top of page

Fostering Focus & Intent in Performance

Before I was in my current position at post-secondary institutions, I worked mainly as a freelance trumpet player, conductor and adjudicator. In this role I worked with many groups, going in for that shot of inspiration with a school or community ensemble. Each time I worked with a group I found that for the most part bands could play the notes and rhythms on the page, even the dynamics, but there was something missing 90% of the time, focus and a willingness to take musical risks. I would spend the majority of my time teaching and showing the power of being in the moment.

When I started at the college & university I was shocked (not really) to find out that this problem of focus and intent doesn’t stop once you start your post-secondary work. Seeing students I truly care about think there’s something wrong with them, beat themselves up, were a couple of the reasons I started doing more research into how concepts of focus can be applied to music education, and specifically the rehearsal room. If musical reasons aren’t enough, these ideas can be applied outside of the band room and improve focus skills in other subjects, improved listening/comprehension skills, sociability skills etc…

The argument I’ll be making in this post is most of us (students & teachers) are often not focused, virtually all of the time. In the words of mindfulness expert, Dr. Ellen Langer “When we’re not there, we’re not there to know that we’re not there.”. I’m suggesting we aren’t there too much of the time and we’re taking away from the enjoyment of music, learning and the building up of people.

The Power of Subtlety

For many professional symphony musicians, they’re sitting in their chairs bored half to death, performing pieces they’ve performed 100s of times. Why do they do this? Well, it’s a high-status job they’re loathed to give it up. This isn’t so different from your school band (minus he “high status” part) that gets to a festival at the end of the year and has to play Blankity Blank March or The King with the Flaming Mountain Sword for the umpteenth time.

In 2009 a study entitled ‘Orchestral performance and the footprint of mindfulness’ [1] was created to test the hypothesis that actively creating new observations and sonically depicting them during a concert or performance of orchestral music is superior to attempting to re-create a past experience. In the study, a sixty-piece orchestra volunteered to participate under the direction of their conductor.

The orchestra was asked to perform the last movement of Brahms’s Symphony No. 1, twice. Before the first performance the players were asked to think of the finest performance of the piece that they could remember and play it that way (the control group). The second time they performed, they were told to make it new in very subtle ways that only they would notice.

They recorded the performances and played them back to people who were unaware of the experiment and polled the musicians about their experience performing as well. What was found, overwhelmingly, is that people listening enjoyed the mindful/focused performance more and the musicians enjoy performing more. You can ever hear people’s consciousness!

How can we do this with our students? Well we can do exactly what the study did. When you get to the point in the learning process, that involves the polishing of music AKA no longer teaching rhythms and notes. Tell your students to make it new in very subtle ways that only they would know. Examples might be: a subtle change in dynamic, how they articulate the staccato notes, playing to a different part in a phrase, etc…

Noticing novelty reveals uncertainty.

-Dr. Ellen Langer, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University

The Repertoire We Pick Matters

When we’re talking about focus, we often think of the ability of the student to stay on task, maybe be more goal oriented. Often, we don’t consider the repertoire we choose might affect their ability to focus.

This most often happens to young music educators, who just get out of school playing Holst, Grainger, Maslanka (big works) and the last thing we want to do is Air for Band, or maybe we pick a piece because we’ll enjoy doing it, not considering that my band won’t be able to play it. If we are picking music that is well beyond our groups ability we make it harder for them to focus, to make choices and to play with intent. Why? Because their brains are overwhelmed with the skills they don’t have yet to play the piece. We also want to pick music that reinforces fundamentals, especially when we are talking grade 7-12. I don’t want to be worrying about the dense colours of a grade B600 piece, when my students need to be focusing on air flow, hearing if they’re the 3rd or the 5th of the chord, not if they’re the flat 16th against a raised 6th of some chord that’s tonic is an E#. Musically if the phrase the student has to make is very long, it’s hard for them to focus on what they need to do. So pick music that is at their level musically as well, not just technically. When we choose music that’s too difficult we also run the risk of losing band members. They think they’re less than and aren’t willing to put the time in to achieve what can be achieved.

The same can be said if we pick repertoire that is too easy. When music is too easy it’s difficult for students (heck, even me) to remain attentive to what needs to be done, they get bored. I know some of you may be thinking shouldn’t we want students to be able to stay focus even through an easy piece? Well, yes! But I’m talking about choosing repertoire for your year or semester. They have to play this piece 1000 more times!

When considering repertoire that your students can focus on it’s also important to spread the interesting part love. Imagine yourself back in grade 8 playing, I don’t know, playing a 4th clarinet part made up of mostly low A ostinato, for a whole page. Do you think you would want to focus? I don’t think I would. The same can be said for the tuba, whole notes the whole piece is just not going to do it. Find music that is interesting for everyone, that helps people develop into artists, not harmony machines. That might mean we have to write something out, that might mean we find a piece that the flutes and trumpets don’t have the primary melody.

We need to know where our students are and be realistic with where they can get musically and technically by the end of the year. Find repertoire that is interesting, that pushes their limits but still is attainable, the 20/80 rule is a good place to start. No more than 20% of the music should push the limits of your students’ technical and musical ability level. 80% of your music should be reasonably accessible and allow for focus on the fine details. This gives you the opportunity to grow your students’ abilities while still giving them room to dive into the details of the music. We need to be selecting music that they can connect with on a musical, technical and emotional level.

Imagery in Action: The BIG Moment

Lots of us have had the experience of playing in ensemble or at least have been in the audience for the climactic section of a piece. The suspended cymbal crescendos, the conductor’s gestures get bigger, more intense and land on the next measure and the sound of the ensemble washes over you, sending chills up your back and tears in your eyes, hopefully for the right reasons…

In the rehearsal process it’s so easy for us as educators to over explain this moment, "play it FFF", "listen down to the low brass", "TRIANGLE TRIANGLE TRIANGLE", "concert e-flat not too much", "not that FFF", "support", "blow", "it’s a e-flat major chord with a flat 11 and sharp 16th on it. Ok, got it? Here we go". How do we think this will end up, with our new idea of focus? Well a few too many factors to be mindful of.

When I was in grade 10, I went on a band trip to New York with the senior band of Three Oaks Senior High, from Summerside, PEI. My band teacher was Mr. Mark Ramsay (now Dr. Mark Ramsay) coordinator of choral activities at Western University, Exultante Chamber Singers etc…We were performing at the Festivals of Music in a beautiful old theatre in Newark, New Jersey. As any festival experience begins, we were shown to our warmup room, then summoned from said room by festival staff when it was our turn “you guys the tree school?” and we went down and played for a basically empty hall, minus our chaperones and the adjudicators.

The magic only began after we were done performing when our clinician Dr. Tim Lautzenheiser joined us on stage. He worked on the usual things the adjudicators work on, blend, style, articulation but he went one place I had never gone as a young musician, my experience as a person. We were performing the wind ensemble transcription of Morten Lauridsen’s, O Magnum Mysterium, transcribed by H. Robert Reynolds. It’s a beautiful piece, lyrical lines, beautiful harmonies that are dissonant and uncomfortable at times but open up to great moments of resolution. Dr. Tim (as he is known) asked us to play this section but this time rather than thinking of the many elements that make up the big moment of the piece, think about someone you love, someone still with us or someone you lost. He gave us a moment to think of who, and we played the section again. I ask you to do the same now and list to the work below:

The whole ensemble was in tears, the audience was in tears, we experienced and gave a real musical moment. We took what was inside of us and played it through our instruments. The musical elements were more balanced, intonation was improved, chills were given and a connection was made. What was it that Dr. Tim did for the ensemble? Did he cast some kind of Con Selmer magic spell? Did he tell us exactly what to think about so we would be on the same page? Nope! What he did give us was, choice. He allowed everyone in that ensemble to think of their own image of love.

This is what we need to give our students if we want them to play with more focus and intent, and ultimately if we want them to be better artists. It becomes difficult for the student when you try to press your image of the “big moment”, “This is like being on the beach in PEI, walking in the water when a wave lifts you up and transports you to another place.”, or whatever it is. Not everyone has had that experience. Real communication, real art comes from when we apply life’s pains and joys to the creative process. What’s inside of us comes out of the end of my bell or drum or string or voice. That’s when students can play with focus and intent because they made the choice of the image, they are thinking how their pain, their joy is now linked to the music of Holst, Vaughn Williams, Nishimura, Santos, Shapiro, etc…

Listening with Intent

“Listen up, listen down, listen to the right, listen to the left!” I find myself saying things like this a lot in my rehearsals. Critical listening or listening with intent is one of the most important aspects of learning to play in an ensemble. Heck! It’s an important aspect of life. As my friend and college, Sharon Fitzsimmins said in BRP 8:

“Students leave high school maybe 10 - 20%, if you’re lucky continue to play their instruments, to sing maybe higher. But to listen…100%! So, if we can teach people to listen more acutely, we’ve given them a skill for life.”

Learning to listen as an ensemble member is a new skill just like the fingering for F#, and just like learning that fingering, it needs to be practiced. It’s kind of a strange idea for a student to listen around the room, when we’ve spent so much time telling them to focus on their own sound. I found just telling students to listen beyond themselves gets great results in the sound of my ensembles. But what are they listening for? And what should they do with what they hear? That’s where we come into play! Because…we have the map! We have the score, we know who has the most important part to play and the role of the other members in supporting that player or section.

Here are a couple of things we can do that will help focus our students listening. Either when everyone’s playing at the same time or when we’re rehearing only one section. I’ll break it down into three musical elements:


  • Put your hands up and move away from the tuner! We need to start by getting our students to adjust their tuning by listening not from what they see. Maybe it’s by getting one player to play and have other sections come in with that same note. I like to use drones in my rehearsals (not the flying kind...), hook up my phone to the speakers and crank to stun, Why? Because they have nowhere to go, they need to address the intonation because they’re surrounded with sound, they feel the sound.

  • We need to stop listening for them “pull out” “push in”. We must be asking if they think their sharp or flat. As Dr. Gillian MacKay says, tuning is 50/50 up or down, it’s really a 2D endeavour. Can you imagine if we had to tune left or right? Forward or backwards!?


  • How do we develop student’s concept of tone? The best way is to provide students with opportunities to hear high quality live performance. This could be field trips, it could be having a guest into your classroom. Hearing UofT Wind Ensemble play, hearing Arizona State Wind Ensemble, Toronto Symphony etc…

  • I grew up in PEI so professional quality ensembles weren’t readily available all the time, lucky I had a wonderful trumpet teacher, Dan St. Amand, who would burn me a new CD every week of a professional trumpet player. If you can’t go to live performances use recordings, good recordings, not the grade 7 band from wherever that posted their version of your piece. We need to be developing sound concepts and the earlier the better.

Balance and Blend

  • To help the area of balance and blend I find I have to be the beacon of focus. As most of you know, asking leading questions like “Who has the melody at rehearsal 43?” “What can we do to help the 3rd oboe be heard?”, “Who has a supporting role at 56?” etc…

  • Of course, asking students to listen beyond themselves, trumpets listen up to the flutes, tubas to the piccolos. Sometimes I find it best to stop conducting completely and getting the ensemble to be one massive chamber ensemble. Often, we become an excuse for them to top focusing on listening because we tell/show them everything they need to see.

Want Focus? Give Focus!

Being in a position of authority as a music teacher or conductor gives us a great sense of power and responsibility. Often, we can fall into bad habits because of this and be quite demanding on our students. Blaming players because we think it’s their fault. I call is a condition call "Maestro-itus". We say things like “Just focus!”, we get angry with them, not even considering…maybe, it’s me. Maybe I’m the reason my students are having trouble focusing in rehearsals or performance, maybe I’m the one who is not focused.

I have a colleague at the university who works in the international recruitment department and if you met him you’d know why he's immensely good at his job. His name is Benoit and when he talks to you he make