Exploring focus of attention in music learning
The acquisition and refinement of complex motor skills requires that learners focus attention strategically in order to optimize performance outcomes. A considerable body of research across a variety of disciplines supports the idea that performers who focus their attention on the external effects of the body’s movements experience enhanced performance outcomes, whereas those who attend more to the movements themselves are disadvantaged. The effects of attentional focus on motor performance are explained, at least in part, by the relationship between focus of attention (FOA) and automatic motor control processes that develop with practice; automaticity allows cognitive resources to be allocated toward the processing of information related to task goals rather than the physical movements associated with the task itself. We understand little about how this phenomenon may function in the initial stages of learning complex skills, such as playing a wind instrument, when learners must attend to the discrete physical components associated with tone production in order to generate more desirable outcomes and establish proper fundamentals. In this dissertation, I report the findings of three studies designed to explore how FOA functions during ongoing instruction and self-directed practice. The first two investigations examined how experienced beginning band teachers instinctively direct students’ attention to internal (e.g., embouchure) and external (e.g., tone) components of performance. In both studies, teachers focused student attention on predominantly internal performance components, but they differed idiosyncratically in how they directed learners’ attention based on concurrent instructional goals and activities. Teachers frequently described relationships between internal and external components of performance (e.g., how embouchure manipulation affects tone), suggesting that they strategically paired physical behaviors with external effects in order to build students’ knowledge of action-outcome relationships. Finally, we examined how undergraduate music education majors enrolled in a brass methods course chose to focus their attention on internal and external elements of performance during self-directed practice on an unfamiliar brass instrument. Analysis of their practice verbalizations revealed that students with extensive training in brass performance reported focusing their attention on predominantly external elements, whereas the less experienced students described focusing on both internal and external elements relatively equally, often noting how their physical actions influenced external outcomes. Taken together, these results suggest that learning and refinement of instrumental performance skills may be optimized when learners’ attention is drawn to action-outcome relationships early in their training. Learners can recruit knowledge of these relationships when troubleshooting performance problems and think critically about how best to achieve musical goals. Classroom music teachers who explicitly verbalize the relationships between internal and external components of performance may therefore increase the efficiency with which students’ skills and independence are cultivated over the long term.