Change Your Focus, Improve Your Performance

The Rio Olympics are around the bend… I don't know about you, but I LOVE the Olympics. 
I had the opportunity to attend the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 (I was actually planning on moving to Atlanta because I love the city). It was such a magical time.
But for some athletes, it doesn't feel magical… Some don't make it past qualifying, some have tragic falls, and some come in second.
Now, you may think coming in second at an Olympics is amazing. Yes, it is, but when you are an athlete training all your life for this moment, second place isn't good enough. 

Some athletes possess tremendous focus, while others don't…
When things start to go the opposite of what we want, it's very easy to focus on the wrong things.

Music performance and focus

As musicians, we too are in the public spotlight.
We practice hard every day in the hopes of reaching our goals and dreams, but sometimes we don't get there. 
We may make a huge mistake in public and feel embarrassed or ashamed. 
We may feel like the whole world is condemning us because of the “big” mistake we made during a solo or on stage performing a piece. 
We may think that we lost our big chance at “making it”, or getting a star to recognize us or to even get a record deal.
If that wasn't enough, we are also subjected to criticism, both constructive and destructive.
All that “stuff” gets in our head so that the next time we perform, that's all we're thinking (and worrying) about, and focusing on.
It can get overwhelming…

How we lose focus 

Let's face it – we all go through something similar when we perform (or even speak) in public. We may mess up a certain phrase, forget some words, play in the wrong key, hit a bad note.
I can't even begin to tell you how many times I've made mistakes when improvising.
When I first started creating solos with bands many years ago, I would be humiliated and horrified if I played a wrong note. Or worse, if I squeaked or the altissimo note didn't speak at the high point of the solo. And as a result, I would get even more nervous about performing the next time I had a gig.
I would also be worried sick over whether I was impressing some of the big-name stars I performed with.
It took a while to realize that my performance was the least thing they were thinking about in their minds. In fact, HOW I am performing should be the least important thing in my mind too…
It's not about HOW I am performing but about expressing my story or message across clearly enough for the audience and musicians to catch.
As Vince Penzarella would always say: 
My mind should be on creating not criticizing (click on the quote to Tweet).
If I am prepared (meaning I know my tunes thoroughly) it doesn't matter what others think, or if I sound as “cool and hip” as others. 
Trying to act like someone you aren’t….is exhausting and draining.
Shawn Johnson
When you go to a jam session, or you are playing a gig in front of a whole bunch of musicians, it is easy to 
compare yourself to someone else who you feel has more talent than you. But doing that is exhausting and gets you away from your main focus: the reason you make music in the first place.
We all lose focus in some way; it's what you do when you lose focus that counts. You can pick yourself up, dust yourself off and move on, or stay down and wonder why you are not moving forward on your journey.
Here's my latest mantra:

I am not learning if I am not making mistakes.
I am not growing if I don't take chances and risk making mistakes.
I am creating, not criticizing.
I would rather be proactive and learn something each time I express my story through my performance, than reactive and feeling worried and facing rejection from my own thoughts and those of peers.
(I will be the first to admit that this is still something I am working on. I have to get out of my own ego and get into creating great music every time I hit the stage.)
By the way, this doesn't just relate to performing on a stage. How often have you felt embarrassed to practice out loud because you felt it wasn't “good enough” or that the neighbors would complain and call it noise?
I personally felt that for a long time especially when I was going through an embouchre change on trumpet, or when I was first learning the altissimo range on the saxophone
When we focus on what others may think, we are being reactive, but when we focus on expressing a story and getting deeply involved in the music, we are being proactive.

How do we do change our focus from negative to positive?

  1. Focus on helping your bandmates instead of impressing them. Playing in a band, whether a rock, jazz, blues or community band or orchestra, involves being a good teammate. Working together to give the best possible performance is the goal, not just how well you play.
  2. If you are really nervous about your own performance, remember that someone in the audience may be having a really bad day. Turn their frown upside down by uplifting their mood and help them forget about their current troubles.  Just focus on lifting one person's mood during your performance.
  3. Before your performance, research what your piece is all about. What's the inspiration for its creation? What's an interesting story about the composer or previous performers? Bring that out in your performance.

The story of Shawn Johnson 

What inspired me to write this article was a recent video by Shawn Johnson, US gymnast from the 2008 Olympics.
She talks about how devastating it felt to not get the Gold medal in all her events, when everyone was predicting she would. 
She also talked about how she realized there was much more to life than winning a gold medal, and how she is much happier now that her focus has changed.  
Check it out by clicking here or on the video below…


Why hold back in expressing your story because of some unfounded fear of rejection?
If you think about it, that would be one of the most selfish things to do because you are not sharing your love of music with others.


It can be such a rush and so rewarding to perform in front of an audience and uplift their spirits. (At times, it's like the equivalent of getting a gold medal.)
Most of the time, it is our own negative thoughts and fears that stop us from performing, whether it's on a stage or in the practice room where people can hear us.
By focusing on helping others and being creative, we can be proactive and not feel the sting of rejection when we perform.

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  1. Wow thank you so much for this lesson. I now understand what my problems are. Gosh, if I could only know this few years ago.

  2. Your point about lifting some’s mood is perfectly stated.

    Lee Konitz once shared that exact sentiment with me.
    “No matter how badly you think you performed, if someone comes to you to say that you brightened their day, don’t point out your own imperfections; thank them and be glad that you made them forget their problems. That is why we perform.”

  3. Tim Griffin says

    Excellent words and advice. Playing in a band (small or large) as a team-mate, supporting and encouraging one another is so helpful. Tell your story with your instrument, but also allow others in the band to tell their stories with their instruments, and listen and appreciate their contribution. Thanks for these great articles.

  4. great advice Donna, when you see other people perform, they often don’t seem to have any fear on stage, although probably they can hide it better. Thanks for sharing this, it’s quite difficult to have this courageous attitude, but it’s absolutely a good midset. Thanks !

    • You are right – they have practiced hiding it for some time. That’s why you don’t see it. The ideal is enjoying going out on stage and performing in public – that’s what you want to visualize

  5. Hi Donna
    I am 67 and just learning the sax. I find I am often stuck and not getting the tone I want. I live in a duplex so I do get concerned about what the neighbours think. Do you have a practice format that you use to help students systematically improve?

  6. Edwin Rivas says

    Great article Donna!

    That help me a lot even in my daily life.
    Hope my story doesn’t get you bored.

    I’m 58, from Puerto Rico, started with the Alto Sax 10 yrs ago, a lot of things happen but, every time I practice with the Sax I feel better, is like meditation and prayer. I started taking private lessons with a former music teacher from my former high school back on 79′ that owns a music store and I met him when looking for music stands for my cousins. Let me clarify that I never took music classes with him but some times liked to watch him how he tough his students. I always loved music listening since I was a kid but a slacker to learn to play.
    He told me to forget all regrets from the past and never is late to start a new adventure. For two years I was with him; one day he told me that I was starting to sound very good. i asked why and he told me that the first year I was just making loud noises.
    Then I have to drop from because my wife was laid off because closing, so we need to do budget adjustment.
    Then talking with my boss, a trombonist, he told me about a program to join, an affordable adult program on the PR Music Conservatory (a 4 yr preparatory program) after that, you may apply to study on the conservatory, but then even I was also laid off and have to work from an Engineer to a truck driver (50% less income) I managed to continue my second semester of the first year. Fighting with financial struggles, an opportunity for better job opportunity came up here in Texas, so I had to drop from the conservatory after the first year.

    I’m stage freak so I just played and practice for fun, relaxation, and improve my performance in all aspects. Some times simple music practice with my cousins and family but that was 6 years ago before I moved to Texas for work. Here I used to go with my wife to the park and while she do crochet, I practice with the sax. I like to play ballads, Latin, religious, soft, meaningful themes. I transport my self in mind and space. Not very good improvising but I’m taking your advice on account.
    Here, I do not find any Sax instructor close enough to where I live so, I’m most on my own, with ups and downs following my old books and remembering the advises given by my former instructors when I was taking private classes in Puerto Rico. Tried to take a degree in music in a campus across my work place using my VA benefits but, they do not have an evening program.
    Thanks to your classes on You Tube and others good instructors I can learn more and keep progressing one step at a time.

    So with my ups and downs, and this COVID-19 situation, I’m back on track practicing at least 30 minutes daily to see if I can keep going for the rest of my life. We waste more than 30 minutes every day in so many unproductive things and at least 30 minutes daily is a good practice time from an amateur. It is funny but, the hard part to me is the basics: like you need to get-up from bed every morning, for me is assembling the mouthpiece to the neck, then the reed. Usually I exceed the 30 minutes practice after I assemble my sax. A “Blessing” Alto Student Sax. My wife says that It is difficult for me to start but more difficult to stop. This sax has a story: it was stolen from my pick-up by someone who broke the window while I was in a funeral home after an evening class. My mistake, the teacher told me that never store the instrument on the car for a long time. But the next day I recovered it on the same conditions on a pawn shop that I suspected, and was less than a mile from the place of the incident. Cost me around $260.00. I have to by it because the police told me that I have to buy it to submit a case. Never found the responsible for the crime. Ten years and never overhauled, Even is a “cheap” saxophone I like how it sounds and have a very sentimental value for me. I keep it clean and lubricated. That sax has become my friend. I bought a curved soprano 3 years ago and some times switch from each other. On PR on a pawn shop bought an “Hermes” brand fro $125.00 that I disassembled, cleaned and put it back together for repair practice. Then for $80.00 a shop made final adjustments and tuning. One year ago, it fell from the stand and broke the high G left palm key support so I put it back on the case until i get a chance and $$ to take it to a shop for repair and overhauling.

    What I can say, this COVID-19 has become my challenge to be back to the proactive routine, turning a bad situation in a good opportunity.

    “There are no problems, Just Opportunities and Challenges”

    And also adapted this one of one Michael J. Fox’s quote:
    “Discipline is just doing all thing the right way whether anyone’s is watching or not”


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