You are so focused on what you're doing in this very moment that you forget everything else... Time goes by really quickly without you noticing it... You feel calm and confident, everything you do has its purpose and seems to be just the right thing... and afterwards you feel deep enjoyment, and you are full of positive energy.
If you have ever experienced something like this, then flow is not completely new to you. This unusual state of specifically ordered consciousness has a few really powerful benefits that can make your music practice deeply rewarding and motivating. In this post I want to tell you more about them. I'm also going to show you what you can do to experience flow when you practice. It's not some sort of magic. It's something you can invite into your music activities and your life — let me show you how. But before that, here is a few words about...
The perks of being a... flow-er
The major benefits of experiencing flow are: enjoyment, motivation, self-confidence, and growth of the self. They always work as a team, together leading you towards great results. Read on to find out why you might want more flow in your life.
Flow makes the present moment more enjoyable. When you engage in a deeply enjoyable activity, your energy levels rise - even if the activity is physically demanding or tiring. The feeling of being energized also encourages you to get back to this activity as often as possible and as soon as you can. “When people place themselves in situations that lead to their being in the Zone, they tap into the primal source of energy. They are literally more alive because of it,”* explains Ken Robinson, an internationally-known advisor on education who is a proponent of everyone finding their Element (something that they love doing and can become good at relatively easily).
Interestingly, you can experience flow not only when you do something you love doing. Flow is certainly not limited to pastime activities. Studies have shown that people experience flow at work more often than during their free time. This means that even if music practice does not belong to your most favorite activities right now, you can still change that!
Flow can make you feel more motivated. Each experience of flow is a proof that you were skilled enough to manage challenges of your activity. This means that every time you achieve the state of flow, you can call it a success! And as you probably already know, success is a powerful motivator.
Your motivation can also become stronger in another way: since clear goals which lead to achieving the state of flow, order your consciousness and help you to focus on specific things, every flow experience confirms that you know what you want to achieve. Your intentions not only bring you closer to the state of flow but also improve your motivation directly, guiding you on your way towards the "destinations" you've chosen.
Flow builds your self-confidence — a necessary ingredient for developing skills successfully. Whenever you invest energy in goals that you have chosen to pursue and experience flow, you receive an evidence that you were skilled and competent enough to rise to the challenges. Your self-belief and the resulting self-confidence become stronger, leading you to achieving better results. This makes you feel successful, which again feeds your self-confidence.
Flow makes your "self" grow. As a consequence of a flow experience, the self becomes more complex than it has been before. This happens because two processes take place whenever you experience flow — the first is called "differentiation", the second — "integration."
Differentiation is this part of the growth of your self which brings about uniqueness and helps you to separate yourself from others. Integration implies a union with other people, with ideas and entities external to the self.
Whenever you overcome a challenge, you feel more skilled and capable. This is why after each flow experience you become more of a unique individual with your specific skills. On the other hand, your self becomes integrated as a result of the unusually well-ordered state of deep concentration, where all senses, thoughts, feelings and intentions are focused on the same goal. You experience harmony not only within you but also between you and other people as well as between you and the world in general.
Balanced differentiation and integration lead to the most effective growth of the self, as they provide great individual accomplishments together with the feeling of being connected and secure.
As you can see, flow is not just a nice thing in itself, but it can also help you to develop your personality and change your music practice for better. Let's go from theory to practice.
What you need to achieve the state of flow
There are 6 elements which put together create the state of flow.
Clearly established rules help to make a task achievable, which is why rituals, games, or participatory art forms like dance are conducive to flow. Since playing an instrument is also based on a set of specific rules, it belongs to the group of feasible activities — provided that difficulty of the chosen tasks matches your level of skill.
(Action: unpack your instrument & get ready)
Focusing on here and now and keeping out of your attention potentially distracting stimuli are essential. This centered attention on a limited stimulus field is necessary for action and awareness to merge. You won't even notice how quickly time passes!
You need to be completely involved in an activity, so that there is no room for any “self-ish” considerations. The ego, or self-consciousness, is lost. However, when in flow, you are still aware of your physical reality, the body and internal processes — often more intensely than usually. This will help you to improve such aspects of your music skills as finger technique, breathing, bowing etc.
Flow is likely to occur when you're in control of your actions and your environment. Many aspects of our daily lives cannot be controlled to such an extent, therefore flow is usually experienced only while pursuing certain activities. For example, in a chess game a player knows that the only threats that the opponent can produce are those allowed by the rules. Do you know the basic rules of what works and what does not in terms of playing your instrument?
When you limit your awareness to a specific field of possibilities, demands for action become harmonious and you receive clear feedback immediately. “In the artificially reduced reality of a flow episode, one clearly knows what is “good” and what is “bad”. Goals and means are logically ordered.”** Action and reaction, both well practiced, become automatic.
Every flow experience is a reward itself. Expectations keep flow away from you because they impair your concentration and deny the fact that simply achieving the state of flow is worth your effort.
So the puzzle put together looks like this: A limited stimulus field helps you to concentrate and ignore distractions. This results in the feeling of being in potential control of the environment. Clear and non-contradictory rules in flow activities make it possible to forget your identity and your problems. All in all, you find the process intrinsically rewarding.
Since action and awareness merge to such an extent in flow, you have no chance of perceiving the activity "from outside," so you know that you've experienced flow only after it was interrupted.
If you turned these elements into 6 actionable steps, they could look like this:
1. Unpack your instrument and get ready for practice
2. Set an alarm so that you know when to finish without having to check the time constantly
3. Focus on: how you use your body when you play, listening to the sounds you produce, reading your score carefully, ...
4. Experiment, seek information and advice, observe, and stick with what works for you
5. Choose a specific piece/fragment of a music piece and clarify what you want to learn or improve
6. Get rid of expectations and let it flow :)
Just a step away
There are two basic strategies that you can adopt to improve the quality of any experience and bring it closer to what happens when you're in the state of flow. They are most effective when used together.
The first strategy consists in trying to make external conditions match your goals, the second — in changing how you experience external conditions in order to bring them in to harmony with your goals. Without the ability to restructure the environment in such a way that it allows flow to appear, you could not achieve this state.
Instead of boredom and worry
When the challenges you face and your capacity to act out are well-balanced, you can experience deep enjoyment. This is why choosing the right goals (challenging yet attainable) — and perceiving them as right — is essential in order to experience flow.
The role of your perception in achieving flow is really important. Neither the objective nature of the challenges present nor the objective level of your skills can define entirely the occurrence of optimal experiences. “With the same “objective” level of action opportunities, a person might feel anxious one moment, bored the next, and in a state of flow immediately afterward."*** As long as external conditions are suitable for optimal experience to occur but are not supported by your beliefs about both the validity of those conditions and your personal skills, flow will stay out of your reach.
When you believe that a task is too demanding for your capabilities, you experience the stress resulting from this belief as anxiety. In the case of when your capabilities seem to you only slightly insufficient to accomplish a task, the experience is worry. You can reach flow from the state of worry by decreasing your challenges or increasing your skills, or any of nearly infinite combinations of the two processes.
The flow state will be more complex if you choose to improve you skills because the level of your capabilities will become higher and more opportunities will become available.
For example, when practicing a difficult passage which you are not able to play correctly, you can make the task easier by playing slower and separating the passage into sections. For returning to the state of flow this would suffice. However, to ensure that the worries about the challenging fragment do not appear again and again, you would need to utilize the other strategy. By finding the right ways to improve your skills by means of practice techniques such as playing repetitions of specific sections, creating rhythmic variations, playing with a metronome and building slowly up to the target tempo, and many others, you can get back to the state of flow - and this time flow will be more complex than previously.
When you perceive your skills as greater than the opportunities for using them, boredom appears. The way to reach flow from this state is to either find a possible path to increase challenges you're dealing with or to "handicap" yourself and reduce the level of skills. The first choice is more complex than the second. In the case of music practice this would mean that whenever you experience boredom, it could be beneficial to increase tempo, concentrate more on specific aspects of what you play such as dynamics or articulation, pay closer attention to what the accompanist or other ensemble/band members are playing... Demand more of yourself when you start feeling bored.
Flow in a nutshell
“[A]nyone who has experienced flow knows that the deep enjoyment it provides requires an equal degree of disciplined concentration,”**** writes Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, the "father" of the concept of flow. Your ability to focus attention at will and to stay concentrated in spite of distractions for exactly as long as it takes to attain a goal is an essential skill for controlling your consciousness and, as a consequence, for experiencing flow.
Therefore I have for you a challenge.
For the next 7 days find time for practice every day — even if it's just 5 minutes because of a very busy schedule, it's OK — and make it your most important goal to achieve the state of flow. Of course, you cannot force flow to happen, and on some days it might be more difficult than usual to focus and put together all the 6 six elements I wrote about. Having said that, I am convinced that with a little practice everybody can learn how to achieve the state of flow and that the more often you do it, the more you'll want it. It is just too good to resist it :)
* Ken Robinson with Lou Aronica, The Element. How finding your passion changes everything, Penguin Books, 2010, 93
** Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Beyond boredom and anxiety. Experiencing flow in work and play, Jossey Bass Publishers, San Francisco 1975, 46
*** Ibid., 49
**** Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow. The psychology of optimal experience, 1st ed. Harper Perennial (1991) – Modern Classics 2008, New York 2008, 41