Getting Focused

I think most of us have trouble getting focused on self-improvement 'projects'.
Whether it's going to the gym to get in shape, or practicing an instrument. I find
It's all the same.

First, let me get a bit more specific. There is a difference between the person that
goes on occasional walks for exercise, and the person that spends 45 minutes for four to five times per week at the gym. There is also a difference between picking up an instrument and noodling around for fun, and focused work on improving weak areas of playing. I hear people tell me they practice three hours per day. In some of those cases it turns out they just 'jammed' around and noodled with what they already knew for three hours. Playing any instrument in any form is good, and will improve you a bit. But we are talking about real improvement. Remember the difference between the person that takes a 15 minute walk two times per week and the person that hits the gym for one hour, five times a week. Each is beneficial, but one is truly going to make a life change.

In this essay, I am talking about the out of shape person that is gonna make a life
change by working hard at the gym consistently. Truly improving yourself is a very
hard task. We make excuses or fool ourselves that we are making a change for the
better. But, many of us are not. "I'm a bit too tired to sit down and work on
scales," "I walked up a few flights of stairs at work, that should be good enough,"
"I played through those chords two days in a row, I need a break," "I'll get started
on that after I watch this show.." etc. We've all used them at some point.

This is a subject close to me. In school, I was told I had ADD, and other processing
problems. Sounds like a great excuse to say, "I can't do that, I have processing
problems." Sure, focusing is very hard for me. And, I am sure it's hard for a lot of people. But, they are still excuses if I used these labels to avoid work and
improvement. I didn't want to show up to every gig and explain to the other band
members that, "I have ADD, so that's why I suck."

I guess I can offer a few thoughts on getting focused. I worked myself from a person
that made every excuse not to work to a person that practiced (not noodled) four to six hours per day.

At first, any task looks too big to handle at the beginning. In music, you discover a lot of weaknesses in your playing. "Wow, I need more chops, to know all these chords, better tone, better feel, and my reading is weak. My blues playing is weak,
I can't improvise, I can't play changes." This list is just an example. Everyone's
'list' will be different. In fact, the examples I pick out in this essay are just examples. Everyone's will differ. In the case of exercise, we might shiver at the
fact that we have to begin to lose 30 pounds, starting tomorrow.

The first thing I did was buy a blank notebook. At the top of the page, I would write out four things that I wanted to improve on in the next four to six weeks. For example, I'd write "reading," "chops," "solo guitar playing," and "playing changes." Then, I would find something specific to help each of those. "Sight read out of Melodic Rhythms Book," "Transcribe and play Charlie Parker solo," "Write, and master, a Chord solo to 'In You Own Sweet Way'," and "slowly outline changes of 'In your Own..." with arpeggios in different inversions and different parts of the guitar."

Important: don't veer from these tasks. These tasks are your focus. When four and six weeks are done, pick different stuff. But, see these things through for a while.

Now, the key to improving these things is consistency. It's important that each of these four things are practiced every single day. I would write the date in the book, followed by everything I did on that day. This is how I would keep track of what I was really doing.

The first big problem - what about the days you feel you just can't bring yourself
to practice? I found just physically picking the instrument up and playing some
chords or licks can get the ball rolling. Once I get the guitar in my hand, I'm
usually OK. But, before that point, it feels hopeless.

The next thing is practicing in small doses. So, I convince myself I will sit and
practice one thing from my list for 15 minutes. Once I do that, I write that in my note
book. I can come back an hour later and practice the same thing for another 15 minutes. That adds up to 30 minutes. Perhaps later in the day, I can sit and practice because I know I already have some work done. Maybe I work on another item from my list for 30 minutes. Every time you work on something in the day, write it in your book. Those small doses can add up to 4 hours at the end of the day. You don't need to work for four hours. If you gave each task 15 min, you still worked on everything on your list that day. In fact, set that small goal for yourself at the start. "For seven days, I will practice each of my four 'tasks' ten minutes a day." Hey, we can do that! We can fit ten minutes here and ten minutes there. At the end of the day, 40 minutes - easy!

Maybe next week give 15 or 20 minutes on each thing per day. You are building your
attention span. Take it slow. You are still getting benefits from practice if you do
each thing every single day. The pay off is noticeable even when you only practice
40-60 minutes a day. Be patient with yourself. Stay consistent, but give your attention
span time to build.

Basically, I had to realize how I learned and what was going to work for me. I knew
I was not going to be able to focus six hours every day to start. I also knew I wasn't
going to be able to run three miles every day at first. Have you ever seen the movie
"What About Bob?" Bill Murray and Richard Dreyfuss starred in it. Hysterical! I am
loosely quoting Dr. Leo Marvin (Dreyfuss), a psychiatrist that wrote a book called
"Baby Steps" and was treating a multi-phobic character named Bob Wylie (Murray).
"Bob, there is a brilliant new book out called 'Baby Steps'. It means setting small,
reasonable goals for yourself. For example, instead of thinking about what it will
take to get all the way home, just focuses on getting out of the door of this office.
Then, focus on what you need to do to get to the elevator, and so on... baby steps."

Scott Tarulli is a guitarist and Berklee College of Music instructor whose all instrumental quartet plays music as diverse as the frontman's playing.

From aggressive jazz/funk to textural ballads, the band plays music for all seasons.

His latest instrumental CD is entitled "September In Boston: Live".

Scott Tarulli