Overthinking vs Just Do It

Edited: July 20, 2021, 3:10 AM · In a nutshell, Overthinking allows us to Just Do It... better!

Some of us found the violin easy from the start: the right background, the right hands, good reflexes, a well-nourished "ear", calm but intense absorption in what we do, will-power etc. etc.
Others have to create these conditions for themselves.

Overthinking can help us teach a student who is different from ourselves, physically or mentally.
It can help master or improve new or neglected techniques.
It can create different forms of Slow Practice.
It can re-awaken deadened sensations and create new ones.

Overthinking during preparation can allow us to Just Do It.

Replies (41)

July 19, 2021, 12:45 PM · I'm all in favour of thinking and one of the things I think is that music shouldn't sound "calculated". Over-thinking is when the means causes us to lose sight of the end.

One day I'll write a book of gnomic remarks.

Edited: July 19, 2021, 12:56 PM · I have a foot in both camps.

My overactive mind will refuse to be quiet before any performance or important date. Nonetheless my attitude is still "I'll figure it out when we get there"; the overthinking is all just useless noise.

I don't think there's any benefit to overthinking anything. Surely you mean "consider", "premeditate", "analyze", or any number of synonyms without the negative connotation...

July 19, 2021, 2:02 PM · The right means allow us to enjoy the end without having to figure it out.

July 19, 2021, 5:16 PM · Attributed to Heifetz: "Practice like it means everything in the world to you, and perform like you don't give a damn"
July 19, 2021, 5:24 PM · This is maybe bit pedantic but to me overthinking is thinking that gets in the way of reaching a goal. Thinking that helps reach the goal is just thinking, no qualifier necessary..

Mind you this definition is quite fluid; many people probably thought Einstein was overthinking when he published the theory of relativity...

July 20, 2021, 12:51 AM · Good old Heifetz!

I use "overthinking" (with irony) because the word comes up often in v.com discussions when accomplished players don't adapt to the needs of the less accomplished (particularly those with small hands..)

I still find analysis of sounds and sensations a helpful tool in the the preparatory phases, not in performance.

Edited: July 20, 2021, 2:01 AM · I agree with Albrecht, and live by that Heifetz quote.

I'd say thinking is "overthinking" when it leads to paralysis through analysis: you can't commit to any plan and jump between different approaches. A suboptimal approach with full commitment will yield 100x the results compared to the ideal plan, which you are still constantly second-guessing (thanks, Google).

In strength sports I come to this same conclusion with regards to training time after time. Keep it simple, stupid and it works wonderfully.

Edited: July 20, 2021, 3:08 AM · "Keep it simple, stupid and it works wonderfully."
Maybe, but that can lead to simple, stupid playing (only too common..)

I'm not sure that violin playing is like a strength sport; more like a high wire act..

July 20, 2021, 3:32 AM · "Maybe, but that can lead to simple, stupid playing (only too common..)"

For some, absolutely. But I think they will miss the essential either way. Luckily we have teachers.

"I'm not sure that violin playing is like a strength sport; more like a high wire act.."

I'm glad it is not, not sure how I could even function if that were the case :D

July 20, 2021, 3:42 AM · I hadn't heard the "Heifetz" quote before but if true it does the man no credit at all. To perform like you don't give a damn can only leave the impression that you don't give a damn about the music. My mantra might be "just do it with passion".
July 20, 2021, 5:20 AM · I love the Heifetz quote.
July 20, 2021, 7:27 AM · Steve, I think you're over thinking the quote.
Edited: July 20, 2021, 7:47 AM · One "like" for Paul Fehrenbach. I think Heifetz likely meant that a performance should be unfettered by fears of failure and undue concern for technical problems. But ... that's easy for him to say.

I try to think about stuff analytically when such thinking seems likely to be useful. "Hmm ... when I play that passage, that note is always a little sharp. Why? Oh, it's because I'm moving over a string and my hand position is drifting ..." So I pay slightly more attention to hand position while drilling the passage a few times and then move on and hopefully it will "stick" without me having to use all my bandwidth on that note in future: Trust but verify.

July 20, 2021, 4:11 PM · In defense of Heifetz: The quote--if real--allows for more benevolent interpretations; I take it to mean that the time to worry about one's performance is during practice, not during the performance. Most people I think would agree with this.

At any rate "passion" to me is rather orthogonal to "give a damn" in the context of concertizing. Or you could even argue that "giving a damn" tends to suppress passion.

Edited: July 21, 2021, 2:26 AM · Stupid to bang on about a quote which could well be apocryphal (or at least corrupted by lack of context) but wouldn't we applaud another musician who says we should perform "like it means everything in the world" to us?

However, to give it some credence, occasionally I'd say Heifetz does sound like he couldn't give a damn. And yes, technical mastery and emotional commitment are orthogonal dimensions, but sometimes I think they tend to be inversely correlated...

July 21, 2021, 2:14 AM · I found the Heifetz citation interesting. I studied with one of his students, and he told me about the same in slightly other words. Now I know, where that might have come from.
Although that was the best teacher I ever had, this one sentence was the least helpful thing he said to me: I am convinced that if you practice to think about everything during each moment of your practice time then this is what you do during performance. How should you suddenly just let go?? Perhaps this was true for a certain type of mindset, which probably applied to Heifetz. I have always struggled with my thinking getting in the way of my technique, especially so during performance.

Flesch, on the other hand, suggested practicing 4.5 hours per day: First 1.5 h just technical stuff, then (after a long break) 1.5 h applied technique with the pieces you work on, and then, 1.5 h just playing the music without worrying about the technique.

Nowadays, I thoroughly regret that I have never taken that last part seriously, enough. I thought if you are sure about your interpretation then you have to make it come to live by means of your technique. This is true, but I underestimated the psychological part of “just playing”. Also such a thing needs to be practiced, otherwise the only thing that you can rely on is constantly thinking. And this can be harmful (especially during auditions…).

July 21, 2021, 2:24 AM ·
"just playing the music without worrying about the technique"

This would be 'performance practice'.

Edited: July 21, 2021, 9:12 AM · I like Flesch's scheme.
Overthinking only applies to the first 5-10 minutes of the first two 90-minute sessions.
July 21, 2021, 8:06 AM · I had a tennis coach who said "when you are thinking, you are losing". I don't think that applies to the violin, which makes it a little easier.
July 21, 2021, 9:11 AM · One of the many strokes of the Chinese character "t'ing" (listen) means "undivided attention" which should perhaps be be a "being", non-thinking state.
July 21, 2021, 10:24 AM · Jazz legend (pianist) John Lewis was famously asked what's the secret to success in jazz improvisation, and he replied "Concentration."
Edited: July 21, 2021, 10:47 AM · When I play I'm thinking partly (probably too much) about the mechanics of making the notes but mostly about the music. Taking care of my own part in an ensemble and relating it to the rest occupies my whole attention. When I play on my own I'm constantly focused on the sound and the phrasing. I really can't comprehend how "undivided attention" could be interpreted as a "non-thinking" state!
July 21, 2021, 11:39 AM · "Non calculating", perhaps? To focus on sound, phrasing and ensemble, we cannot "think" about the fingers, thumbs, elbows, arm vs hand vibrato, or leaps into 6th position etc. We "Just Do It" with what we have already assimilated. The thinking then becomes (nearly) purely musical.
July 21, 2021, 12:12 PM · When you have to play C on the A string do you think "I must put down my second finger?" I don't. I read the C on the music and the second finger does the rest without any conscious thought on the part of my brain. It is called a reflex.

I believe this is what Flesch had in mind. You don't think about technical details exactly to free up your thinking capacity for the music.

Edited: July 21, 2021, 1:52 PM · My second finger is the strongest, and has the best vibrato, so I probably( (..) use it most. If it gets sore or stiff after a 3 hour rehearsal, back in my practice space I will spend some analytical time concentrating on the sensations of each finger tip, to study and equalise the finger-fall and pressure of each finger, and the way they feel during a good vibrato. Some of these improvements may carry over to a subsequent rehearsal when I just make music.

"Re-conditioned Reflexes"?

July 21, 2021, 3:30 PM · @ EmilyF - I agree 100% about the Flesch plan to practice all 3 things - and many other practicing primers support this. Galamian covers something very similar in his book on violin playing & teaching. Practicing to perform is almost entirely different than practicing for technique or to solve tricky passage problems. Kerson Leong advocates practicing "as if performing" even when doing so passagework. I'm still working on interpreting what he means, but it does sound very similar to the studies showing that practicing with dynamics and expression from the beginning appears to really help pull everything together sooner.
Edited: July 30, 2021, 11:12 AM · Right in the middle of a piece, in a concert, the conga drummer next to me said "Don't Think, Just Play". For singers there is this common principle; "In a performance do Not think about the mechanics of singing, just sing" Since most humans can only focus on one thing at a time, it is important to turn off the technical mental chatter, focus on the sound, and trust your hands to do what they have been trained to do. I rarely succeed at that.
Edited: July 23, 2021, 11:46 AM · Adrian Heath,

You seem to use the term "overthinking" somewhat similar to "thinking over", but these two terms are different.

Overthinking is about expanding the thinking past the point where it is useful, while thinking over something is giving the subject adequate attention in an effort to understand or make a decision about it.

I get the impression that it is the latter you are concerned about. Am i right?

Edited: July 24, 2021, 11:12 AM · Lars, you are quite right! I chose both halves of the title in a caricatural way (hence the capitals), because the expressions occur in a dismissive way in many threads.

Oh, and Steve, I confess that in some of Heifetz's discs, I find he plays wonderfully but just sounds bored.
Now I wonder which ones!

Edited: July 23, 2021, 11:53 PM · Maybe this? Sometimes "perform like you don't give a damn" doesn't deliver.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1GSXcYCcomE
July 24, 2021, 11:10 AM · How about Play slow, think fast, then Play fast, just do it?

But perhaps there is a middle stage:
Perception - Integration - Action, or
Get it - Keep it - Do it..

July 26, 2021, 12:27 AM · Steve, the Mendelssohn, I couldn't ask for more. Perfect interplay and balance with orchestra.
Often the soloists play the opening melody so "passionately" that it has a hole in it when it's the orchestra's turn and there's no stitching kit that can repair the damage done :D Which is a bloody shame, since the orchestration is so wonderful in this concerto, I like it very much.

Different interpretations are a blessing, something for everyone!

Edited: July 26, 2021, 4:14 AM · OK, my loss, your gain! I just have a completely different view of the piece. To me this is more flash than pash.
July 26, 2021, 4:04 AM · I think Heifetz meant that you should play not as if you're watching out for every shift and note, but as if those shifts and notes come naturally and easily to you. For example, listen to any common student playing something. The tempo is often uneven, with the student changing it based on the difficulty of the passage. They also tend to play with less exaggeration and emphasis in the bow hand (i.e. the same monotonous tone) because it allows for easier control when you don't have to worry as much about the bow hand during harder passages. You can also hear pauses between big shifts (Sibelius Bflat to Bflat). I think Heifetz meant that you should practice and master a piece technically to the point where you can play without much worry for these things. The ability to play a piece inside and out through sheer practice.
Edited: July 26, 2021, 6:37 PM · Unrelated, but I have always thought of Nike's slogan of "Just Do It" as something extremely foolish and something that a fratboy douchebag would say to pressure his friend.

Edit: Oh god, I mixed them up.

Edited: July 26, 2021, 10:12 AM · "Just Do It" is Nike, which sounds kind of joyless.

Adidas is "Impossible is Nothing", which either has a nihilistic, zen, or inspirational quality, depending on how you look at it.

Although Kevin Garnett's rendition makes the most intuitive sense to me, as he shouted the slogan of super-famous footwear brand Li Ning Co.

July 29, 2021, 2:10 PM · I remember hearing a tip about driving in the ice and what to do when you skid. The tip was look in the direction you intend to go and let your body take over as you do not have time to think. Supposedly you will make the right choices without overthinking in that split-second situation. Of course this pre-supposes somebody who can already drive. I see playing this way - you put the practice in and eventually you can intend to do what you want to do without much overthinking.
July 30, 2021, 10:02 AM · I can’t claim to be an expert on letting go. In fact I’m the Uber-over thinker if ever there was one.
However, I’ll offer this amendment to Heifetz:
“Practice performing like you don’t give a damn.”

Let’s face reality. It’s difficult, if not impossible, for most of us to simply shed our cares and inhibitions because someone—a famous violinist, a golf pro, a book—told us we should. And it’s especially difficult to do in a performance situation when we know people are judging us. For a professional, we can’t escape the reality that those judgements have real consequences: employment in our field vs delivering pizzas. Family pride vs disappointment. Humiliation at being moved back in a section.
Ability to pay a mortgage or get a car repaired.

The time-honored approach to practice not caring—as opposed to simply switching the “care switch” off—is a graded approach to performance: lesson, masterclass, play for friends, retirement center, recital, competition, etc.

It would be nice if such a switch existed, but it doesn’t. It’s more like a war of attrition between our desires of inhibition and ego. For most people, the ego wins. We can try to wear down the ego with the trench warfare of discipline and experience, but the ego has an inexhaustible number of soldiers to throw at us.

Heifetz did in fact care about what people thought, and he was under great pressure to produce perfection. So was Horowitz, who was said to vomit before performances. Glenn Gould couldn’t take it anymore and descended into hypochondria, pills, and madness.

A select few have the gift of being able to “just do it”; most of us do not. Instead, we rely on empty slogans and silly aphorisms (“imagine the audience in their underwear”).

I think more musicians would be happier if we recognized early on that we were not born for the stage, and attempts to force ourselves to perform are likely to make, and keep, ourselves unhappy.

July 30, 2021, 12:10 PM · In a video of Heifetz in a Paris concert, we see him offstage just before going on pacing up and down like a caged lion. He even asks an assistant what the French say to mean "good luck"! Also remarkable is his almost shy acceptance of the applause at the end.

I shall now refer to Uber-over-thinking..

July 30, 2021, 12:56 PM · My former therapist said I think too much. My ex-wife said I never thought about anything. I threw this problem to a Zen Buddhist priest. He told me to ignore both of them, lighten up, and enjoy the moment.
July 30, 2021, 2:05 PM · Michael,
Of course they are both correct. The problem is that words are cheap.
It's like telling a runner "why don't you just go faster?"


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