Regardless of whether we are music students or professional musicians, the usual problem often arises: we are prone to put too much emphasis on how we perform, and too little on what we experience. This way we end up pushing ourselves to excel at all events, and we dismiss the initial motivation why we originally started learning music: the joy of playing. Have you noticed that after a couple of years of studying music students (and particularly their parents and teachers!) tend to exclusively place their focus on to perform well enough, and they have a drive to attract attention, win prizes, and end up on the stage of prestigious international concert venues?
Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, renowned psychologist and ‘father’ of the Flow Theory had noted some thirty years ago that focusing on perfection and seeking appreciation by others is a flawed approach as musicians “succeed in perverting music into the opposite of what it was designed to be and they turn it into a source of psychic disorder”. Nonetheless, Csíkszentmihályi’s words are as relevant today as they were in 1990!
The main characteristic of flow in music playing is that when we are in such psychological state, we are totally immersed and completely lost in the musical activity – of course in a good way. Nine dimensions characterize the flow experience of which I wrote about in a previous post. To draw on that, now I’d like to introduce you several ways you can increase your chances of getting into the flow state as a musician.
Learning the habit of deliberately getting into flow can be tough, and it always can be useful to remind yourself that forcing something or being desperate to achieve something does not work usually as it can turn our attempt into handicapping frustration.
Why is that?
Perhaps it happened to you at least once in your lifetime, that you tried too hard to fall asleep at night before an important day. By going through this experience, probably you concluded that one cannot try to fall asleep simply by having willpower to do so. Then you realized that having an early night is about creating the right circumstances and for this, you need to be intentional and practical about it. Such practicalities include not drinking coffee or green/black tea towards the end of the day, not watching the screens of electronic devices at least one hour before bedtime. Research shows that two or more hours of screen time in the evening can seriously disrupt the melatonin surge needed to fall sleep. Melatonin is a hormone produced by our body (namely the pineal gland), and that darkness prompts the pineal gland to start producing melatonin while light causes that production to stop. As a result, melatonin helps regulate our circadian rhythm and synchronize our sleep-wake cycle with night and day. For this reason, consider turning off all electronic devices, At least one hour before sleep, is a minimum. You can replace screens by reading a book, taking a bath or doing some other type of relaxing activity.
But let’s go back to creating the useful bedtime habits that facilitate flow. Though, it’s worth knowing that once sleeping early becomes a habit, it will be easy and natural which means that you won’t have the feeling that you are trying hard. And similarly to building a healthy bedtime habit, in learning how to create a supportive habits of purposefully enter into the flow state, you can set practical strategies in your daily musical practice.
To write my present post, I drew on the professional and research literature on flow that suggests ten strategies with a proven track of affecting musicians to experience flow:
1. CONSIDER CHALLENGE-SKILL BALANCE
First of all, we must always remember that flow occurs at the “sweet spot” between boredom and anxiety, when the perceived challenges are balanced with one’s perceived skills. Bearing this in mind, it seems utterly logical that the best you can do is to plan your practice that match your technical skills. For example, you choose a warmup routine that you enjoy; also your repertoire should program literature that is neither too difficult nor too easy for you. In other words, consider the challenge-skill balance! Probably we all know from experience that this balance can be lost in an instance when we bump into a difficult passage in a piece. In this case, instead of panicking, simply slow down the tempo and make sure your body (spine and muscles) is relaxed as opposed to being tense. Besides slowing down, you can also brake the difficult passage into smaller sections, even as little as a bar or two, and practise it, go through it as many times you need, until you find it easy and enjoyable. When you feel that it has clearly been mastered, then you may go back to the original tempo. With this very simple method, basically, you maximize the opportunities for experiencing flow every time you practice.
2. SET CLEAR GOALS
Another inevitable condition of flow is that people must know clearly what their actions lead to. Again, it’s worth to remember that several types of goals exist. The goals can be made over the long term (one or several years), over the course of a semester; they can also be set for one specific practice session or rehearsal, or for a particular musical activity or piece that you are rehearsing. Knowing the type of the goals is important as it determines the method you are going to use whilst you are working (e.g., scaling, use of metronome, mental rehearsal, and structured routines). Researchers recognised that appropriately applying these methods enhances performance achievement. And for choosing the right method, you just need to know clearly what your goal is.
3. CULTIVATE GRIT
Psychologists defined grit as the “perseverance and passion for long-term goals”. You may ask what grit has to do with flow? Indeed, research found significant positive associations between flow and grit in university instrumental students. Actually this means that those who were “grittier” towards practising were also more likely to be in flow while practising on their instruments.
Moreover, it seems that grit is a crucial predictor of flow, as other factors such as positive self-evaluation, self-reflection and increased hours of practising proved to be less influential than grit. If you think through the nine prerequisites of flow, you may say that yeah, this is quite reasonable. Imagine a music student who is “gritty” and for this reason he or she practises more, and as a result becomes more and more skilled which in turn enables him to meet the demands of the music he is playing. In other words, he reaches the stage where he fulfils the inevitable challenge-skill balance requirement, which we know by now that it facilitates flow.
Of course grit is a difficult thing! In uncomfortable cases when we face unwanted challenges, we may easily lose it. But instead of starting to worry, you can feed your grit, for example, by just recalling how others have encouraged you in the past by saying “Don’t give up!” or “Let’s do it again!”, or you imagine how you would actually motivate others, and what would you tell them in order to persevere. And simply, just tell these kind stuff to yourself :)
4. NURTURE REFLECTION
Self-reflection is known for making people able to regulate their activities. This is not different among musicians, as self-regulated learning was found to predict challenge-skill balance in highly skilled musicians. The way you can become a self-regulated learner is by developing metacognition. This sounds complicated but, to be honest, it simply refers to the processes used to plan, monitor, and assess your understanding of your activity and performance. Thus, metacognition naturally includes both, your critical awareness of your own thinking and learning, and of yourself as a thinker and learner. And believe me, if you think you are not good enough to do this, what you need is just a little bit of self-confidence, and allowing yourself to be your own teacher.
Also, you can practice self-reflection by increasing your sensation about your awareness and, in the midst of your playing, occasionally paying attention to your mental alertness. You can hugely increase your chances to reach flow by being thoughtful to stop unwanted thoughts getting into your mind and by purposefully reflecting on how best to solve a particular problem. So, don’t let your emotions overwhelm you. All is about sticking to your plan and take pride in having that plan!
5. EMPOWER YOURSELF AS A MUSICIAN
Perhaps you wondered sometimes how did some of the greatest musicians play so free in their performances?! To be a good musician and reach a particularly high level of expertise it is vital to feel autonomous as a person, and as a student and a professional musician as well. You must be confident enough to empower yourself to be a creative thinker in your art in order to make the decisions in the making process.
What I mean here is about giving yourself the right to make decisions regarding your entire musical practice (instead of waiting for your teacher/conductor/colleague etc. to tell you that). Empowering yourself also includes recognising that your preparation level is satisfactory to take a piece on stage, evaluating your performance after the concert, or deciding which pieces you are going to learn and how you would direct the whole preparation process. So basically, autonomy for you as a musician means that you take ownership of your decisions and their consequences, and you are confident and mindful all about these by not letting your emotions to pull you away from your plans.
Research showed that being autonomous is directly linked to experiencing flow more frequently by music students. In case you are interested in autonomy and the research behind it, you can check out world-famous psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan’s self-determination theory which posits that all humans have a basic psychological need to make autonomous decisions.
6. PROMOTE MASTERY-APPROACH GOALS
According to psychologists who developed Achievement Goal Theory, people subconsciously choose between four distinct motivational goal orientations:(a) mastery-approach when people learn for the sake of acquiring a skill or abstract knowledge,(b) mastery-avoidance goals when people learn in order to avoid not performing worse than they aspired to, such as when a music student fears to experience a less-than-optimal development, (c) performance-approach goals when people learn in order to outperform others, and finally(d) performance-avoidance goals when one learns to avoid performing worse than others.
Which one do you belong to?
And probably you have guessed right that the mastery approach goals are the most beneficial when it comes to practising and working on musical pieces. Research with university band students has found that participants who reported higher levels of mastery-approach goals also reported higher levels of flow during band rehearsals. So, in case you find yourself learning for the sake of learning rather than to perform better than your fellow musicians, you are on the right track. The great stuff is that you’ll probably experience flow more often than those who would fear doing something wrong (having mastery avoidance goals).
7. PLAY THROUGH FROM TIME TO TIME
In your own practise sessions and even in rehearsals, it is often easy to be bogged down by details and rehearse in short isolated excerpts with frequent stops. While attention to detail is crucial for acquiring technical mastery, it may not do well for reaching flow. Indeed, research has found that frequent stops during rehearsals disrupted flow experiences of wind ensemble members.
Certainly this does not mean that you should not stop or should not be stopped by your conductor when errors occur in your practising. However, being considerate about stopping occasionally at the best suited moments and frequency can support you in maintaining focus and motivation. So, allow yourself and even remind your demanding conductor to devote time to sometimes play through without stopping.
Such play-throughs don’t have to be complete runs of entire pieces. If you carefully consider stretches of music that you have already learned, at least to some point, you can relish yourself in a mini concert. Probably, I don’t have to mention as you already know that it’s not the time of being overly critical with the technical aspects of the playing during these play-throughs. After long minutes/hours of hard work, musicians deserve to benefit from playing without any interference, especially that it was found to promote flow in music-making.
8. STAY POSITIVE
There is some intriguing evidence that being and remaining positive is strongly linked with more chances of experiencing flow. Research found that music students who tended to feel negative emotions, such as anger, sadness, anxiety, and fear, lost the slender challenge-skill balance. In contrast, those musicians who had a higher positive affect, seemed to be able to reach and maintain better challenge-skill balance in their playing.
Again, I should state here as well that it’s quite important to suspend self-judgement, avoid comparing yourself with your peers and anyone else, actually! To remain positive, you also may allow yourself to erase any unrealistic and perfectionistic expectations that would contribute to experiencing performance anxiety – which by now you know that is the antithesis of flow if your have read the first post on flow.
So, hereby I’d like to inspire you to be confident, take pride in your learning, enjoy and have fun while making music. Put simply: be thankful that you can play, that you have the time, health and all the necessary conditions :)
9. CONNECT EMOTIONALLY TO THE MUSIC
If you have already experienced flow, you may know that during music making, flow goes beyond the nine dimensions to include emotional involvement. Indeed, emotions and emotional expressivity is foundational in music performance as without them music is just a set of notes. Therefore, feel free to find out how you can connect with the music, the audience, or the lyrics of your sonata. To support connectedness, you may also apply musical imageries by using your fantasy to create musical stories that fit into the music that you are engaged with. The violinist Maxim Vengerov is a master of such story telling.
10. PLAY MUSIC WITH OTHERS
Finally, get out from your practice room and have some fun with your fellow musicians. Research has revealed that experiencing flow with others was more enjoyable than experiencing flow in solitude. Psychologist and jazz pianist, Keith Sawyer, highlighted the key points of group flow in music, as he added that group flow among musicians is greater than the sum of its individual parts as it can motivate other musicians to perform beyond what they can do on their own. So individuals inspire and rub off on one another!
For instance, string beginners have more fun playing when they play in groups. If you think about it, playing in an orchestra can easily trigger flow experiences as it offers you a natural environment to develop your skills. And having better skills increases your chances to reach challenge-skill balance. But anyway, flow can happen in any musical formation. Therefore, I encourage you to create as many opportunities as possible to make music together with peers. The setup does not matter – be it a duet, trio, quartet, or a large orchestra!
Finally, I’d like to share with you the wisdom that, unfortunately, there are no shortcuts to get into flow. As everything else, it also takes practice. On the other hand, the more you try out these strategies as often as possible, the higher your chances will be to undergo the deliberating experience of flow.
Also, always remember to thank that you have the chance and time to play and practise. And keep your mind open, give yourself the chance to experiment freely because you always can remind yourself that “Done is better than perfect!” :)
Hysing, M., Pallesen, S., Stormark, K. M., Jakobsen, R., Lundervold, A. J., & Sivertsen, B. (2015). Sleep and use of electronic devices in adolescence: results from a large population-based study. BMJ open, 5(1), e006748.
Tan, L., & Sin, H. X. (2020). Optimizing Optimal Experiences: Practical Strategies to Facilitate Flow for 21st-Century Music Educators. Music Educators Journal, 107(2), 35-41.*
* Except for melatonin and sleep, references for other research studies can be found in the reference marked with an asterisk