Focus and concentration may be the missing ingredient when a student is struggling to succeed or excel in school. Particularly with my public school students, I find a lack of ability in this area prevents them from progressing in their instrumental lessons. Students who have prior experience with activities such as music or dance lessons, Legos, chess play, or coached in a sport, bring a lot more to the table when learning a string instrument. These students frequently excel in their core subjects in school as well. There is a lack of activities that promote concentration and focus skills in typical American households. Unfortunately these skills seem to be developed mostly through extra curricular activities. Therefore, there will be those who cannot afford or do not have access to these activities. Among some public school administrators I have also come across a disdain for what they consider to be elitist activities. Fortunately, as long as a child is in a school system that values and maintains its music, art and physical education programs, all is not lost.
I first became acutely aware of the importance of focus as an educational necessity when I was co-teaching a Suzuki Early Childhood Education class (SECE). Having been created later in Suzuki’s life, it was his ultimate desire that all children have access to his philosophy and teaching methods. The seven tenets of SECE are: Every child can learn, Ability develops early, Environment nurtures growth, Children learn from one another, Success breeds success, Parental involvement is critical, and Encouragement is essential. The SECE curriculum was first developed by Sharon Jones in London, Canada. When I taught these classes for ages 0-3 years old, it became very clear that one of the big gifts of the program was the ability to concentrate and focus at a very young age. As a result, children can start instrumental lessons at a very young age.
Focus and concentration is not only a brain thing but also encompasses body awareness and emotional regulation. Additionally, SECE classes teach children ear and vocal training, empathy, and rhythmic movement. Parents learn how to bond with their young children in a whole new way. Parents also benefit from the support of the other parents and care givers in the class. Since children can participate at the very beginning of their lives, parents have access to social contact at a time when they otherwise might feel isolated. Yes – babies do learn and participate. SECE teachers are experienced at interpreting a baby’s facial and body motions as well as their vocalizations. Parents are encouraged to journal at the end of each lesson to help them keep track of the subtle changes that take place such as the first time their baby’s eyes follow the drum beat.
Anyone at any age can improve their concentration skills. I find yoga very helpful at this point in my life. It is different enough from playing the violin that I can be more open to movements and suggestions from the teacher without my conscious mind making judgements. Many yogis are well versed in Eastern philosophies such as the chakras, foot reflexology and energy meridians. The Sanskrit terms for various poses often suggest the associated energy. It is a time to be completely in the moment and perhaps enter into a theta state of mind. After practicing yoga for a period of time, I have found that I more easily can call up this state of mind. I have heard it called a quiet state of mind that is not cluttered with day-to-day issues and to-do lists. Yogis refer to it as “your practice off the mat.”
I know that public school physical education teachers and even classroom teachers have started including modalities such as yoga, meditation and breathing exercises to help students relax, concentrate better, and manage their anxiety. Especially during the pandemic, there has been a real emphasis on spending class time outside both for safety reasons and overall sanity! Parents should limit screen time and engage their children in non-electronic game play, music, art, and outdoor activities. There is so much to be gained for our children and our society.