Yesterday I played hockey. In case you are wondering, I'm a goaltender, and not a very good one. But one thing I observed from our game was that I perform much better when I am in a state of unbroken concentration. Big whoop, you might be saying. But this was a pretty big revelation for me. I was suddenly aware that being "in the zone" as a goaltender means I need to be completely and utterly focused on every bounce of the puck, especially when the puck is not in my end. Don't worry, this comes back to music composition I promise.
The thing is, that if other thoughts enter my mind (which they frequently do while playing hockey) I quickly lose the intensity and desire to win. Once this is gone, I find that goals are let in, and my concentration and focus both suffer. Halfway through yesterday's game, I decided that I wasn't going to let my mind wander after the puck left my end. I did my damnedest to focus intensely on the play every second, and I felt as though I was moving with every player. From that moment until the end of the game, I only let in one more goal. And to be honest, there wasn't much I could have done about it (it was a three on one). I had a greater emotional connection to the game; I had a much greater desire to win. Everything about the game, including my energy and stamina, seemed to be enhanced from that simple change in attitude.
If you haven't guessed already, this experience is perfectly analogous to performing and listening to music. It is very easy as a listener (and sometimes as a performer) to allow your focus and energy to drag. Sometimes your energy is low, or you begin to start thinking about meaningless things while the music is playing. The music then becomes a backdrop to what you are preoccupied with (certain types of music lend themselves to this function, but western classical art music is not one of them). As with goaltending, even if you are removed from the play of the game, you must remain focused and follow every action intensely. The listener of a piece of music is challenged this way. If they are to feel emotion and be engaged with the music, they must make a conscious decision to banish mundane thoughts while the music is happening. They must witness and absorb every event meaningfully! You don't need to be an expert to do this, but you do need the commitment.
Another observation that I had was how much more tuned in I become as a goalie when I observe the whole play vs. only observing the lone player. Similar to music, if you find yourself only focusing on one aspect, or instrument, you will lose sight of context and direction of play. This usually results in a goal being scored. If you are a composer of music, this same skill of awareness applies, and not being aware of the piece as a whole could result in bad music. With every decision you make, you must maintain that awareness and concentration if your piece is to be successful. Attention to detail is obviously important, but there still must be a constant awareness of the play in motion, and how the energy is moving. It is not out of reach of the average athlete, performer, composer, I promise. But you do have to decide to concentrate on both the player and the play. After a few tries, you will enter the zen state of active listening, or have a shut-out with 40+ shots against. Either way, you will get more out of what you are doing.