and its removal.
Before bringing myself to compose this article, I pondered long and hard on the difference, if any, between what may be called 'overthinking' and 'conscious interference'.
In the beginning, I could see no difference since both referred to a worrisome state of mind of negative ill-effects until, at long last, it struck me that the former refers to the mind when the individual is not performing and the latter when the individual is in the process of performing.
(Consider my eBook: Water Pianism)
Overthinking involves excessive analysis, doubt and comparison away from the activity; conscious interference involves the desire to be in command of every movement at every moment during the activity. Both, indeed, are futile. This article shall discuss the latter.
I begin with two stories that I shall not explain. Please think about them away from this article and find a connection between them and you as a pianist:
1. A bear cub asked its mother how to walk. "What do I do first? Do I start with both my front legs and then my two back legs?" His mother ignored him, yet he continued, "What about both left legs and then both right legs?" Finally, his mother reacted firmly, "Stop thinking and start walking!"
2. A martial arts student wished to test his Master by surprise-attacking him one morning. Sitting next to him, he punched out with his fist directly to the Master's chest but, much to the student's disbelief, the strike was stopped not even half way. "But Master", he asked, "How can you react so quickly?" the Master responded with a smile, "I did not react quickly at all. Your technique is still immature; you moved with your mind first".
Psychological tests, as well as any test you may do upon or for yourself, prove that the conscious mind is only able to focus on one thing with 100% attention. Any other task you add to the conscious mind's load halves the attention between the two so each only receives 50% or 100% half the time.
One such example is the so-called Cocktail Party Effect in which one is required to focus on one conversation and to ignore all the others heard. This is possible, albeit with difficulty, but it is proved time and time again that taking in information from more than one conversation (or 'conscious control effort') reduces by around half each time. Try this yourself with multiple documentaries open on YouTube in separate windows. In other words, if two people are speaking, you can capture about 50% of each conversation only because the 'conscious control effort' as I call it is switching its 100% power between the two.
Now imagine four people speaking. Indeed, 25% of each conversation may be captured by the conscious mind. And so on, and so forth.
Imagine now a pianist of little experience. Off the top of my head, I can identify the following tasks which could be considered conscious control efforts during performance:
-Right foot pedal work
-Right hand stave in sight-reading (+ current bar and next bar)
-Left hand stave in sight-reading (+ current bar and next bar)
-Posture (incl. arm positions)
I count more than ten in the above list and maybe the reader can add even more. So, 100/14 = basically 7. In other words, the mind could be consciously thinking of up to fourteen things and giving them 7% each, at almost every moment of performance. Hmm...
If, as a pianist of any experience, it is found that difficulties are common-place, especially in terms of rhythm and/or fluency, the problem may have just been identified.
There is, however, a solution to the above but it comes with one barrier: Your Ego.
No matter how many words are written on the subject of the ego or by whom, if the ego does not allow the content past its critical barrier, all the words will fall on deaf ears or if they do get in, they will be chucked wide and far out the other side pretty soon. Therefore, it is in the best interests of the reader to be open-minded to the following suggestions since they come from experience as well as scientific (neuroscience) and psychological research which is easily accessible online (links provided where applicable), not to many your own research and experiences!
(click to expand - it's good!)
Motor Imagery is a word which describes the process of the mind imagining an activity is taking place but the body is not actually moving. This can be a whole-body movement such as swimming or athletic sports or tiny actions such as... finger independence for pianists.
What researchers have discovered over the past 50 years is that what the mind focuses on when the body is stationary actually lights up the same area of the brain as when the body is actively doing that activity. Isn't that interesting? That means that it is perfectly possible to learn an entire piece of music without sitting at the piano. And yes, it does mean this (silence that ego!) Your mind is so much more powerful than your ego lets you believe that it physically restricts you from becoming what you, the true Self, is or can do naturally.
This may prove quite interesting for you (general interest, no affiliation)
There was also some research carried out which involved individuals separated into three groups: the first was to do exercise, the second was to live normally and do nothing differently and the third was to imagine exercising. After a fixed period, of course the group which did nothing remained the same, the group which exercised showed a 28% increase in strength and immune system health and the group which only imagined it... showed almost the same! Well, so much for going to the gym.
What this means is that the pianist would do well to leave the piano in times of temporary difficulty and enjoy some extended periods of silence. During these moments, allow the mind to visually work on the difficulty, minus the ego.
One of my mantras is: The fingers can do what the mind can imagine them doing and the fingers cannot do what the mind cannot imagine them doing. A piano is simply not needed to overcome your piano problems (silence that ego!) all the time.
I would like to highlight just two of the fourteen conscious control efforts to give an idea of the kind of direction I recommend taking for the betterment of your piano playing.
1. Key Signatures
If you are a regular to my blog or YouTube channel (for which I am most grateful), you will surely be aware of my absolute, immoveable insistence on internalising all twelve major scales. Well, here we go again...!
There are twelve major scales which are built on the same template of whole and half steps: whole whole half, whole whole whole half. C is simply all the white notes but of course we don't see black and white notes on the piano, we see numbers (see here if you are temporarily confused). All you need do, without a piano, is go over each key's major scale shape without saying "Oh this is too difficult, this has too many black notes" (silence that ego!) until it becomes ingrained in your mind. The shape of Eb, for example, instantly flashes before your mind's eye and you see the scale, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb, C, D, Eb. It takes 12 days; one for each key.
Once these are internalised, this will be a significant reduction in your conscious interference. What usually happens is that when playing a piece, the pianist will constantly make mistakes by playing a non-flattened note (B instead of Bb in the key of Eb, for example) or, just before making the mistake, hesitate, knowing it should be a Bb.
Ouch! The noise of the conscious interference is deafening! Can you even hear me over all of that!? Silence that ego!
Once the major scales are mastered internally, it will be second-nature to play a piece or improvise in any key. Absolutely no conscious thought will be required to stay in the key or to worry about playing a wrong note. What a wonderful feeling. Mind 1 - 0 Conscious Interference.
2. Left Hand/Right Hand
The most difficult part of playing the piano for a newcomer (and even those with quite a lot of experience) is hand independence. As you may expect, there is a philosophical answer to this, too.
You must reprogram your mind to understand that one does not play the piano with two hands; one plays with ten fingers. If our biology was such that the left hand had 4 fingers and the right hand had 6 fingers, we would still be able to play the piano. If we had 2 on the left and 8 on the right, we would still be able to play the piano. Another limb? No problem, 3 fingers on the left, 4 in the middle, 3 on the right... we could still play the piano.
Spend time with your hands away from the piano doing flex exercises. By concentrating on the same finger on each hand as well as the same 'position' on each hand (meaning: LH little finger/RH thumb, then LH ring finger/RH index finger) you will create a very unique connection between the mind and the fingers; one that does not distinguish fingers in two groups of five. Don't waste time with 'strength' exercises since the fingers to not have muscles, but strong arms help.
Should you have hand co-ordination problems, you would do well to repetitively remind yourself of this ten fingers concept because it will surely start to show itself in your playing. As is always the case, the body follows the mind. Second of all, do the finger exercises both physically and mentally. You always have time to flex your fingers at each of the knuckles when watching TV, waiting in traffic, having a bath or a nice walk with the dog! No excuses. Silence that ego!
By understanding that you already possess the solutions to your perceived problems, your piano playing life will become much more enjoyable and you will benefit from all the positive effects of this state of mind.
I remind you of the text in the opening image: When the mind is not at ease, thorns grow upon the keys.
Think about that.