Flow becomes an alternative path to mastery, sans the misery. Forget 10,000 hours of delayed gratification. Flow junkies turn instant gratification into their North Star—putting in far more hours of “practice time” by gleefully harnessing their hedonic impulse.
– Steven Kotler, The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance
We’ve been telling ourselves the wrong story about practicing music.
Practicing is like a job. We need to subject ourselves to tedious work in isolation to achieve future results. The most successful musicians have the work ethic to slog through the most hours. Those who succumb to instant gratification are lazy, undisciplined, and destined for mediocrity.
Sound familiar? This story is the source of frustration, guilt, and self-doubt among countless musicians.
We can tell ourselves a different story. This new story is more joyful, fulfilling, and effective for attaining mastery.
Surfer at Mavericks. Photo courtesy of Flickr/jacobovs
Malcolm Gladwell Didn’t Give Us the Whole Story
Talent isn’t encoded into our genes. We can achieve mastery through passion, perseverance, and deliberate practice over a long period of time.
Malcolm Gladwell popularized “The 10,000 Hour Rule” based on the research of Anders Ericsson. Gladwell concluded that mastery in any field comes from 10,000 hours of deliberate practice:
[The] research suggests that once a musician has enough ability to get into a top music school, the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works. That’s it. And what’s more, the people at the top don’t work just harder or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder.
– Malcolm Gladwell, The Outliers
Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
Have you ever been so absorbed in an activity that hours passed like minutes? Maybe you were playing a game, learning a skill, playing music, or deep in conversation. This joyous experience of deep concentration is known as a “flow state” or being “in the zone.”
Flow is an optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best.
According to researchers at the Flow Genome Project, people in a flow state experience:
A New Story
Tapping into flow states aligns a joyful practice with an accelerated path to mastery. The hours of practice are an exhilarating journey rather than a painful slog.
Flow is a game changer for how we practice and teach music.
History of Flow
In the 1970s, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “Me-high Chick-sent-me-high”) coined the term “flow.” In his research on the psychology of happiness, he interviewed master artists, athletes, scientists, and musicians. These top performers described peak experiences as an effortless flow of their best work.
[Flow is] being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.
– Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Csikszentmihalyi’s 7 Characteristics of Flow
When children are taught music, the usual problem often arises: too much emphasis is placed on how they perform, and too little on what they experience.
– Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
Charlie Parker and John Coltrane didn’t treat epic practicing sessions like a day on the assembly line. They indulged their curiosity and passions, which transformed generations of musicians and fans.
The first time I saw [Coltrane in 1963], he would leave the bandstand when he finished his solos and go into the men’s room in the club and practice through McCoy Tyner’s piano solos. (You couldn’t hear it unless you went by the men’s room). Then he would come out, he would finish the piece, and with barely any hesitation go into the next piece, and do the same thing. A the end of the first set he went into the men’s room and practiced through the entire intermission. He never stopped playing the tenor until the end of the second set, after about three hours!
– Jazz journalist Bob Blumenthal, from John Coltrane: His Life and Music by Lewis Porter
Does this sound like a man delaying gratification, or indulging his impulses in the moment?
My students who experienced the most rapid growth and earned big scholarships to conservatories did put in in a lot of hours. But they weren’t disciplined in the traditional sense (much to my frustration initially). They were flow junkies, approaching practice with the same exhilaration as a snowboarder on a powder day—or Coltrane leaving the stage to practice in the middle of a song.
Psychologists describe flow as “autotelic,” from the Greek auto (self) and telos (goal). When something is autotelic—i.e., produces the flow high–it is its own reward. No one has to drag a surfer out of bed for overhead tubes. No one has to motivate a snowboarder on a powder day. These activities are intrinsically motivating, autotelic experiences done for their own sake. The high to end all highs.
– Steven Kotler, The Rise of Superman
Silence Your Inner Critic
Does your nagging inner critic constantly assault your imperfections and weaknesses? If so, you are in good company. Successful creatives in a myriad of disciplines suffer from the same self-defeating inner dialogue.
In his groundbreaking study on improvisation, Professor Charles Limb put jazz and freestyle rap artists into an fMRI machine. He found that when musicians entered flow states, the region of the brain responsible for self-monitoring and self-criticism shuts off.
Rather than endlessly reassuring or negotiating with your inner critic, you can silence it with flow.
Conditions for Flow
The good news is recent breakthroughs in neuroscience reveal secrets about how to trigger flow states in our everyday lives. This is a transformation available to anyone, anywhere, provided we set the right conditions.
We can easily find flow when step into an awe-inspiring cathedral, go down a waterslide, or play a cool video game. The challenge for musicians is to align flow states with our long term goals and dreams.
Steven Kotler, bestselling author and co-founder of the Flow Genome Project, reveals triggers for unlocking flow states in his book, The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance. Below are the most relevant triggers for practicing musicians:
Let your curiosity and passions lead you. You may need to set aside what you “should do” and follow your gut.
Flow is closely aligned with intrinsic motivation. Working only for external rewards like grades, money, or pleasing an authority is unlikely to trigger a flow state. In fact, studies show that extrinsic motivators actually stifle creativity.
Balance Challenge and Skills
Too little challenge leads to boredom, and too much challenge leads to anxiety. The sweet spot for flow is somewhere in the middle. Here is a graph of the skill/challenge ratio created by Csikszentmihalyi:
Novelty, complexity, and unpredictability trigger flow states. We lose ourselves marveling at the vastness of a star-filled sky, and rich musical environments can evoke similar feelings of awe and wonder.
Clear Goals and Immediate Feedback
Goals in flow are clear pathways in the moment, not lofty goals and dreams. We can stay fully engaged if we know how to improve performance in real time.
Biologically, we are wired to focus intently on any incoming threats. Life-threatening risks put extreme sports athletes in the zone immediately. But as artists, we don’t have to put ourselves in physical danger. Creative risks that push us out of our comfort zone help trigger flow.
In flow, action and awareness merge. Flow states are more active than meditation, but the focused attention of practicing mindfulness help bring our attention to the present. (Check out Tara Brach’s wonderful guided meditation podcast.)
Flow states occur most often in community settings. Equal participation, shared goals, and deep concentration are conditions for a group flow experience.
Tell Yourself a New Story
Shifting from a “delayed gratification” story to a “high-flow” story can transform how we practice and teach music. Of course, this doesn’t mean that practicing is always effortless or “fun.” The inspiration of a high-flow practice combined with a clear vision for the future help us push though the many struggles.
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