument, but a metaphor and practice for how to live.
The Force… is an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us: it binds the galaxy together.
~ Obi-Wan Kenobi
Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope
The Oxford Living English Dictionary defines concentration as “The action or power of focusing all one’s attention.” But I looked in vain in the same dictionary for a definition of the word attention that describes the way I understand the word in this context. It is more than “The mental faculty of considering or taking notice of someone or something.” or “The action of dealing with or taking special care of someone or something.” Attention here has a deep and mysterious meaning: as Nadia Boulanger said it is a “force” that is given to everyone.
The force of attention is the fuel and concentration is the fire: together, these sustain any effort we make in life, if we are to live like human beings. Without attention, our efforts are empty, mechanical, “half-hearted”. But with an active, engaged attention, anything we do is enlivened by this deeper participation in experience. When we live this way, when we are engaged with this Wholehearted Attention, we experience our connection with all living things, with the universe.
For me, this understanding of how to live: to approach my life as much as possible from a place within myself that integrates my inner world of thought and feeling with my physical and social experience right now in this moment together as one experience through the concentrated force of attention – this, this is what it means to live as a human being.
There is a phrase in Hamlet, which I think of absolutely every day of my life, without exception. “Words without thoughts never to Heaven go.” If I say “good morning” to you without thinking, I don’t exist.
… I owe my greatest joys – as I imagine other people do – to those moments when I’ve seized what was given and experienced it not superficially but profoundly.
~ Nadia Boulanger
The reason that students who engage in participatory music classes in school consistently surpass most of their classmates in academic achievement is because these students practice concentrated attention in their music classes daily in a focused, deliberate manner. Through their musical training, they have been given an unparalleled means to cultivate wholehearted attention and concentration, with a depth and inclusivity that no other activity they learn in school can impart. They are then able to turn and apply this vital skill to anything they do – an advantage that their classmates who do not study music do not have.
The arts especially address the idea of aesthetic experience. An aesthetic experience is one in which your senses are operating at their peak: when you’re present in the current moment; when you’re resonating with the excitement of this thing you’re experiencing; when you are fully alive.
Sir Ken Robinson
Changing Education Paradigms
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See also Wholehearted Attention