|Weekly Reflections on Life and Music|
If you are interested in something, you will focus on it, and if you focus attention on anything, it is likely that you will become interested in it. Many of the things we find interesting are not so by nature, but because we took the trouble of paying attention to them.
― Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
― Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Pathway seven in Barry Green’s Mastery of Music is one we have talked about in many forms in a number of posts. Whether we are talking about mindfulness or the Inner Game we end up discussing
Concentration: The Spirit of the Zone.
Green describes zone as that point when a musician, artist, or athlete finds themselves moving through their tasks with an
assurance and presence, a sensitivity and precision beyond normalcy…. The focus shifts into a fluid awareness which seems able to tap effortlessly into the highest levels of artistry. The brain is the key to this state of peak performance, in music and in life.One of the musicians Green interviewed said it is when the “performer is completely absorbed in the act of making music.” He goes on to point out that in spite of what we often think, concentrating on more than one task at a time just doesn’t work.
This of course is at the heart of Green’s writing on the Inner Game. When we can allow Self 2 to do its thing and not be distracted by the technicalities and criticisms of Self 1, we can enter into the flow.
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi named the concept of “flow in 1975 and has been widely referred to in any different fields. It is also known as “being in the zone.” Flow
is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting loss in one's sense of space and time. (Link)Requirements for flow can be:
◆ Intense and focused concentration on the present moment
◆ Merging of action and awareness
◆ A loss of reflective self-consciousness
◆ A sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity
◆ A distortion of temporal experience, one's subjective experience of time is altered
◆ Experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding
Owen Schaffer in 2013 proposed 7 conditions for flow that summarize the above list:
◆ Knowing what to do
◆ Knowing how to do it
◆ Knowing how well you are doing
◆ Knowing where to go
◆ High perceived challenges
◆ High perceived skills
◆ Freedom from distractions
Just exactly what Barry Green and Timothy Gallwey have been saying about the Inner Game. There is an intuitiveness about flow, or perhaps better, a falling into a comfortable place where the tensions and issues around us fall away and we just do what we know how to do.
Some of the challenges to staying in flow include states of
⁃ Challenges are low and one's skill level is low producing a general lack of interest in the task at hand.
⁃ Challenges are low, but one's skill level exceeds those challenges causing one to seek higher challenges.
⁃ Challenges are so high that they exceed one's perceived skill level causing one great distress and uneasiness.
These states in general differ from being in a state of flow in that flow occurs when challenges match one's skill level. Consequently, Csíkszentmihályi has said, "If challenges are too low, one gets back to flow by increasing them. If challenges are too great, one can return to the flow state by learning new skills.”Sadly, most of us do not get into “flow” as often or for as long as we would like. I have had it happen in concerts when we are playing some great work that I know well- like Holst’s Second Suite. I just “flow” into it with little thought to what I am doing. I put the trumpet to my face and blow with joy!
Most recently I was pleasantly surprised in a gig with one of the big bands I play in. I have a solo in one song that I have never been able to play well. I get lost, I lose concentration, I start judging myself. That often leads to a disaster. In the recent gig the piece came up and, a few songs before I could feel the tension rising. (Overly focused on Self 1) Then there was a change in the music order and I wasn’t sure when it would happen. (Lack of control took over!) I stopped wondering and just played the stuff in front of me. I was enjoying myself. I was as close to flow as I could get. Then my solo piece came up. No time to think. No time to get nervous. Put the horn to my lips and play like it was Holst or “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
It worked! I flowed through the piece. When I got lost, I still knew what I was doing. Skills have increased as did the ability to keep Self 2 out of the picture. I enjoyed it. Immensely. Was it a great solo? Well, greatness is relative. Compared to Wynton, no. Compared to that other me, well maybe it was at least good. And as we all know, in jazz there are no wrong notes- some just sound better than others!
How then do we get to the place where “flow” can happen? Well, working on my general principle of how we do anything is how we do everything, it is important to build opportunities for flow into all of our lives. No matter what it is, if we build it into our lives it won’t matter if we are playing music or digging post holes in the backyard. We can be in flow.
I think it is important to expect flow to come. That’s where deliberate practice comes in. That’s where intention and self awareness come into play. All the things we talk about here are put into action. Following what we said above- Increase skill and/or increase the challenges. We can avoid apathy, boredom, and anxiety.
More than that, develop a personal practice that involves some kind of mindfulness or meditation help. If we learn those type of things, they will work their way into your musicianship as much as the rest of your live. Acceptance, staying in the moment, living one-day-at-a-time kind of approach, will also build a reservoir of skill in this. Like Barry Green, I have also found that Tai Chi/Qigong are ways to build this attitude of flow. Yoga can be a more active way, as can riding a bike or running, to build experiences of flow.
And let’s not forget putting the earbuds in and enjoying good music.
[Note: Thought I would at least give an update on my return to playing after that 8-day hiatus last month. It took just about four weeks to get back to the basic level of range and endurance I had before the surgery. Admittedly I didn’t push it to get back more quickly. After all this is supposed to be fun, right?]