(Photo credit: L. Gaertner)
After a busy couple of weeks, spring break is over. The kids are back in school, and I can finally get some writing done. I have five sweet hours to myself each weekday, a large chunk of which I spend sitting in front of the computer, with one eye on the clock to make sure I get out the door by 2:30 to go and pick up my munchkins. But some days, by about 2:00, I’m tired of working, and give myself a reward for good behaviour: I can play some music before leaving.
Before I sit down at the piano or pick up the flute, I usually set myself an alarm, or else I will be late leaving the house. Once I start playing, other thoughts go out of my head. I’m focused on the music: getting the right notes, the right tone, the exact timing to elicit the feeling that needs to be expressed. Time seems to stand still, and at the same time pass without me even noticing. I am in a state of flow.
The idea of flow was popularized by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his 1990 book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. He describes flow as a mental state in which we experience a sense of deep enjoyment by feeling in control of our actions. Despite absorbed concentration, we feel a sense of effortlessness. Our sense of time may be altered.
Two types of activity that are often reported to lead to flow are sports and music, but flow can be experienced during any number of different activities. What is required is that the activity is challenging for us, but we have the skills to match the level of challenge. In other words, what we’re doing is hard, but not too hard. Csikszentmihalyi puts it well: “Enjoyment appears at the boundary between boredom and anxiety, when the challenges are just balanced with the person’s capacity to act”.
Csikszentmihalyi describes other characteristics of activities that can induce flow: there are clear goals and immediate feedback. All of these characteristics are found in the task of making music. It’s a challenging activity, but as long as the music we’re playing is not too difficult, we have the skills to perform well. There are clear goals (the right notes, the right rhythm) and immediate feedback (we can tell if we’ve played a wrong note). Music-making is also a flexible activity. As our skills improve, we can play music which is increasingly difficult, so that the challenge level can always match our skill level.
As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, musicians are prone to this sense of flow, also described as peak or optimal experiences. A 2011 study published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition described the frequency of flow experiences in professional and amateur musicians, and found that professionals experience flow about twice as often, and this usually occurs while they are playing music. This study did not look at flow in non-musicians, but I would guess that non-musicians, on average, experience flow even less than the amateur musicians. The authors of the study point out that the professional musicians may have been motivated to continue in their musical career because they experienced flow, or it could have been that the years of musical training and their skill level allow them to experience flow more. It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg question, isn’t it? However, we do know that musical training improves executive function, which means that musicians are better at having focused attention, a key element of flow. This may make it easier for musicians to experience flow.
Another study, published in 2005, surveyed the experience of flow in 90 classical musicians. The authors, Bloom and Skutnick-Henley, report that musicians are most likely to enter a state of flow when they exhibit high levels of self-confidence when playing, and have a strong desire to experience and express their feelings through music.
The sense of enjoyment that so many of us derive from making music is a key motivator for musicians. I want to play music all the time because it makes me feel good. It allows me to let go of my worries and burdens for a time. And I want to improve as a musician so I can continue to have challenging and interesting music to play, and feel a sense of accomplishment.
As a music teacher, it’s important for me to try to help my students find this sense of flow in their music playing. I think that too often we hurry students from piece to piece, so they are always working on songs that are a little too hard. After all, that’s how we develop new skills, by continually pushing ourselves to play songs that are more and more challenging. But practicing difficult music is definitely not the same as simply playing music for enjoyment. If a student is working through a new piece, constantly making mistakes and correcting herself, it’s probably not very satisfying. This is not a situation that is likely to induce a state of flow. After she’s worked on this song for a few weeks, she will have mastered the song (and the new skills involved), and then when she plays it, the level of challenge will match her skills. It is at this point that she can achieve that sense of flow. She can play with self-confidence, stop worrying about getting the notes right and focus on the underlying expression in the music. Unfortunately, what usually happens when a piece is mastered is that the music teacher says that the piece is “done” and that the student can stop playing it.
I think we need to help students seek out that sense of flow. We should encourage them to keep playing pieces that they play well. (This is also a good way to keep a current repertoire of “party” pieces for when students are asked to play for people on the spur of the moment). Perhaps every practice session should start or end with a few minutes of playing “for fun”, pieces the student has previously mastered, or maybe a little improvisation. Or perhaps after 5 or 6 good days of practice in a week, the last day could be devoted to playing anything the student wants, as a reward for good work. We should try to cultivate the habit of playing music for the sheer joy of it.
And now, my weekly blog post done, I’m heading to the piano. But first, I’d better set an alarm.
Bloom A, Skutnick-Henley P. (2005) Facilitating Flow Experiences Among Musicians. American Music Teacher 54(5):24-28
Csikszentmihalyi M. (1990) Flow: the psychology of optimal experience. HarperCollins, NY.
Travis F, Harung HS, Lagrosen Y. (2011) Moral development, executive functioning, peak experiences and brain patterns in professional and amateur classical musicians: Interpreted in light of a Unified Theory of Performance. Consciousness and Cognition. 20(4):1256-1264.