The main question for the research presented in this thesis is: How can we characterise external focus for musicians and what are the effects of external focus on musicians’ learning and performance? Characteristics and dimensions of focus were discussed at the beginning of Chapter 2 and the conclusion made is that the most effective focus for complex motor learning needs to be associative (relevant to the task), positive, and anticipatory (see Table 2.1) – i.e. external focus. Examples of external focus for musicians were listed in Table 2.2, and all three projects involved the participants engaging in distal, music-related external focus (imagining things like the expression, shape and gesture connected to the music). The practice tool APT was used in all three projects. Projects Two and Three included other "external focus elements", both in the preparation (rehearsals) for the concert and in the context of the concert performance itself.
The projects used external focus in three main ways: instructions and feedback referred to movement effect and used musical language rather than technical language; methods for practice and rehearsal were based on external focus; and Projects Two and Three were designed to encourage the performers to focus on the meaning of the music during performance.
Results from the three projects tentatively supported the overall hypothesis: External focus is beneficial to musicians’ learning and performance experience. The hypothesis was addressed by all three projects (designed to be considered as a whole), which yielded both quantitative and qualitative data. Both enhanced learning and enhanced performance were reflected in the accuracy scores from Project One, and also by positive reports from participants in Projects Two and Three about their own performances. Results on the effects of external focus on self-efficacy, confidence and motivation were less conclusive (this is discussed further in the following section). What the current research suggests is that claims that external focus enhances movement effectiveness and efficiency for learning and for performance (Wulf 2007; 2013) could also apply to musicians. There was no indication in any of the results that the external focus methods used were less effective than the participants’ usual methods. Unlike most of the research on the effects of external focus on movement, the current study did not compare external focus directly with internal focus, but rather with the participants’ “usual” focus during practicing and performing. However, feedback from the questionnaires in all three projects, as well as the practice profile results from Project One, suggest that prior to the projects the participants did not usually rely on using external focus, but rather on internal focus as well as focusing on technical aspects of the music or on self-focus (e.g. avoiding mistakes or worrying about consequences).
The participant sample in Project One showed a wide distribution of skill and experience levels, suggesting that external focus can be effective for both beginners and for more experienced players as well as for learning new repertoire, thus lending support to the claim that external focus can be beneficial for both experts and novices, and for the beginning stages of learning as well as the advanced stages (Wulf, 2007; 2013).
The dependent variables for the three projects were accuracy, self-efficacy, confidence, motivation, engagement, satisfaction, enjoyment and ensemble playing. Results from Project One showed that external focus had a positive effect on accuracy. The results for self-efficacy, although suggesting a positive trend for performance self-efficacy, were not conclusive. To have clearer results, there would need to be more extensive research on the effects of external focus on self-efficacy and over longer periods of time. The same could be said of motivation – results did not indicate that external focus improved motivation in Project One, and there are not enough data from Projects Two and Three to indicate how the participants’ motivation was affected. Anecdotally, a higher than usual level of enjoyment, engagement and confidence was apparent in all three projects. Statistical results suggested a positive trend for engagement and confidence in Project One, and this was further supported by verbal reports from interviews in Project Two and the post-performance report after Project Three.
One of the most striking features from the studies was how much the participants seemed to be absorbed in the process of exploring music-making and how (based on the analysis of their qualitative answers) they themselves were surprised at the extent of the positive results of the performances (in both Projects Two and Three). This contrasted with the fact that many of them were very uncomfortable with singing and gesturing the music in rehearsals (and even alone in a practice room). In spite of their discomfort – several admitted to believing that APT was beneficial and even asked for it during difficult sections in rehearsals. Because of using APT (i.e. singing and gesturing), less time than usual was spent actually playing, which both worried some participants (during the process) and surprised them in that they improved nonetheless.
Several participants in Projects Two and Three mentioned in their interviews that they noticed a marked improvement in ensemble cohesion – supporting Keller’s suggestion that ensemble cohesion could be positively affected by using anticipatory musical imagery, and by being familiar with each others' parts (Keller, 2012). In addition, participants reported lower performance anxiety for the performances as well as more connection than usual with the music, the audience and the message behind the music. Low performance anxiety was an unexpected result – and was probably due to the high engagement/absorption levels (i.e. task focus). This result corresponds with claims by Wulf and Lewthwaite (2016) and Kenny (2011) that focussing on the task, rather than on the self, can enhance performance and lower anxiety. Masters makes a similar claim: that learning with implicit methods (e.g. involving external focus) can help one to perform well under pressure (Masters, 2014).
The approach to practice, rehearsal and performing presented was novel and interesting for the participants in general. To what extent did the participants of the current study continue to use the methods presented to them? The seven participants from Project One and Two did continue to use APT (or elements of it) several weeks after the project (see Table 6.5 and Appendix P). Participants who answered the questionnaire after Project Three reported that they gained a new understanding about how to approach music making and a desire to try out new strategies based on those they experienced in the project e.g.: “The gesturing and singing worked much better than I would have thought, and I will try to use this in my own playing”; “I learnt some rehearsal techniques, which I will definitely introduce into my future practice. Also the ideas on affects opened up more rhetoric possibilities and I am interested to read up on them further” (see Table 7.1 and Appendix S).
The extent to which the participants continued to use external focus during their practice and performance would require a longitudinal study.
The OPTIMAL theory revisited
As mentioned in Chapter 2, Wulf and Lewthwaites’ OPTIMAL theory suggests three factors that enhance motor learning: autonomy, enhanced expectancies and external focus. The research presented here supports the claim that external focus is beneficial – also in the case of musicians. During all three projects, external focus was introduced in a way that also promoted autonomy. Rather than being told what they should focus on, the participants were invited through gesturing, singing and making variations, to find their own images and movements to express the music. BY doing so they were thus engaging in positive task focus by using APT. The OPTIMAL theory is one that seems very applicable for musicians’ practice.
The aim of the current study was to investigate whether external focus could benefit musicians in general. The projects were designed firstly to look at the effects of external focus on natural trumpet players (as the effects are relatively easy to judge), and then to see if the benefits of external focus can extend to the preparation and performance of an ensemble project (Project Two) as well as to other instruments (Project Three). Results from Projects Two and Three indicated that external focus can be effective for preparing ensembles and are of benefit to musicians in general, and not only trumpeters. Whether there are specific waysto use external focus for different instruments, or for singers or other performing artists is a question that would need further research.
This study is an example of how science (theories and empirical research on motor learning and attentional focus) can inform the practice of music-making. It is also an example of how artists and artistic research can contribute to science. Using external focus in a way that generates complex, sophisticated imagery promoting creativity and autonomy could bring benefits not only to other performing arts but also to other domains such as rehabilitation and sports.