Don’t Think About Pink Elephants

Formally called “ironic process theory,” trying not to think about something or trying not to do something is one of the hardest things for the human mind. If someone tells you not to think about pink elephants, guess what? You think about pink elephants.

Here are a few common examples of how that works in the performing arts: “don’t be self-conscious…” teachers tell students. Or even better, “don’t think about memory slips.”

In my experience, teachers in the Classical field spend way too much time on what not to do. In part, it’s because there’s a growing perfection standard in the field, as if every wrong note or rhythm deducts points from a perfect score. The advice teachers give students is never the problem-in fact it’s detailed and very meaningful most of the time.  Framed negatively though, even the best advice gives students the impression that they’re trying to avoid mistakes rather than create something positive when they perform. A concert ends up sounding like a voyage through a field of possible errors, and practice sessions, in the words of great pianist Douglas Humphries, end up feeling like games of “whack-a-mole.”

Fortunately, there’s no need to bury your head in the sand when the pink elephant advice comes along. With some effort, it’s possible to reframe criticism in a positive way. If a teacher tells you to “not accent a note,” that means that you do want to think about a longer phrase. If a teacher tells you not to worry about memory, figure out another way to focus on the piece. Basically, you need to come up with alternative problems for your mind to work on in order to “forget” the other stuff. That allows your subconscious to do the job that it’s supposed to do.

Soccer players talk about imagining where they want the ball to go instead of how they’re going to kick it.  When you walk across a room, you focus on where you’re going and not on each individual muscle in your leg. There are certain aspects of our lives that work better if we don’t micromanage them. But what’s the positive way of saying “don’t micromanage?” Manage something else instead…

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