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Attentional Deployment

By Jamie Andreas

When I was somewhere in my mid-twenties, I went to have my astrology chart done. It was not your normal astrology chart though, it was a "karmic astrology" chart. This meant it would also reveal my past lives, and explain why I was where I was in this present life (bear with me now, you unbelievers!). One thing the well known psychic who was doing the chart told me was that I had been a Roman general. Well, of course, I have no way of knowing whether this is true or not, but I can't help but notice in my approach to the guitar how often I think along "military lines" when it comes to practicing and making progress as a guitarist and musician. (He also told me I had left many children fatherless in the course of my travels, which may explain why I feel compelled to teach the world how to play the guitar, and so work off my bad karma!)

One concept that is quite military in its flavor, and also quite vital to success as an ever evolving guitarist, is the concept of what I call "attentional deployment". I introduced you to this concept without calling it that in The Principles when I told you that you must use your attention in two basic ways when practicing, which I described as "Following", and "Rotating Attention". I also was drawing upon this concept when I explained to you why you must watch your hands and fingers when you play. Essentially, I was telling you why and how to deploy your attention as you fight the daily battles of the practicing guitarist.

It comes down to this: master players are exactly like great generals when they practice. They are extremely aware of everything that is going on, they know how to increase that awareness by continually gathering new "intelligence", and they know how to respond to that increased awareness by paying attention to exactly the right thing at every moment of practice and playing. As a general sends the right number of troops to the right location in order to deal with the enemy and win the battle, so the master guitarist knows how to direct their attention to any number of the seemingly infinite events, processes, and conditions that are present in the body and mind in the course of getting our fingers to "make the notes".

Glenn Gould, the great Canadian piano prodigy, once said in an interview "when it comes to practicing, the point is to spend as little time in the practice room as possible"! What he meant was that the goal is to get the most done in the shortest time, not wasting any minutes in work that brings no results. That is what we achieve when we become masters of Attentional Deployment.

Before deploying the troops, the great general is aware of the ever-present need for more intelligence, more information. Generals who prefer to remain in the dark about the conditions of battle (and there have been many throughout history) end up on the list entitled "losers"! Likewise, guitarists who are practicing and NOT using their minds at full throttle, always probing, questioning, analyzing, and experimenting as they deal with playing problems, will lose the daily battles that take place on the fingerboard. This is why the first step of the Basic Practice Approach says "review and increase your understanding of what you are about to do, and how you are going to do it". We are always trying to gain new intelligence and awareness.

The three main areas where our attention will be deployed, the "theaters of battle" if you will, are the physical body, the mental conception of the music, and the sound itself, the aural aspect of the music. As we are practicing, we must be focused on our goal, the production of the notes, and like a general assessing a battle to see if he is winning or losing, we must be constantly assessing our results. When those results fall short of the goal (notes are missing or damaged), we must know where and how to send in the troops.

This can be confusing for a number of reasons. Often, the reason we are making mistakes is because we don't really know what we are supposed to do. We may think we do, but we don't. Because we are confused, we make hesitant and inconsistent physical movements, and we make them with excess tension. Then, it feels like a physical, technical problem is the source of the difficulty. Actually, once we start making moves like this, we DO have physical problems, because the tension stays in the muscles and the movements. But, the physical aspect was not the source of the trouble. The problem was in the mind, not the fingers. The problem was inadequate Intention. We must always examine the strength of our mental conception of the music for this possibility when we have playing problems.

Likewise, physical tension can easily induce a reduction or elimination of attention to the actual sound we are making. Physical tension causes us to withdraw attention from the body, and from the music itself. This leaves us in a confused state of literally not knowing what we are doing, or what is happening. Needless to say, no progress is possible under these circumstances. The consistent use of The Principles while practicing will always work to reverse these negative effects of incorrect practice.

Skill in Attentional Deployment while practicing guitar is made more difficult by the very nature of the guitar; it is one of the most difficult instruments to play well. Of course, there is a vast difference in the skill level required to strum and sing, as opposed to playing a speed metal solo, or a Bach Lute Suite, but basic things like the fact that the guitar must be held as well as played, and that each note requires the precise coordination of both hands, make the physical process of sound production on the instrument extremely complex. Translation: there is a lot that can go wrong in playing the guitar!

And, it most often does go wrong, so we really need to know how to fix things when they break.

I often work on music that may contain one measure of perhaps 8 to 16 notes, which may require the precise timing and execution of 20 or more "events", all of which must occur in exactly the right way, or the next move is affected. Being able to locate EXACTLY which move is causing the problem, and then knowing what to do about it is essential. Deploying attention to each separate event in the chain of movements is necessary, and takes great mental focus.

Principled Players understand that all "stress points" in our music must be located and handled with various "tools" such as no tempo practice and posing. They must be analyzed, and a battle plan drawn up, a practice approach that will make the bad things go away, and get us what we want, the right notes at the right time. Every stress point we locate will be found to be deficient in its necessary "attentional quotient". Therefore, we must "insert" awareness into this stress point. We must substitute an awareness point for the stress point during practice.

For instance, say I am missing a note on a scale passage I am playing with my fingers, index, middle alternating. I have deployed my attention on the sound, and discovered the missing note. I then visually deploy my attention on my fingers, watching them play, and see my middle move too far from its upcoming note (the missing one). It is reacting with sympathetic tension to the prior use of the index, and the tension is moving it away from the string. At a fast speed I am struggling with the tension and I cannot get it to its note on time.

In my capacity as General Jamie, I realize "hmm, I have a stress point here, I must insert an awareness point". But, awareness of what? I must insert an awareness of the finger being CLOSE to the string prior to striking it. And how will I do that? I will use no tempo practice and work-ups with the Basic Practice Approach, during which I will use Following. I will focus intensely on seeing that finger near the string at the exact moment of the stress point. If the note happens to be on another string, higher or lower, I will insist on the middle finger actually touching that string WHILE the index is playing. The kinesthetic feeling of finger on string becomes another object of Attentional Deployment. I insist on an awareness of the physical feeling of the finger on the string as part of my overall awareness during all parts of the work up process. Over time, that stress point is replaced by an awareness point, accomplished by the deft and expert deployment of my attention.

As we become more and more skilled in Attentional Deployment, we get right to the heart of the matter quickly. Our practice becomes extremely powerful. We know when the source of a problem is in the fingers, or the shoulder, or the breath, or the mind. We become expert in rotating our attention. We are aware, for example, not just what our finger feels like as it plays that note, but what the shoulder is feeling in reaction to the fingers movement. We understand when it is important and necessary to focus on the shoulder even more than the finger in order to solve a problem.

At times, we deploy our attention in order to unify discrete elements of the playing process, after we have used it to identify and dissociate those elements. For instance, following the logic outlined in "Discover Your Discomfort", I may notice I need to "de-stress" my right shoulder, after noticing that it is tensing in reaction to a difficult left hand reach. I may focus my attention on each side of the body in turn, focusing on the right shoulder as the left slowly does its reach, then focusing on the left side, making sure it makes its effort in the most "effortless" way. Then, I may focus my attention on right and left at once, holding the awareness of both as a single "attentional unit", a "gestalt". This is a powerful use of attention that unifies separate events and processes that occur during playing. The attentional unit thus established becomes part of an overall "body sense" that may operate "behind the scenes" without conscious attention, or can be accessed by conscious intention if desired. In any case, it becomes the basis for more skillful execution during performance.

Correct practice, in the physical arena, is, in the final analysis, the infusion of conscious awareness into the physical body through the mechanism of attention. In addition, to bring our whole selves in contact with the music, and so become "musicians" and not just people who can do amazing things with their fingers, we need to recognize the necessity of combining our conscious awareness with the music as it exists in the mental dimension, and as we cause it to exist in the dimension of sound. It is on these three fronts, the physical, the mental, and the sound itself, that we must become masters of Attentional Deployment. As we rise through the ranks in our ability to do this, we will find ourselves constantly looking for bigger battles, as the old ones are quickly fought and won.

Copyright 2003 by Jamie Andreas. All Rights Reserved.
Published by teoria.com

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