I was teaching a student today to play a song – Tom Sawyer by Rush. We were working on the bridge part that is in 7/8. If you don’t know it, the bridge is two measures of 7 that are mirror images of each other. These two measures then repeat for the entire section (with some variation of course!) He was doing fine on the first measure, but he wasn’t getting the second measure, making the same mistake every time. I was trying to correct him, but he wasn’t listening. I took the sticks away from him to get his attention.
“Oh. I guess I just wasn’t focused!” He said.
“No,” I said, “Your focus is fine. It’s what you are focusing on that’s the issue. You were totally focused on what you were doing instead of focused on what I was saying.” This seemed to hit home for him. He’s only six, so he’s got a lot of time to learn these skills, but that’s really my point. Focus is a skill, like knitting or putting – not an attribute like height or strength.
In needlepoint, there are many different kinds of stitches that do different things. In golf, there are different golf clubs and different ways to swing those golf clubs. With focus, there are many ways that we can focus our attention that yield different results.
Focus is such a misunderstood concept that I now usually include a short discussion of it in my first lesson. The kid in the story had no problems with his ability to pay attention. In fact, he was *so* focused on what he was doing that he didn’t even notice me talking. Beyond that, he’s about halfway into learning to play Tom Sawyer at 6, after being assigned it as homework last week. Try that at any age without being able to direct your attention!
The question is not ability, it is steering. How can a person guide and control what they pay attention to, and in what form that attention takes. It isn’t whether focus is possible; it’s what a person attends to and how.
There is a lot of power in looking at focus in this way. Most of the problems stemming from a lack of focus are simply a matter of steering. If people think of focus as an attribute, then the solution is easy: “Try Harder”. Ironically, this causes people to go even farther in the wrong direction, like the cartoon.
On the other hand, if people think of focus as a tool bag, with different tools that can all be used in different ways, then the reasoning behind pushing harder falls away. People are far more likely to find the right tool for the right job, and thus get better results.
Steering is one area that I have found the superstars of the drumming world have serious chops in. Just like stick control, there are a lot of tricks and tools these guys use to steer themselves in the right direction. I’ll talk more about these in later posts.