The 300 Pound Gorilla in the Practice Room: Inattention

Throughout my career, if I have done anything, I have paid attention to every note and every word I sing – I respect the song. If I cannot project this to a listener, I fail.
~Frank Sinatra 

Any man who can drive safely while kissing a pretty girl is simply not giving the kiss the attention it deserves. 
~Albert Einstein

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This test has made the rounds on the Internet, so if you’ve seen it before, you understand how it works. If you haven’t, watch carefully and try to count how many times the players in white pass the basketball. You have to look quickly because it starts right away after the brief introduction. Don’t continue reading this post until you’ve watched the video unless you’ve already done this test before. It’s short. Ready, go:

Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.

How did you do? I failed the first time I watched it. But of course, what is seen cannot be unseen, so it’ll never work on you again. This video is part of research done by Dan Simons and Christopher Chabris investigating attention, and particularly attentional blindness. They published a NY Times best-selling book called Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways our Intuitions Deceive Us. Recently, this kind of attentional blindness was highlighted when a Boston cop, chasing a suspect, ran past a brutal assault and was prosecuted for perjury when he claimed not to have seen it. Chabris, Simons, and two other researchers re-created the study and published the paper You Do Not Talk About Fight Club if You Do Not Notice Fight Club.

So what’s the point? The point is that when we practice, we are focused intensely and intently on one or two aspects of our playing, and that kind of focused attention means that we are literally unable to perceive other things which may be problems. That’s why recording your playing every now and then, especially when something is getting close to performance, is such a great way to get better. When we don’t have the horn on our face (or the piano under our fingers, or the guitar on our lap, or the nose-flute up to our nostril…you get the idea), we are able to pay attention to MUCH more than when we’re trying to play, whether it’s a difficult etude or something as simple as a scale.

I’ve been talking to many fantastic musicians about how they practice and every single one of them record themselves with some regularity. If you aren’t doing it, you should
start. I can’t tell yet whether there’s any particular schedule that works best, but once you think you’ve got a handle on a new musical concept or technique, record it and you might find that there is work yet to do.

What to use to record? Your computer is a great tool for this and the best software, in my opinion, is Audacity, which is free! I’ve posted about Audacity before with some good links to help with the program and many other software aids. But it can be cumbersome and I find it’s often a pain in the ass to fire up the computer when you need to record, especially if your microphone inputs need tweaking. It destroys momentum and devours precious time. An easier, vastly quicker, but more expensive option is to record with a handheld device.

I use Tascam’s DR-07 handheld recording device. The newest version, the Mark II will run you about $140 bucks on Amazon, 50% off the retail price! The great thing about it is its sound quality and how easy it is to use. You could also use your iPhone (which has decent sound quality) or really any other device. But the better the sound quality, the more realistically it will depict your sound and the more you’ll be able to hear (and fix) what you’re doing.

Have fun, and good luck with paying attention to your practice!

Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.

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