The Perils of ‘Overthink’

(picture source: de Melo Counselling)

Overthinking a piece of music can kill it – just as overpractising can. We’ve all done it – and we all continue to do it: thinking too much about the details – articulation, dynamics, voicing, pedaling. Often ‘overthink’ occurs when a piece is known well, but we don’t feel confident enough to let the music take flight or to simply allow the music to “be”. It can also create problems which aren’t really there.

Overthink is driven by the logical, self-critical left side of the brain: the hemisphere which is on the look out for errors, hyper-sensitive to any slips, however small, and always ready to send in the committee of corrections to tick us off for our mistakes. Our mind, specifically the left side of the brain, is the biggest obstacle to reaching peak performance – whether at the piano or on the tennis court. Overthinking will result in a boring, lifeless sound and, potentially, a performance riven with errors – because our left brain thinking has set us up for them in advance. The Inner Critic works for the left brain and can do a great deal of damage to our music and our self-esteem and emotional health as musicians. Unfortunately, western societal mores encourage far too much left brain thinking. From the moment a child goes to school (this is true in the UK, at least), they are encouraged to get things “right” (and be rewarded with stickers, or other signs of approval from the teacher). Mistakes are regarded as “bad” and to be discouraged. I come across this mindset time and time again with my students, who want their pieces to be note perfect. I encourage them to put aside thoughts of “perfection” and to instead strive for expression, musical colour and vibrancy in their playing, but such results are hard won and take a lot of encouragement and positive affirmation on my part.

Over the summer I had encounters with two inspiring teachers who highlighted the need to allow right brain thinking to take charge, to allow one to see the bigger picture of the music, as a whole, and to free oneself from negative self-talk and criticism. In one group lesson I found myself, before I’d even played the piece, justifying why I was going to employ a certain range of dynamics, what my intentions were for the opening phrase and a whole host of other reasons why. Instead, the teacher said, “just allow the music to be. Play with conviction and self-belief and your ideas will come through”. The resulting round of applause from the other members of the masterclass proved her point. In standing back from the details, I had allowed the true character of the music, and my response to and belief in it, to speak, and the resulting sound was convincing, vibrant and, most importantly, natural.

When we have been working on a piece or pieces for a long period of time, it can be hard to see the wood for the trees, as we become obsessed with making sure all the details of the score are correctly observed. Of course we must do this detailed work and it is important that we do it in an intelligent and methodical way as this ensures a tiny margin of error in performance and enables us to play with a confidence founded on the knowledge that “I know my pieces” (Horowitz). But if you are always thinking deeply when you are playing, you may find yourself suffering from “paralysis by analysis” (a term often used by athletes who fail to meet their potential ahead of a big game or race because of overthinking). If we have overloaded ourselves with detailed information about our music, and have drained ourselves mentally and physically by doing so, we have no resources left for the performance. Music which, in performance, is still undergoing “overthink” can sound lifeless, lacking in excitement and too safe or polite.

The best performances often come “in the moment”, where right brain thinking is allowed to take over. It banishes the inner critic and the continuous commentary of the left brain (“you missed that chord”, “you smeared that scale”), and frees us to be spontaneous, imaginative and creative as we play. Unfortunately, this is not something which happens automatically and is in fact the result of many hours spent meticulously practising and refining the music. Armed with good and proper preparation, one can walk onto the stage and know that a spontaneous “in the moment” performance is possible. In this instance, the final moments before the first notes are sounded can become the most important of the entire performance.

Psychologists and performance coaches talk about “centering”, the act of entering a state where the mind is focused yet relaxed. Observe a top tennis pro such as Roger Federer preparing to serve and notice how he allows himself time to prepare, rather than rushing into his serve. In the moments before we perform, whether in public or at home for friends, family or just the pets, take time to centre yourself. I call this “thinking myself into the music” and this process begins before I arrive at the piano. I imagine myself walking across the stage, sitting down at the piano and preparing to play. At the piano, I hear the opening phrase in my head, imagine the kind of sound I want to create, visualise my fingers moving across the keys. I also try to put myself in a “safe zone”, in my imagination at least, by pretending I am playing at home, on my beautiful Bechstein grand, to my family, or to myself. Or I recall a good public performance and try to take myself back to there, to recreate the emotions, and the sounds.

I have of course experienced left brain interference during a performance, the inner voice interrupting the flow of the music with comments such as “you always play that chord incorrectly and you’re going to do it again now”. But with good preparation during practising I have learnt to banish this voice, usually by using deep breathing techniques. Employing habits learned from mindfulness, allowing myself to perform “in the moment” and banishing damaging post-concert analysis all help to create a performance which is, I hope, convincing, committed, expressive and exciting.

Further reading:

Can Musicians Overthink Their Practice and Performance?

The Bulletproof Musician – a wealth of articles on performance anxiety and how to perform at your best on stage

Charlotte Tomlinson – performance coaching for musicians and creator of Beyond Stage Fright, a series of interviews with well-known musicians on dealing with performance anxiety

The Musician’s Journey with Christine Croshaw – resources on dealing with obstacles and learning how to see the bigger picture in our music