Overthinking and performance don’t mix

Last month, my guitar teacher held a group class/recital where all of his students play two pieces for each other and receive feedback. As you can imagine, in the weeks leading up to the group class, all four of us freaked out to varying degrees. At the last group class in December, one student even refused to play and attended the class only as an observer. Did I mention we’re all adults?

Knowledge isn’t the same as skill

Culturally, it’s hard being an adult beginner in anything. Children and expected to screw up while they’re learning, but for some reason we expect adults, including ourselves, to be good at a new skill right away. Why? I’ve observed a lot of adults who erroneously equate knowledge with skill and believe they can read/watch/think their way to acquiring a skill.

It doesn’t work that way at all. I understand why people do it, though. Actually practicing a skill, as opposed to simply reading about it, smacks us into our real-world limitations, and that can be too humbling an experience for some people. We’re learning–of course we’re not going to be perfect. We never will be. Yet we put so much pressure on ourselves that we either shy away from the challenge or we overthink the challenge and end up sabotaging ourselves.

Overthinking and getting in my own way

I’m no exception to this. In last December’s class, I didn’t exactly choke, but I played scared. I chose tempos that were too slow for the pieces and overthought each chord change and right-hand fingering. Sure, I didn’t make too many mistakes, but my playing was robotic at best. My teacher often tells me I’m a control freak (guilty) and I need to trust my ears and fingers more. Think in phrases and the piece as a whole, not the individual notes and chords. Perform and communicate emotions rather than simply execute what’s on the page.

He’s right, of course. As Met Opera timpanist Jason Haaheim says, the job of a musician is to vibrate air at people and make them feel a thing. If I play something note-perfect but don’t make listeners feel a thing, I missed the mark.

Turning off my critical brain

So for the June class, I purposely chose two pieces with wildly different styles. One was a romantic, moody piece and the other was a playful piece called “Danza del Gatto” (“Dance of the Cat”). After the usual hours of practicing, I made up my mind that the group class was simply another thing to practice. I have very little experience performing music as an adult, and the group lesson would be a good opportunity to get more used to it.

So when it came time for me to play, I turned off my critical brain and focused completely on the music and the emotions I wanted to convey. I managed to forget that I was even playing in front of other people.

My teacher said it was the best he’d ever heard me play those two pieces. I finally got out of my own way. The new challenge: remembering how I did that and repeating it.

There are no end goals: it’s ALL practice

People who play sports understand that overthinking ruins performance. Overanalyzing causes players to choke, I think people in creative fields can learn a lot from sports psychology in this area. Everything is practice, including things we consider THE end goal–big games, job interviews, auditions, performances, published stories. We believe that a particular event is the be all and end all capping off our hard work.

Nope, it’s just another practice session. I think that’s a healthier way to approach whatever we set out to do.