Musical Performance and Flow

‹-- PreviousNext --›

flowThis article first appeared on Tom Metzger’s blog Owning The Stage back in January 2009. I am republishing it here because that site is currently offline - temporarily I hope, but in the meantime I’ll put this here so I can refer back to it, as I do periodically. I have left in the references to several of Tom’s posts as it was the dialogue between the two blogs that led this one to be written; should Owning The Stage come back on line, I’ll come back and add the appropriate links!

A ‘flow’ state is one where you are completely immersed in an activity, losing all sense of self-consciousness, with action and awareness completely merged. It’s what athletes mean when they say they are ‘in the zone’. We should care about it because it relates both to high levels of personal satisfaction in what we do and to the development of high-level skills. Happiness and expertise go hand in hand, it seems.

Flow was first explicitly documented by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who derived it from accounts by expert practitioners in all sorts of fields, from artists to airline pilots, from musicians to mountaineers. He found strong common themes in their descriptions that allowed him to identify five key conditions that allow you to get into a flow state:


  • There needs to be a balance between challenge and achievability: if the task is too hard you become anxious, if it is too easy, you become bored.
  • The task needs to be clearly defined, so that you can tell if you have achieved it or not.
  • Related to this, there needs to be direct and immediate feedback, so that you can adjust what you are doing in real time.
  • You need to have a sense of personal control over what you are doing.
  • The activity itself needs to be intrinsically rewarding, that is, it is an end in itself, not merely a means to an end.

So, it’s clear that musical performance has a very high flow potential – not surprising, given that this was one of the fields Csikszentmihalyi studied to develop the concept. And anyone reading this blog has already experienced it first-hand, whether in an occasional peak experience, or as a regular part of what makes music-making addictive.

But of course, not every performance achieves flow, so it is worth interrogating these points a little to see what implications they have for how we understand what we do.

  1. Challenge level. This relates strongly to Tom Metzger’s recent post on choosing the right material. A major reason for anxiety in performance can be doubting your capacity to deliver.

    Conversely, material that lies so well within your grasp that you could perform it in your sleep can also prove an obstacle to flow, since it doesn’t require your full attention to produce a well-controlled performance. And unfortunately, music performed on autopilot can feel as anticlimactic to audiences as it does to performers - so it is important to maintain a degree of challenge. This is particularly an issue for professional performers who may perform the same material many times – either as part of a run, or as core repertoire they return to year after year.

    Fortunately, music is a complex thing, and we can continue to find new things to stretch us long after the technical issues are under control. We can seek to deepen our interpretive insight with each repeat performance, or to allow ourselves to become more emotionally vulnerable in our connection with the audience. But we need to keep growing with the music if we are not to find ourselves becoming cynical old hacks.

  2. Task definition. It is the nature of music that it can be performed well or it can be performed badly, and – notwithstanding inevitable debates about taste - there is a good general consensus as to which is which. This is one of the things that makes flow possible: if it were a case of ‘anything goes’, then there would be no opportunity to get in the groove and really nail it. So, we have to accept the risk of bombing as part of what makes the artistic heights attainable.

    Of course, what counts as ‘bombing’ varies according to the level of the performer. For less experienced performers, this may be technical control; for more skilled performers it is more likely to be an artistic issue. Just last week, I heard one of our advanced piano students play Beethoven’s Op. 111 Sonata in a Performance Class. It was a captivating performance - technically impressive and imaginatively authoritative. Still, from her perspective, she hadn’t nailed it: ‘There wasn’t enough passion,’ she said, ‘it’s the end of the day, and I am tired, but it needed more passion.’ She gave her audience a compelling experience, but had not herself, on that occasion, entered into the depths of flow.

    (Incidentally, as a Music Category judge, this is the primary reason I value the relative strictness of the barbershop style definition for contest purposes. You can’t have a ball playing at the edge unless you know where the edge actually is.)

  3. Feedback. In musical performance, we are constantly getting feedback on what we do: from our sound, from our co-performers, from our audience. And so, we are constantly responding, and adjusting what we do as we go.

    It is worth making the distinction here between self-talk (‘ooh, I was a bit sharp there’) and responsiveness. The former is unhelpful, because it is far too mono-dimensional and slow to feed usefully into what you do. By the time you’ve finished thinking that thought, the music has moved on, and you’ve missed a whole phrase because you were busy talking to yourself about tuning. The latter is glorious, giving that sense of being immersed in and contributing to an experience unfolding in real time – of being in the now.

    And the extra richness of feedback is why live performance is a heightened experience compared to rehearsal, and why so many performers cherish their work in small ensembles as particularly satisfying. (For a wonderful fictional evocation of the interpersonal magic that is chamber music – as well as an unbearably moving love story – try Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music.)

  4. Personal control. This one is interesting, because the same activity can give quite different impressions about levels of individual control, depending on your relationship with it. Musical performance has a lot of constraints, things you are expected to do as a matter of course – not just to do with notes and words, but expectations of performing traditions too. If you add in a strong musical leader (within the group, or coaching them) who takes most of the interpretative decisions, it can feel like you’re just a puppet operated by the will of others. But that’s not why people go into music – we all want, at some level, to express ourselves. And however dictatorial our genre’s conventions and our musical peers may be, they can never entirely determine what we do; we always retain the opportunity to use our own hearts and brains to contribute to the performance. And the more we choose to use that opportunity, the more chance we have of finding flow.
  5. Intrinsically rewarding. Well, musical performance just is. If you’re here reading Owning the Stage, you don’t need me to make a case for that! Besides, Tom already did.

...found this helpful?

I provide this content free of charge, because I like to be helpful. If you have found it useful, you may wish to make a donation to the causes I support to say thank you.

Archive by date

Syndicate content