Sunday, February 3, 2013

Paralysis of Analysis

I have a student who probably should have made region band this year.  Honestly, there is no probably about it.  Had he guided his practice efforts the right way, he would have made region band.  Unfortunately, he succumbed to his insecurities in a way most of us would find familiar.  He couldn’t ever get out of his own head.

Probably three-quarters of the work my students need to do lies in personal perception and how that guides their practice and performance.  Fundamentally, most bassoon students, if placed correctly, are highly intelligent, strongly independent young people.  If prepared the correct way from the moment they first begin to learn their craft, they would all experience high levels of success.  Unfortunately, from the first time they touch the instrument, they experience instruction aimed primarily at correcting mistakes.    For many students, their early instruction teaches them to ferret out errors.  While this may seem like the best way to focus practice, these students have learned to do it to a fault.

The student I mentioned above suffers from this problem.  We can hardly make it through a measure or two before he stops to point out his errors.  He constantly stops, describing the mistake, reasoning out the origin of the error, before restarting.  Left to his own devices, we would never make it past the first line of anything in our lessons.  I am certain his practice sessions proceed the same way.  He is plagued with paralysis of analysis.

My job in his lessons is to deflect his focus from errors.  I work in small chunks of music; any time he stops, I instantly redirect - “keep playing, keep playing, keep playing” - until he resumes.  I don’t let him offer a single unobstructed comment until he has completed the chunk.  Once he achieves that, we dissect the phrase, find the errors, prescribe a solution, and work through it again - without stopping.  Slowly, I am teaching him to practice the right way.  He will make region next year.

Most of us succumb to the same sort of paralysis at points in our life.  We over-think to the point of negativity, sometimes thinking long past the point when decisions should be made.  Often, we wait so long, decision making slips from our skill set, leaving us bereft of the ability to even decide something as simple as what to eat.  

This paralysis resides in fear.  My student fears someone will catch him unaware of his own mistakes, so he stops constantly to point them out when playing on his own.  When playing in band class, the fear retreats - the likeliness of getting caught making mistakes reduces substantially when playing with sixty or seventy other musicians.  If we looked deep within ourselves, our insecurities develop from similar fears.  Our society prides itself on perfection.  We learn from an early age mistakes are frowned upon, so we prevent them by avoiding activities in which they occur or we jump the gun and point them all out unnecessarily.  Neither are the solution.

I teach my students that mistakes lead to growth.  We are human; we err.  I tell them to give themselves permission to make mistakes.  Allowing themselves to err reduces the power a mistake has over their psyche.  Eventually, they roll right past their mistake unaffected.  Now, to be clear, I stress the difference between ignoring a mistake and moving past a mistake.  One is healthy, the other is not.  We practice with a “mistake basket” in which they deposit their mistakes while playing a particular passage.  After they complete the passage, we examine the basket’s contents and decide which items need our focus.  Eventually, we free ourselves from the paralysis of analysis.

Mistakes are necessary for growth, for developing character.  Learning how to handle mistakes in our lives positions us to roll with anything the world might throw our way.  Avoiding or over indulging them does not offer a solution to the problem, rather it roots the problem deeper.  Avoid the paralysis of analysis before it sets in too deep.


  1. Frank, You hit the nail on the head. Check out Arnold Jacobs: Song and Wind, pages 141-143. I got this concept while going to VanderCook in the 80's.
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