Playing in the zone

Interviewed in those first breathless moments after coming off Centre Court, when asked what he remembered of the last set, Andy Murray replied “I don’t remember a thing about it” (or words to that effect). This is less a sign of Murray’s euphoria at having secured the Men’s Singles Championship, more an indication that when he was playing he was so focused, so concentrated on the job in hand, that it was impossible to recall individual shots or points after the event.

Sports people describe this sensation as being “in the zone”. It is related to “flow”, a psychological concept proposed by Hungarian psychologist and professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in which the person performing the activity is fully immersed in a feeling of focus, deep involvement, and enjoyment in the process. In short, flow is a total absorption in what you are doing.

According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow is a single-minded immersion and represents the ultimate in harnessing the emotions to perform and serve. The emotions are contained and channeled, energised and aligned to the task at hand. Flow can create a sense of joy, enjoyment or even rapture, but fundamentally it is about absolute focus.

The sensation of “being in the zone” fits with Csikszentmihalyi’s description of flow, and also includes physical attributes, such as a feeling of synergy between mind and body, and the sense of everything working smoothly: the joints feel well-oiled, the muscles are warm and super-responsive, movement feels effortless. Alongside these physical aspects, the sportsperson may also experiences a sense of disengagement, as if everything is happening unconsciously. In these circumstances, the sportsperson may achieve their finest results and personal bests.

Musicians also experience these feelings, and the best performance is often the one you don’t remember much about afterwards. I find more and more that the performance “happens”, the music emerging with a sense of effortlessness, the mind fully engaged but not minutely focussing on every note, every phrase. I recall very little of my LTCL Diploma recital, apart from the tiny section of the Rachmaninoff where I had a memory lapse; the rest of the performance passed by in a pleasant haze whereas formerly (and I recall this sensation very clearly from my ATCL recital) I would hear a voice in my head telling me which passages to be wary of, where a known error might occur, or ticking myself off if I played an incorrect note or smeared a passage.

One does not enter “the zone” easily, and a number of techniques need to be employed to achieve a state of absolute concentration combined with active detachment to reach the zone and a sense of “flow”. Some of the greatest tennis players of the last 30 years have employed a technique called “the inner game”. This method of coaching was originally developed by Timothy Gallwey in the 1970s. As Gallwey himself says: “Every game is composed of two parts, an outer game and an inner game.” The former is played against opponents, and is full of lots of contradictory advice; the latter is within the mind of the player/performer, and its principal obstacles are self-doubt and anxiety. Gallwey’s theories focus on concentration, breaking bad habits (such as negative thinking), learning to trust yourself, and awareness. Gallwey’s method borrows from Neuro-Linguistic Programming in which a connection between the neurological processes (“neuro”), language (“linguistic”), and behavioural patterns learned through experience (“programming”) can be altered or harnessed to achieve specific goals in life.  According to Gallwey, performance equals potential minus interference (external and internal). The “inner opponent” is that part of you that is judgmental, thinks too much, overanalyses and tries too hard. It’s the small voice inside telling you you’re going to f**k up the next serve, or that cadenza towards the end of the first movement, and it’s the one that can highlight anxiety and damaging performance nerves. The mind is the biggest obstacle to success, and some of the most common inner obstacles include:

  • fear (of losing, not improving, looking bad in the eyes of others)
  • lack of self-confidence
  • self-condemnation
  • poor concentration
  • trying too hard
  • perfectionism
  • self-consciousness
  • frustration
  • anger
  • boredom
  • expectations
  • a busy mind

To enter the zone we need to banish these negative thoughts and feelings. The core principle of success at the inner game is to remain confident, relaxed and focused.

So how does the musician use the inner game to achieve “flow” and produce great results, to play with confidence and grace, with beautiful quality of sound, and a sense of ease in every physical gesture and movement?

Learning to concentrate: easier said than done, of course, but the ability to focus entirely on the task in hand is a fundamental of achieving flow. It is hard to teach concentration: the student must learn how to blank out distractions (both external and internal) themself.

Learn to visualise: be alert to the sights and imagery in the music

Learn to let go of mistakes: practise carefully so that you play only what you want to repeat in a performance (i.e. don’t “learn in” mistakes!). Deep, careful and thoughtful practising will produce far more accurate results in performance.

Understand and transmit the meaning in the music: Don’t be afraid to engage fully with the meaning and emotion of the music. Revel in that dancing phrase in that Schubert Sonata.

Let to go of preconceptions: One of the best lessons from my teacher ahead of my first Diploma recital was “don’t expect the set up in the recital room to be perfect”. Embrace the situation as you find it and don’t let things such as the layout of the room or its acoustic throw you. Learn to adapt to these changes and respond to them positively. The great Russian pianist Richter gave many concerts during the war in schools in Russia where he was regularly presented with very ropey instruments on which to perform. Instead of being thrown by this, Richter was determined to make the best of the situation, and to try and play with a beautiful sound no matter what.

Banish negative thoughts and critical comments: if you are well-prepared you should have nothing to fear when it comes to the performance situation (exam, recital, competition, festival etc). Replace “I can’t do it” with “I can”, and learn how to use feelings of anxiety and the heightened state of awareness that comes through the release of adrenaline positively.

An interesting piece of research revealed a significant relationship between the flow state of the pianist and the pianist’s heart rate, blood pressure, and major facial muscles. As the pianist entered the flow state, heart rate and blood pressure decreased and the major facial muscles relaxed. This study emphasizes that flow is a state of effortless attention: in spite of the effortless attention and overall relaxation of the body, the performance of the pianist during the flow state improved.

It is very difficult to recreate those sensations of “being in the zone” during a particular performance, often because one simply has no detailed recollection of the event. But if one can put oneself in a similar mental state of preparedness ahead of each performance, one can expect to play in the zone more often than not, resulting in a heightened quality of performance.

More on the inner game and neuro-linguistic programming here

3 thoughts on “Playing in the zone”

  1. I was really interested in this because we are very excited to have our own E-MusicMaestro Performance Coach, Paul Crick, joining the team later this year. Paul specialises in using a whole, eclectic spectrum of strategies that help musicians to master their ‘inner game’.
    Paul helped with one of my adult students, ‘C’, who had the most debilitating performance anxiety when preparing for Grade 8 piano and had previously failed the exam before starting lessons with me.
    After help from Paul and in collaboration between the three of us (with most of the hard work from C himself), C’s self-perception, practice techniques, performance attitude and even posture changed quite radically and C achieved a merit in the exam, which was one of my most treasured pupil successes ever.
    Sandy Holland
    Director at E-MusicMaestro

    1. What an inspiring story, Sandy – and one which I can identify with. I took suffered quite bad performance anxiety, and through my teacher’s support and the advice in books such as The Inner Game of Music and The Musician’s Way, I developed my own strategies for overcoming my anxiety. Now I enjoy performing and the energy and heightened sense of awareness that comes with it.

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