Control or Overcontrol

When we are sounding great then we don’t need to ask ourselves any questions about “control” (or about anything else for that matter). But when we start to sound not so great then we might need to ask ourselves if the problem is one of simple “lack of control” …….. or perhaps its opposite: too much control (= overcontrol) ?

Christopher Bunting used a very good example to illustrate the concept of “overcontrol”. Here it is. Let’s imagine a thermostat that is set to keep a room’s temperature at 22ºC. If the thermostat is the perfectionist model, not tolerating a deviance of more than 0.1º on either side of its ideal temperature, then it will switch on and off constantly and will almost certainly drive the water-heater (boiler) to a breakdown. A more healthy thermostat would have a greater tolerance – perhaps it would switch on at 19º and off at 23º – and would therefore switch on and off much less often. Undoubtedly, the water-heater would last much longer ……. and be much happier! Substitute the word “water-heater” for “musician’s nervous system” and we can see the negative consequences of “overcontrol” for a musician.

Overcontrol tends to raise its ugly head most especially in three particular situations:

  • in performance, as a major component of stagefright
  • in “paralysis through analysis” of any stubborn unresolved difficulty
  • in fast playing

For the stagefright aspect, see that page. For the “paralysis through analysis” aspect see the Mind/BodyThink/Feel and Preparation/Sponteneity pages. Here below we will now look in more detail at the “fast playing” aspect.


Seizing up – getting blocked – in fast passages (even just in short fast ornaments with only a few notes), is often a sign that we are trying to play individually every little note in the same way that the thermostat was reacting to every little 0.1º. How can we fix this? When playing rapidly, we mustn’t try and think about consciously playing every note – there is simply not enough time. We just need to have a few “control points” situated along the way, while for the rest of the “in-between notes”, we simply let the hand do it’s automatised work peacefully. This idea is illustrated more clearly in the second line of the following example. Fast chromatic scales provide good study material for this subject because, although we are moving rapidly, we are not moving large distances. Therefore, chromatic scales are more of a brain problem than a real physical difficulty.


And here is another example of the difference between overcontrol and healthy control, taken this time from the world of psychology: compare on the one hand the positive effects of the healthy interest of a parent (or partner) in supporting what their loved ones are doing, with, on the other hand, the negative effects of the overbearing, suffocating, “interest” of a parent/spouse who wants to control every detail of their loved one’s life!!

And now another example, taken once again from cello technique: try playing the following one-finger (same-finger) chromatic scale “carefully and exactly” (with one movement for each note). Trying to play it this way will drive us crazy very quickly. Now do it with a smooth, relaxed, totally loose glissando and it suddenly becomes much much easier. And if we use a few control points on the way up and down (as shown on the second line) then the intonation is no problem. Try it on any finger – even on the thumb!



Another good example that we can use to illustrate the concept of  “overcontrol” comes from the world of light. While we need a certain amount of light to see, read etc, if that light becomes too intense, too bright, too focussed, then it can become destructive. It is as though our reading light has become a powerful laser beam that is now burning what it was supposed to be illuminating. Too much of a good thing can be as bad as (or worse than) too little. When our concentration and attention become so focused and intense that they begin to have negative effects, then we need to find techniques that distract, diffuse or divert this excessive concentration away from what we are doing with the instrument (see “Fuzzy or Focused“).

Aldo Parisot used to suggest to his students that they practice sometimes while watching TV. Other ways of diminishing the intensity of our laser-beam concentration are:

  • play with a metronome and concentrate on the metronome beats
  • say the beat numbers aloud while playing (1,2,3,4 etc)
  • talk while playing
  • sing while playing