Distraction: A Problem for Musicians, A Problem for Christians, and Probably a Problem for Everyone Else, Too

While I use most weeks’ posts to write about some aspect of brass playing, teaching, or musicianship, at the end of each month I turn to writing regarding my avocational interest in Christian theology. Given the exponentially greater traffic that my low brass-related writings receive compared to my theological ones, writing on theological topics is evidently an indulgence that I undertake for my own pleasure in thinking and writing about such things rather than something that reaches others on a grand scale (and I am okay with this). My favorite posts to write, though, are the rare ones where I address some area where my vocational and avocational interests intersect. Often this manifests itself in writing about music in the church, or how Christian musicians should conduct themselves personally and professionally. Today’s post will be different, though, in that I will be discussing not a point of intersection of music and theology so much as a common problem shared by musicians and by Christians (including but not limited to Christian musicians), and certainly others as well.

Ours is an age in which incessant connectivity and constant communication are not only possible, but expected. Rare is the day that I receive fewer than twenty emails (including weekends), and while not all of these require a response some do, and each message carries with it a tacit expectation that the response come as close to instantaneously as possible. Add social media and text messaging to the mix, and these technologies that are ostensibly intended to improve our productivity soon remove the potential for getting any work done. The constant beeping, buzzing, and dinging of notifications—as well as the mental energy expended waiting for an expected reply, acknowledgement, or “like”—easily diminish or eliminate one’s ability to concentrate on anything for an extended period of time. Needless to say, this is to our impoverishment as human beings.

For musicians, this loss of focus causes wasted time at best, and debilitation at worst. I spend a great deal of effort in my own practice and in working with my students on learning to focus on the desired result rather than the processes used to get there. Musicians often have a terrible habit of thinking too much about the intricate details of physical execution involved in creating their art and thinking too little about how the music they are playing “goes.” When we focus on product instead of process, the musical result is more pleasing, and the physical execution is more effortless and more precise. This does not mean, of course, that there is never a place in the teaching studio or practice room for analysis and reflection on physical processes, but it does mean that in the end musicians must direct their energies toward making beautiful music, with the body’s involvement in producing the music being a means to that end, not an end in itself.

When the ability to concentrate is compromised, the musician’s ability to effectively practice or perform in this way is lessened. For example, a few days ago I was practicing for a recital I have scheduled for next week. This particular practice session occurred in the middle of one of my busier teaching days. The clock was quickly ticking toward my next teaching engagement, and my email and social media notifications were coming in at an almost constant pace. Unsurprisingly, I made a number of errors in that practice session that would have been absent or minimized if I had simply been focused upon that task at hand. While turning off my computer and phone would have eliminated some of the distraction, this is not always possible for one reason or another, and in any case wondering “what I’m missing” would create a distraction all its own, as would anticipation of the rehearsal coming in the next hour. Until I learn to quieten my mind, turning off the machines would be of limited utility.

Something similar can occur in performance. While in performance situations “unplugging” for a bit and ignoring the various notifications is easier than when teaching or practicing, new distractions can present themselves. For some, the pressure of live performance can lead to once again overthinking the physical aspect of music making at the expense of thinking about results. Or perhaps wondering what the audience is thinking at a given moment can cause similar distraction. The result is the same in all cases; missed notes, uncoordinated physical movements, and inefficiency in both preparation and execution. These problems will persist until one learns to focus on the musical task at hand when playing or singing, to think about “how it goes.”

If lack of concentration is deleterious to musicianship, it is exponentially more harmful to Christian devotion. In the first Psalm the man is called blessed who meditates constantly upon the law of the LORD. While the word “meditate” often conjures in modern imaginations the kind of mind-emptying activity characteristic of some forms of Eastern religion, the meditation enjoined upon the Christian is one not of mental emptying but of mental focusing. We are to ponder—deeply—the Word of God, reading the Scriptures and thinking of who God is and particularly what he has done for us in Christ. This is a discipline about which our forefathers, perhaps especially the Puritans, wrote often, but one which is often lost upon modern Christians.

Think about it, fellow Christian. How often do you sit down to read Scripture or to pray, and yet have difficulty quietening your mind enough to focus upon what you are reading, or to pray in any coherent sense at all? The same barrage of interruptions that plagues the musician is present here, too, only the activity being interrupted is infinitely more important. Instead of coming before the God of the universe the way a supplicant should address a benevolent but still all-powerful sovereign, we come to God with incoherent babbling that we would never use to communicate even to our fellow human beings. The Puritans understood the reality of distraction in prayer as well, but instead of accepting it they exhorted their readers to struggle and persevere in prayer and Scripture reading past any initial period of distraction until adequate focus was achieved. Sadly, in our hectic modern lives even the most earnest Christians set aside too little time to pray at all, much less to persist and strive in prayer until a more meaningful and focused devotion is achieved.

While these are the two areas of my life where I most often experience the negative effects of distraction, there are others as well. I find it harder to sit and read a book for an extended period of time. This can be attributed in small part to my problems with back and neck pain but I usually find my mind wandering well before any pain sets in. Listening to sermons, having meaningful conversations, and even listening to great music are harder for me to do beyond a superficial level than they were before electronic distractions became so ubiquitous. Surely I’m not the only one who has found that the constant flood of information and stimulation has led not to greater productivity and engagement, except on the most superficial level. Thinking, working, and interacting on a deeper level has nearly become impossible.

So what’s the solution? Sadly, I don’t have one, so I suppose my writing today is little better than a rant or screed that fails to meet my own standard for blogging—that I want to write things that are genuinely edifying to others. While turning off the phone and computer seem like a simple solution, until our workplaces and social circles stop demanding constant connectivity implementing that solution will not be possible. In any case, I hope it will be helpful to at least openly discuss the problem. Musicians, our constant connection to gadgets and gizmos—to say nothing of the various wanderings of our own minds independent of technology—leaves us less able to engage with our art with the level of precision or expression that great music demands. We need to be able to quieten our minds and souls in order to bring the required devotion to our art, both for the glory of God and for the edification of ourselves and others. That quiet and rest—for musicians and for every other human being—is ultimately found in the Lord Jesus Christ, who invites us in Matthew 11 to come to him and find rest. And yet here also we must learn to put away the cares and distractions of our hectic modern lives in order to meditate upon Christ and upon his Word. I won’t pretend to have mastered this, but I know that I must try, both for the sake of my work and for the betterment of my soul.

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:28-30)

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About Micah Everett

Micah Everett is Associate Professor of Music (Trombone/Low Brass) at the University of Mississippi, Principal Trombonist of the North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra, Bass Trombonist of the Great River Trombone Quartet, and Assistant Editor (Audio/Video Reviews) for the International Trombone Association Journal. He is the author of THE LOW BRASS PLAYER'S GUIDE TO DOUBLING, published by Mountain Peak Music, and released his first solo recording, STEPPING STONES FOR BASS TROMBONE, VOL. 1, on the Potenza Music label in 2015. In addition to his professional work, he maintains an avid interest in the study of the Bible and of Reformed theology. He holds doctoral and master's degrees in music from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, a bachelor's degree in music education from Delta State University, and a certificate in systematic theology from Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. The opinions expressed here are solely those of Micah Everett, and are not necessarily shared by the employers and organizations with which he is associated.
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