The Centipede’s Dilemma

Last week I wrote about students who freeze up when playing because they aren’t prepared. But even a student who practices and listens a lot can struggle to play, especially in stressful situations. I have watched many a beginning student fumble for the next note while sounding out a new piece, obviously thinking, “Now which finger is it?” I can see the needed finger quivering in the air, aching to fly to the string but it is held in check by the brain’s unconscious fear and analysis.

This problem is called the Centipede’s Dilemma or Analysis Paralysis. The author of the following poem is unknown.

A spider met a centipede while hurrying down the street,
"How do you move at such a speed, with all so many feet?"
"I do not have to contemplate to keep them all in line,
But if I start to concentrate they're tangled all the time!"

Analysis paralysis is painful to watch. In the example of the quivering finger, the aural part of the mind hears the right notes, but by trying to help the analytic mind only creates confusion. Quite early in Suzuki training the student’s brain establishes a pitch/finger connection if the student daily plays in tune. Without the students realizing it, their brains make a habit of hearing a certain pitch and firing the correct finger.  The “centipede effect” creates interference with the connection and hinders learning and performance. The important concept is that a normally automatic and unconscious skill is disrupted by consciously thinking about it. While focused thought is required to learn a habit correctly (in this case: repeated playing of certain pitches with the same finger), the need for attention to that skill decreases to zero as the habit is formed.

Some students need to have their learned abilities, particularly this one, shown to them as the ability is not obvious.  For this skill, a great deal of encouragement to NOT think, sometimes does the trick, though it is hard for a child to turn off the monitoring and instruction giving mind.   Playing a single note which the child plays back is another way, increasing the difficulty by adding more notes either in range or sequence.  Or hid the fingers by holding a tissue over the fingerboard.  Always watch the child to see if any analysis is going on or if automated responses (even if wrong!) are the norm.  Teachers and parents need to provide opportunities for students to learn that they can trust their habitual abilities without analytical intervention.

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