External Focus to Optimize Playing Technique

To paraphrase Dr. Gabriele Wulf, a central question for music teachers is: How can learning playing technique be facilitated and how can musical performance be optimized? In her article, “Attentional focus and motor learning: a review of 15 years,” Dr. Wulf addresses what research into motor skill development published between 1997 and 2012 tells us and offers some practical suggestions that teachers and musicians can use in their practice.

I’ve discussed similar concepts before. My most comprehensive attempt was A Review of Implicit and Explicit Learning Strategies in the Development of Motor Skills and its Application To Teaching Instrumental Technique. In that paper I discussed the difference between implicit (goal oriented) and explicit (detail/technique oriented) instructions and what the literature tells about those two extreme pedagogical approaches. My (inexpert) findings from that research were that if we rely only on one or the other, the implicit approach where one focuses on the goal of good sounding music will work better than spending time on the details of how technique is developed correctly. That said, it’s not an either/or dichotomy and much of the literature acknowledges that both approaches happen in teaching and learning and the there should be some sort of balance between the two. Wulf’s 2012 article on attentional focus and motor learning was published the same year I did my research and wrote my paper.

That’s a slightly different topic than Wulf’s article, but I have come across her work before and posted about it here. In my post Golfing Focus Applied to Music I considered the idea of keeping the musician’s focus as external as possible. In that post I discussed some thoughts about an interview she gave for a golf podcast and how her suggestions to improve golf performance might be applied to music pedagogy and practice.

Here is the paper abstract.

Over the past 15 years, research on focus of attention has consistently demonstrated that an external focus (i.e., on the movement effect) enhances motor performance and learning relative to an internal focus (i.e., on body movements). This article provides a comprehensive review of the extant literature. Findings show that the performance and learning advantages through instructions or feedback inducing an external focus extend across different types of tasks, skill levels, and age groups. Benefits are seen in movement effectiveness (e.g., accuracy, consistency, balance) as well as efficiency (e.g., muscular activity, force production, cardiovascular responses). Methodological issues that have arisen in the literature are discussed. Finally, our current understanding of the underlying mechanisms of the attentional focus effect is outlined, and directions for future research are suggested.

Attentional focus and motor learning: a review of 15 years – Gabriel Wulf

I do feel that some of the criticisms I noted in my review of implicit and explicit instructions also apply to Wulf’s paper. For one, an awful lot of the research she sites in her paper were written by her or with her as one of the listed authors. On the one hand, it’s a sign that Wulf is considered one of the experts in her field, but if you’re looking for a consensus opinion it is also a sign of a potential bias. Not having read most of the papers she reviewed I can’t really say if any criticisms or confirmations she covers in her article are valid, but as I recently have been reminded, you can often tell what side of an argument a paper will come down on merely by looking at the authors. Wulf’s research seems to suggest that an external focus is always better, in spite of that not being a universal suggestion.

That said, Wulf does address the research that conflicted with her own findings and discusses potential issues that might cause the differences of opinions. And she also acknowledges that at times it is essential for us to attend to the details of technique. The trick is to make the focus of attention as external as possible, rather than focused internally on the motor control. One study she cited came up with a creative way to teach golfing technique with a more effective external focus. An important part of the golf swing is apparently how and when a golfer shifts weight towards the front leg. The study, “Carry distance and X-factor increases in golf through an external focus of attention,” compared golfers instructed with an internal focus (shift your weight to the left foot) and an external focus designed to elicit the same mechanical procedure (push against the left side of the ground). As expected, the external focus worked better.

All but one of the papers and articles Wulf cited were unrelated to music, but one study with piano students was discussed.

Duke, Cash, and Allen (2011) examined attentional focus effects on music performance. Music majors were asked to perform a keyboard passage, which consisted of 13 alternating sixteenth notes (A and F) that were to be played as quickly and evenly as possible. All participants played the sequence under four conditions: with a focus on their finger movements, on the movements of the piano keys, on the hammers, or on the sound of the keyboard. On a transfer test that involved the reverse tone sequence, a focus on the more distal movement effects (sound or hammers) resulted in greater consistency than either focusing on the more proximal effect (keys) or the internal focus (fingers).

Attentional focus and motor learning: a review of 15 years – Gabriel Wulf

My takeaway is that when technique is addressed in teaching and practice that some creative approaches to keeping the attention external is more effective than focusing on fixing the mechanics with an internal focus. Considering trombone technique as an example, here are some of my ideas on creating an external focus to achieve a specific motor skill.

Breathing

Arnold Jacobs and some of his former students had some great ideas about making the breath technique external. Jacobs was pretty adamant that he didn’t want students to think about “filling up the lungs” or otherwise thinking about the expansion that happens with inhalation. If you need to take in more air in an efficient way he advised paying attention to the feel of “wind” moving past the lips. Concentration on the belly expanding is a very internal focus. Moving it to the lips is a little less, but still internal. So how can we think about inhalation in a way that is more external?

It’s necessary to be a little creative here. I like to draw on mental imagery. Rather than feeling the inhalation at the lips, imagine that your breath is drawing in air from across the room.

For the blowing I’ve been borrowing from ideas I’ve gotten from Sam Pilafian’s and Patrick Sheridan’s book, The Breathing Gym. There’s an exercise in there where you imagine blowing the air as if you were shooting an arrow, throwing a dart, and tossing a paper airplane. So, for example, to help a student keep the air moving smoothly through a phrase you can have them visualize floating a paper airplane on the air flowing out of their bell.

Embouchure

The embouchure motion is a relatively easy technique to move to an external focus. The specific technique we’re trying to encourage is the pushing/pulling of the mouthpiece and lips along the teeth and gums. The mouthpiece itself is external already, but if we want to follow Wulf’s findings that the more external the focus the better, we can instead focus on the bell of the instrument moving up and down or side to side, whichever matches the individual player’s embouchure motion. If the horn angle should change somewhat while changing registers, rather than think about how that feels at the lips, focus on what’s happening at the bell.

For something like a smile embouchure I like to again resort to mental imagery. If the problem is the mouth corners are pulling back to ascend, rather than focus on what the mouth corners are doing imagine a long spring on either side that is attached to both walls on one end and at the mouth corners on the other end. As the student ascends, those springs are pushing against the corners and keeping them in place.

Tonguing

Tonguing is the most difficult topic of brass technique for me to come up with ideas for external focus. I think the current standard of using the tongue in a vocal manner works pretty well. So rather than thinking about raising the level of tongue arch to ascend the student will imagine saying, “tah-ee.” Another thought I had would be to imagine that there are motion sensors in the tongue that project its movements to a giant, artificial tongue so that they move in tandem. While playing ascending slurs the student could visualize what that giant artificial tongue is doing, rather than focusing internally on their own tongue.

A visualization that seems to work pretty well for me is to imagine that there’s a line of air coming out of the bell that is at the precise level of my tongue arch. As I slur from a middle range note to an upper range note that line of air is raised higher. Again, the point is to move the focus away from the internal (inside the mouth) to the external (on the other end of the bell).

Some of the above ideas aren’t great, but I’m really just brainstorming right now. I’ve been experimenting with moving my focus external in my practice for a while now but I haven’t tried it more than a few times with students. From that small sample I suspect that different visualizations and different degrees of distance in the point of focus will vary from player to player. This jives with some of the research Wulf mentions that the more advanced the subject the more distant the point of focus can be.

One thing I would like to point out is that my examples, and many of Wulf’s, involve someone (a teacher, coach, or other independent observer) knowing and understanding exactly what and how the performer should be doing. With the knowledge of how to play a savvy teacher or performer can come up with methods to affect a specific motor skill using the more effective external focus. At no part in this process does it appear that it’s recommended to ignore the playing mechanics. Interpreting this research as advocating letting the body figure itself out would seem to be less effective than approaching it through an understanding of what efficient playing technique is and working towards that physical goal using a focus that is as external as possible.

And of course it should go without saying that the sound should be the guide for the teacher and player here. The point of moving your focus to the external is to create the habits we want to adopt for good playing. When you’re done working on the technical aspects of performing for the time being it’s good to forget about them and put your attention on playing with expression.

Try it out in your own practicing and teaching and see how it works for you. What other ideas for shifting the focus from something internal to more external can you think of? Please leave your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.

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