The individual’s focus of attention has a significant influence on the learning and performance of motor skills. Instrumental teachers focus a students’ attention of body movements, yet studies have shown that directing attention to movement (internal focus) is ineffective. An external focus, or directing attention to the effects personal movements have on the environment, has been shown to give more effective results in performance and learning.
Benefits of an external focus have been linked to the facilitation of movement automaticity. The individual takes advantage of the unconscious processes of the motor system – the reflexive – control capabilities of the body. Focussing internally on movements creates a conscious type of control, when inhibits the motor system and disrupts the automatic control process.
Many of these research findings have been conducted with a variety of sports. The application of this type of research to musicians is scarce, however, it does sound well-suited to musical instrument training. During music instrument instruction, teachers would use language which directs the learner attention away from small muscle or body movements, to allow for the automatic motor programs to proceed. This prevents cognitive interference with the use of internal focussing instructions, allowing for faster memory storage and retrieval.
When teachers give instructions, they should describe the effect to be achieved, and not the physical movement to be addressed. Internal focus of attention may be counterproductive to learning as it creates pathway inhibitors in motor learning system. External focus allows the student to find a solution to a technical problem with clear pathways in the motor learning system.
Wulf and Mornell, 2008. Insights about practice from the perspective of motor learning: a review. Music Performance Research Vol 2.