The Science is Real: Attentional Focus and Motor Skill Learning

My students are well aware that I am not a teacher of ‘technique’ per say; I won’t tell you how to set up your embouchure or what you should do with your slide. You won’t hear me tell you how to tongue or make you do fancy high range exercises. Instead, I’ll direct your attention to the flow of your air through the horn, or the shape of the phrase and where the notes want to go. I’ll make you sing a note or spin a song on a pinwheel. You’ll have to know the words (or make up your own) to a particular tune.

No technique was ever arrived at without a musical reason for doing so. -Jan Kagarice

I’m proud to say that 100% of my students make a beautiful tone on their instrument, and can answer the question, ‘what is the phrase here?’. They can all play some level of tune by ear and are learning how to improvise and compose. A student last week, who has been with me since the spring, marveled at how easy a fast passage was. “I’ve never been able to play fast,” she said. “But I’m playing fast here and I didn’t even think about it.” (Then we both got a little teary and grinned at each other for a minute)

This probably isn’t news to many teachers- putting a student’s attention on an effect or ‘external focus’ is almost always more productive and longer-lasting than directing the focus inward, to what the movement is. The good news out of science is that we have concrete evidence to prove this.

Attention and Motor Skill Learning, Gabriele Wulf

Here’s a book I want to recommend to all my teaching colleagues, no matter what your field of education. While it’s based on studies and scientific analysis, it’s easy to read and offers practical suggestions on the implementation of her findings. I’ve highlighted the heck out of my copy. At its most basic, the evidence shows that directing learners (at all levels) to the effect of their movement (external focus), rather than the movement itself (internal focus), has both more immediate and long-term results on the efficiency and accuracy of the skill.

Here are some of the points that hit home for me:

  • Learning can be divided into 3 stages: Cognitive/Verbal, Associative, and Autonomous. It’s long been assumed that we have to, at early stages in our learning process, direct attention to our movements and technical execution. As we increase in ability, our movements have more autonomy and we can focus on the results.

Internal Focus in music learning: Beginner brass players are often told to put their “lips together as though they were saying the letter ‘m'” and to “blow fast air to push the lips apart”. They are also often told to shift their instrument or lip position, or adjust their jaw or facial muscles in order to achieve different ranges. As skill increases, theoretically these instructions can be lessened, but even at my advanced level I have had teachers give me advice on how to manipulate my body to achieve a certain result.

External Focus in music learning: Lip-reed instruments like brass and some woodwinds operate on columns of air. Beginner students in my studio (as well as all other levels) are instructed to leave their lips open and flexible, place the instrument on their mouth where it feels comfortable, and move air through the tube and out past the bell. Then, they are given a pitch to imitate (and asked to sing it first), and are told to hear the instrument making that sound, and allow their lips to vibrate with the air column. It make take some trial and error, but most students get it within a few minutes with minimal effort.

  • Learning by external focus enhances not only immediate skills, but also holds up in retention tests and under performance conditions. Anxiety can cause performers to shift to more internal foci, thus causing less fluent actions. And the body cannot learn efficiently under pressure- it must have the ability to focus on one external point related to the skill in order to gain the effects of the function.

Internal Focus in music learning: We spend our precious energy practicing out of technical etude books, looking for the newest ‘hot tip’ on increasing our range, buying expensive toys that are supposed to make things more ‘natural’, and in general obsessing over HOW we do what we do, and not WHY we do it. We think about having enough air, or if we’re moving our slide fast enough, and we practice those things. Often in performance, we’ll get anxiety about the very things we’ve been drilling ourselves on, and choke in the moment.

External Focus in music learning: By adopting external foci, we are in effect ‘practicing performance’. We’re looking for the results of our actions, and utilizing trial and error to let the body adapt its own mechanisms for implementation. Instead of trying to ‘take a big breath’, we might instead sing through a phrase and see where it wants to go, and make our air stretch to that point. Instead of ‘moving the slide faster’, we might train ourselves to react to what the tempo requires us to do through incremental practice (setting a metronome at a slow speed, hearing the phrase done cleanly on a piano or voice, and then imitating. Once efficient, raise tempo a small degree of beats, rinse, repeat). In practicing performance, we are always ready to perform and we feel relaxed and comfortable in our ability to do so.

  • Feedback is only effective if it induces an external focus of attention. Feedback that highlights particular movements can be detrimental to the learning process, producing what Wulf names “maladaptive short-term corrections”, i.e. focusing on one part of the movement skill obsessively, and blocking out all other details. However, externally-focused feedback, and observational practice, can offer great insight into how to perform a skill effectively.
  • The distance of the external focus can have an effect on the learning outcome. For beginners, it may still be close to the body (for a golf club swing, thinking about the movement of the club) that then increases to a more distant goal (where does the ball need to go) as the skill develops, but the focus is still outside of specifying bodily movements.
  • External focus cues result in more efficient and technically accurate movements. A study using electrode analysis of the muscle movements on participants doing bicep curls had two groups of learners: those thinking about the movement of their arm (internal) and those moving the bar in a certain way (external). The analysis showed that the external group used far less muscle movement to execute the skill, wasting less energy and learning the technique more quickly and with less effort.

Internal Focus in music learning:  “Tighten your corners for that high note and blow faster air”- over-utilizing muscles that already have to take on a certain amount of pressure to play a higher note, adding stress and tightness and creating disappointing results.

External Focus in music learning: “Sing the note. ‘Play’ the note on a straw or pinwheel. Focus on the sound and resonance of the bell as you go higher.” Often its easiest to help students with range by assigning them a simple tune they know that can be transposed into different ranges to help them hear higher or lower notes. Their body will adapt the correct amount of pressure and lip aperture automatically, and learn intrinsically how to maneuver the speed of their air.

  • Learning by external focus is a relatively general phenomenon. Different types of learners (kinetic, visual, etc) show no variation in how effective external attention is on gaining motor skill confidence. People who suffer stroke, speech impediments, Parkinson’s Disease, and other neurological conditions have shown tremendous improvement utilizing external attentional focus. Children can benefit especially, as picking up a skill is no longer a matter of boring task-specific instructions, but instead can unlock abilities through their natural learning process.

Conceive, don’t perceive. -Arnold Jacobs

Even without the scientific evidence to back it up, I would still teach this method. Learning this way of thinking changed my entire approach to the trombone, and I credit the shift with why I am still performing and teaching today. I see the results every day in my students, and I am always adapting to their current needs while keeping their ‘ear on the prize’. And I believe it’s the most egalitarian way we can educate- not stifling learning processes with too much noise and information, not creating barriers for learners who might not be engaged by or capable of long hours of technical work, not holding any biases as to ‘who can do what’ (“you have big lips! you can be a tuba player” or “you’ve got a big set of lungs for a little lady”)- but instead knowing that every individual is capable of playing an instrument, if only we allow them to learn naturally and freely.

6 Replies to “The Science is Real: Attentional Focus and Motor Skill Learning”

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