An Examination of “Paralysis By Analysis”

There is an old story about a frog who sees a centipede moving his 100 legs so elegantly.  Being mystified at how anyone could be able to move so many body parts at once with such grace, the frog asked the centipede how he did it.   The centipede wondered at this question and started to pay attention to how he walked, promptly tripping over his own feet.  Getting up, the centipede tried again to figure out how he moved his feet and immediately fell down one more time.  Eventually, the centipede grew frustrated and told the frog, “I don’t know how I do it and I don’t want to know!”  The centipede ran away (without thinking about his legs) and left the frog to his musings.

The moral of this story is that analysis is bad.  Simply thinking about how you perform a particular motor function (from walking to something as complex as athletic or musical endeavors) will cause a breakdown in your ability to perform that action.  But is this really true?  What is really going on?  Could this be a self-fulfilling prophecy?

If we step back from our preconceived ideas about paralysis by analysis it becomes clear that the cause of the problem isn’t the analysis itself, but rather poor analysis done at the wrong time.  If thinking about a particular activity is inhibiting your ability to perform correctly, then obviously you’re thinking about the wrong thing at the wrong time.  Furthermore, you’re creating a false dichotomy between two valuable tools.

Psychologists who study motor skill sometimes discuss two different methods of development, implicit learning and extrinsic learning.  Implicit learning is defined as development of a particular skill through attention on the goal.  The popular interpretation of Arnold Jacob’s pedagogy of “Song & Wind” is one example of implicit learning.  In this approach, the musician places all attention on the music and all physical aspects of playing the instrument are to be developed unconsciously.  This contrasts with an extrinsic approach, where the details of how to perform the action are considered.  For example, a brass musician may concentrate first on posture, then placing the mouthpiece on the lips, then in the activity of the breathing, the position of the tongue, or any other detail.

The literature I’ve seen discussing these two contrasting approaches shows a clear consensus that when one of these two approaches is used exclusively an implicit approach is superior.  Many music teachers stop there and go along with the paralysis by analysis hypothesis and assume that the extrinsic approach is harmful.  What we fail to consider in this case is that a combination of the two methods has been shown to be even more effective.  But it also depends very much on the quality of the extrinsic instruction.

First, we can only really concentrate properly on one, maybe two, things at a time.  When teachers or coaches are offering instructions on the details of a physical activity they need to be addressed one at a time.  It’s also important that each step of the process be learned thoroughly enough before moving on the the next step.  Once the process is learned and practiced it’s important to step away from the explicit method and place it into the implicit context.  Once a scale is learned, for example, the music student should learn to play some music in that key signature.  As another example, once the student has practiced breathing efficiently out of a musical context he or she needs to forget about breathing and focus on expressive playing.

The other elephant in the room here is that when paralysis by analysis occurs there’s a good chance that the analysis itself is flawed.  First, it’s notoriously difficult to do self-analysis while you’re performing a motor activity.  It may be useful to record yourself and examine what you’re doing that way, but I’ve found it’s still challenging.  There are simple things I spot all the time on my brass students that have gone unnoticed in my own playing until I caught a lesson with an old teacher.  The other problem we have in brass pedagogy is that there are so many myths and misconceptions about the physical aspects of playing that many brass teachers are ill-equipped to do effective analysis.  Many otherwise very knowledgeable people are simply unaware of basic embouchure features, for example.

Mainstream brass pedagogy seems to overly favor implicit instruction, often citing “paralysis by analysis” in support.  Athletics, on the other hand, seem to recognize the value of both implicit and extrinsic instruction.  Athletes will drill a particular action or play over and over again, while coaches analyze and correct details until the activity is perfected.  Once that activity is mastered, however, it is forgotten when it’s time to compete.  In competition, the only thing that should be in the mind of the athlete is performing well.

Dan Millman wrote in his book Body Mind Mastery about physical talent.  “Even if you understand the road and your tank is full, you need a vehicle to take the journey.  Golfers with clear minds and inspired emotions still have to learn to swing the club if they are going to play well.  It all comes down to what you actually do.”

So if you’re suffering from paralysis by analysis take a moment to step back and actually analyze your paralysis.  Is it because you’re trying to think when you should be doing?  Is it because you’re trying to analyze too much at once?  Is it because your analysis is faulty in the first place?  Is your paralysis related to some combination of all three issues?  Done properly and with proper context, effective analysis will help musicians learn to be better musical communicators.  By learning to recognize when and how analysis helps and when it hinders you’ll be able to get great benefit from it without risk of paralysis.

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