Guest Post: FLOW – Transforming your Practice!

“Flow is a subjective state that people report when they are completely involved in something to the point of losing track of time and of being unaware of fatigue and of everything else but the activity itself.” I read this recently in a book entitled Talented Teenagers: The Roots of Success and Failure (quotes in this post are from this book). It’s a fascinating research report on how family, school, personality, education and motivation affect teenagers’ ability to become and remain talented in a field of endeavour such as music.

A state of flow is inherently productive for a musician. During a flow experience, musicians achieve their goals without even realising how hard the experience has been. Furthermore, it will have been enjoyable and satisfying and practice time will have flown by! Even more exciting is that the research shows that once a student has experienced a state of flow in their practice, they will want to repeat it, no matter how hard or how much concentration was required. That is, they will become intrinsically motivated to practice. Now wouldn’t that be nice?!

To quote the research, “…a deeply involving flow experience usually happens when there are clear goals and when the person receives immediate and unambiguous feedback on the activity”. Luckily in music, this “immediate and unambiguous feedback” is readily available: when you’re practicing an instrument, you can instantly hear when things don’t sound right and you immediately know when you can do something that you couldn’t do a few minutes earlier. But goal setting, particularly for children, is much harder.

The goal for teachers is helping students find the balance between the fun of finding new challenges in their music and/or technique and the hard work involved in skill building to surmount those challenges. “The pleasures associated with flow are highly desirable, but they are also intensive and energy demanding. You have to risk learning the limits of your present capacity.”

So what can we do to help out students achieve flow in their practice? Here are a few ideas which I hope will be just as relevant for musicians as their teachers:

  1. Flow comes from complete and utter concentration in one activity. It involves focusing on the present, so that all those irrelevant thoughts and worries can disappear. Flow is therefore a little like meditation. Students must setup their practice time and space so that they can practice without distraction. Teachers may need to give suggestions to parents about this as I’ve found that some just don’t realise how to structure their child’s practice time.
  2. Students must find what they are doing enjoyable in order for them to persevere long enough to achieve flow. Teachers therefore must, first and foremost, make learning enjoyable! A no-brainer, I hope, for most! This will be a product of a variety of things like repertoire choice, but really comes down to a positive and engaging teaching style. As the research says, “…flow most often happens when a person enjoys what he or she is doing for its own sake”.
  3. Set really clear and unambiguous goals for your students to achieve each week and break them down as much as required. Be specific! Philip Johnston’s book, The Practice Revolution, will challenge every teacher’s views on music teaching and is highly recommended in this regard. My post about how my teaching has changed as a result of this book is here – please read it for more detail on this vital aspect of flow.
  4. Set the right level of challenge. In another article I wrote based on this book entitled Too Easy or Too Hard – Finding the Right Challenge, I wrote about how important it is to find the right level of challenge for students to ensure they don’t get bored, but aren’t overwhelmed by insurmountable challenges (as so often happens when they bring in a piece of music they want to play that’s way beyond their skill level). Setting an appropriate level of challenge comes with experience which I believe is strongly supported by a teacher’s own endeavours to learn new, and increasing challenging, repertoire for themselves.

Our job as teachers must therefore be to set the stage for regular flow experiences for our students each week. According to the research, a student’s ability to achieve “flow” regularly in his/her practice time is directly related to how successful they will be in their talent area in the future: “…when students experience flow, the likelihood that they will keep on developing their gift increases significantly”. This week, take notice of any time during your own teaching or practice when you’ve felt a flow experience and time has disappeared. What happened? What did you achieve? How did you feel? What made it happen? And how can you help your students to have the same experience?

Good luck!

Tim Topham is a Melbourne based piano teacher, pianist and accompanist. He writes regularly on his blog about practice, teaching and repertoire and has a particular interest in helping other piano teachers work more successfully with boys. He has over 10 years’ teaching experience in a variety of fields and is currently studying performance with renowned concert pianist, Caroline Almonte and theory with Louise Robertson-Glasgow.

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