Do you ever get the feeling you are watching yourself playing, seeing yourself from a distance, as if sitting in the audience?

Sports people describe this quasi out-of-body sensation as being “in the zone”. It is related to “flow”, a psychological concept first proposed in 1969 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 one is doing. It occurs when one is engaged in an activity regarded as highly self-rewarding and characterized by clear goals, unambiguous feedback, a loss of self-consciousness and a balance between the challenges and skills required to best perform it.

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; one may also experience a heightened sense of freedom, disengagement and lost time, as if everything is happening unconsciously. Flow can create a sense of confidence, enjoyment or even ecstasy, but fundamentally it is about absolute focus and intense concentration.

The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times . . . The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, 1990

A flow state 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.

Csikszentmihalyi defines the eight characteristics of flow as:

  1. Complete concentration on the task
  2. Clarity of goals and reward in mind and immediate feedback
  3. Transformation of time (speeding up/slowing down)
  4. The experience is intrinsically rewarding
  5. Effortlessness and ease
  6. There is a balance between challenge and skills
  7. Actions and awareness are merged, losing self-conscious rumination
  8. There is a feeling of control over the task

Flow state, in musical practice and performance, is hard won, however, and while Csikszentmihalyi believes that music and flow are closely linked – mainly because music is a positive, pleasurable activity that can sustain intrinsic motivation, one of the chief features of flow experience – people with particular personality traits are more likely to experience flow than others. Such people have what is called an “autotelic” personality, characterised by curiosity with a predilection for doing things for their own sake rather than chasing an external goal, persistence, conscientiousness and the ability to successfully manage a rewarding, positive balance between the challenge and one’s skill level. Research has shown that people with a tendency to anxiety, neuroticism and self-criticism are less likely to experience flow.

For the musician, flow is a significant intrinsic motivator because a flow state can induce positive emotions and pleasurable sensations, and achieving flow in practising, for example, will encourage one to stick to the task. In this respect, flow is related to self-determination, self-esteem, autonomy and resilience – all imperatives for the musician – and the ability to find joy in challenges and the motivation for mastery is essential to one’s personal musical development.

flow+imaggeee

Csikszentmihalyi’s nine dimensions of flow:

1. Challenge-skills balance: If the challenge is too great, we grow frustrated; too easy and we get bored. In the flow experience, an equal balance between the challenge and our skill ensures we are engaged by the task, not overwhelmed by it.

2. Action-awareness merging: Merging results in a feeling of body/mind unity and unity between musician and music.

3. Clear Goals: in a flow experience, when musicians have clear goals, they know what needs to happen, engage with the task, and let go of irrelevant stimuli and distractions that may interfere with their performance.

4. Unambiguous Feedback: Direct, immediate feedback is constantly present so that we can remain connected to the activity and adjust our reactions accordingly to meet current demands.

5. Concentration on the task at hand: intense concentration narrows our attention to exclude unnecessary distractions. When absorbed in the activity, we are only aware of what is relevant to the task at hand.

6. Sense of control/no fear of failure: Control helps us overcome anxiety. When in flow, musicians often report feeling they give their best performances.

7. Time transformation: When in flow we experience a distorted sense of time – it speeds up, slows down or stops. This can occur during practising or in performance, when one is intently absorbed in the task.

8. Autotelic experience: Flow is an intrinsically rewarding experience: the activity is done for its own sake, an end in itself, and produces feelings of satisfaction, fulfilment and pleasure.

9. Loss of self-consciousness: When in a flow state, we experience a reduced self-awareness, including a transcendence of the self. Lack of self-consciousness results in an pleasurable experience because we no longer experience anxiety, fear, or self-doubt, and the inner critic is silenced.

The unselfconscious musician is unconcerned with criticism, real or imagined. There is no fear of failure, no consideration of an unsuccessful performance. These moments of unselfconscious action allow one’s potential to be fully realised, without the limiting influence of anxiety. Musicians treasure such moments, as they bring physical and emotional freedom, and a sense of conviction and natural artistry to their performance.

The paradox is that when one is performing in a flow state, the music will appear effortless, spontaneous, created “in the moment”, yet is the result of many thousands of hours of concentrated, focussed practising, the intense honing of one’s skills and the acquisition of mastery. The British pianist Stephen Hough has a good description for this, that one must be “a bohemian on stage” and “a perfectionist in the practice room”; in effect, that artistic freedom is achieved through intense discipline.

We can create the right circumstances in the practice room to achieve flow. These include:

  • a heightened awareness of touch (for the pianist, the pads of the fingers)
  • tension-free whole-body movements to create a sense of oneness with the instrument and the music
  • quality of sound and constant self-feedback (“do I like this sound?”, “what can I hear?”)
  • avoid over-thinking and replace negative self-talk with positive affirmation
  • appreciate and transmit the meaning of the music and be alert to its imagery and narratives
  • always play with expression, even when practising scales or exercises
  • remain “in the moment” when playing

Practising with this mindful awareness increases our ability to bring joyful and absorbing feelings of flow into performance, resulting in greater expression, conviction and emotional engagement, physical freedom, quality of sound, and reduced anxiety.

For the audience too the experience may be equally absorbing, a sense of being at one with performer and music, a state of relaxed concentration, and, literally, “going with the flow”…..

 

 

“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.