We’re back for the second post about finding your flow state of mind in specific situations.

In my previous post about this, we explored how you can find the flow state of mind through a style of journaling called “Morning Pages.”

As always, I write what I know. I have personally experienced the flow state many times through journaling, and also through piano practice and performance. This post will explore the musical side of flow through my own experience, in the hope that you might find something useful there too.

If watching a video is more your thing here’s a talking head for you:

What Is This “Flow”?

The term is generally attributed to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He has many books and articles on the subject, and the idea is so well-known now that it has become a commonly-used term. Simply put, it’s a state in which you achieve deep focus and feel at ease with the task at hand.

Performers know what I’m talking about, and if we’re lucky we have experienced this state at least once in our performing careers. It’s probably one of the main reasons we performers keep doing what we do. The benefits of experiencing flow in performance definitely outweigh the unpleasantness of performance anxiety.

You can also find flow in music practice. Many amateur musicians enjoy playing an instrument for pleasure, and perhaps these talented musicians do find flow during their practice sessions. Is this why we practice? Maybe.

Some of us practice so that we can attain flow on stage, or at least to minimize public embarrassment. If you’re not a musician or a performer I hope that you can pull out some meaningful content from this post to suit your own purposes. Perhaps you’re a runner – I’m a dabbler with running and I definitely don’t find flow there, but many people do. Maybe you are an avid knitter and find yourself halfway through a sweater before you realize the time has passed.

The flow state of mind is something that is definitely worth finding, however that might manifest for you. This post is specifically for the musicians but many of the ideas here are transferable to other disciplines too.

Flow In Performance: What It Feels Like

For those of you who don’t my musical background, I have a doctoral degree in piano performance, and I teach university students how to become the best performers they can be. To have a career in this discipline you obviously have to do some performing yourself.

As a pianist I have had the opportunity to experience performing with chamber ensembles (1-6 people), solo (just me and a piano), and large groups (symphony orchestra, wind ensemble). Sometimes I play with the music in front of me, and when I perform solo it’s all from memory. There are different ways to prepare for each of these different scenarios, and each performing situation demands a different set of skills.

You know you’ve achieved flow in a performance when you walk off stage feeling euphoric. You don’t remember exactly what happened, but you know you felt that electric connection with the audience. If you were performing with others maybe you experienced that magical communication where it seemed you were one large musical being working as one.

It’s that post-performance euphoria that keeps many of us coming back. Yes, some of us do it to cover the bills. Some of us do it because we love the music. But you can also love music and not put yourself through those pre-performance jitters.

It is a rare privilege to be able to experience flow in performance. It definitely doesn’t always happen.

Memorized Performance

Performing solo is probably the most stressful of all because you don’t have your music there as a security blanket.

Sometimes the absence of music allows you to get into flow faster, because you don’t have that visual distraction. The other side of the coin is also true, because without the music there your Inner Critic has much more opportunity to make you second guess yourself.

Obviously the best way to ensure you can attain flow – and have a successful performance – when performing from memory is to make sure you’re as prepared as possible. This is not a news flash. The more prepared you are, the more likely you are to enjoy the performance itself.

However, this is far easier said than done. How does one adequately prepare for rock-solid memory retrieval? One of the magical things about live performance is that unexpected things happen. This is what is lost in recorded, engineered performances: that element of potential danger.

Professional performers don’t need me to tell them how to prepare for a performance. We all have our own ways to do this. But please allow me one of my favourite ways to manage the Inner Critic, which is through Imagery.

Distract Your Inner Performance Critic With Imagery

When we have the privilege of helping young performers learn how to do this we have the opportunity to dissect what works for us, so we can impart this knowledge onto them. One of the most effective ways I have been able to help student performers with Inner-Critic control is through use of musical imagery.

This is more than simply thinking of an image while you play. You need to get specific and detailed. Who is the main character? What exactly do they look like? How old are they? What are they doing right in measure 1? In measure 25? In measure 200? What time of year is it? Are they inside or outside?

You get the picture.

It’s important to include activity in the imagery. This can affect pacing and tempo, the character of articulations, and the character of dynamic changes. Including emotional responses also can affect these changes.

Think of playing along with a silent movie, only you have the power to affect the emotional and action responses of the protagonists. It’s really fun, and it has the added bonus of keeping your Inner Critic off to the side because your attention is busy helping the characters do the things.

The fact that you can manage interpretive challenges with this approach is another bonus. As a teacher, when I find myself getting too detailed with an interpretive suggestion I back up and change to imagery. It works every time.

As a performer, when using imagery as a performance tool you can keep that annoying little Inner Critic voice out of your hands. How many times have I been on stage and questioned little things that my hands know how to do? Give that little voice something else to do so the hands can do their work.

Flow In Music Practice: Keep Daily Distractions Out Of Your Practicing

The more I dive into the world of administrative productivity the more I realize how powerful this is for productive practicing too.

What I mean is this: when you have control over your inbox, and you have a clear task management system in place, and you know that your schedule is managed, then you can concentrate more fully on the task at hand.

This is one of the reasons I love to practice at night. My favourite time to practice is between 11pm and 1am. I’m not doing that these days but it really is my favourite time because it’s quiet. Most regular people are asleep by then and no one expects you to answer their emails or messages or whatever. That time is just for you.

Even then, if I find my mind getting pulled into the many unmanaged tasks and unanswered communications, it’s really hard to concentrate on learning notes. Spend some time organizing your daily life and you may find it easier to manage practice distractions. If you can do this, you’re much more likely to get your flow going in your Beethoven sonata.

Aromatic Linking for Flow In Music Practice

Here’s a little story. When I first started using essential oils I wanted to see if they could do anything for my music-making. I had planned to create an aromatic link between practicing and performing, to increase the ease of memory recall on stage.

There has been research on this kind of thing so I knew that would work. It’s also why we have dress rehearsals before a performance. When we recreate as closely as possible on stage the conditions of our practicing, then our memory has an easier time recalling information. This means, when we do a dress rehearsal on the stage, in the outfit, and with as many performance conditions in place as possible, we tend to do better in the performance.

The same seems to work with aromatic links. In fact, it works very, very well. Aromas are stored in the limbic system of the brain which is also where we process emotions and memory. Think about that. If you can anchor the connection between emotion and memory, and trigger it with an aroma, this is powerful stuff.

I tried it, and it did seem to work well for stage. What I wasn’t expecting was how well it worked for practicing too.

I wrote about this in one of my earliest blog posts: Essential Oils For Memory.

Flow In Music Practice: Oils to Help

In that blog post (Essential Oils for Memory) I described the story of the first time I experienced deep flow in practicing when using essential oils. You can read the details there, but here’s the condensed version.

I had my signature oil blend ready to go: Frankincense, Peppermint, Rosemary and Wild Orange. I applied to temples, back of neck and along forearms. I took a big sniff, thought it smelled nice but realized it probably wouldn’t do anything, then got to work.

After 15 minutes of poking around and not doing any meaningful practicing, something clicked. I went for another 2.5 hours and had to stop when my back hurt. The next two nights were the same, and in my books, after three times it’s not a coincidence. I gave samples to my musician friends who all reported the same results.

I expected the aromatic link from practicing to performing to work. But I wasn’t expecting to find flow in my practicing.

Frankincense to Manage Distractions

Through further reading on the oils I learned that Frankincense is a great oil for meditation. I now understand why that might be the case.

After my surprise success in finding flow In music practice, I extended my personal experiments to the stage. I discovered that when using any blend containing Frankincense, I was able to notice distractions without becoming distracted by them. The person in the back jangling their keys, or the cellophane wrapper, or the dry cougher – all of those things were noticeable but negligible.

There are a number of essential oils that help with managing stress, overwhelm, and distraction. But many of those oils also have a calming effect, which is not really what we want on stage. We want to maintain that heightened sense that adrenaline gives us because that gives us an edge on stage. We go into superhero mode on stage, where we can hear everything, we see differently, and we are more in-tune with the non-verbal cues of our colleagues on stage.

One of the drawbacks of superhero stage mode is we can also become easily distracted. Frankincense helps you notice the distractions and let them slip on by. This is really handy.

Report Back!

Have you experienced flow on stage? What about flow In music practice sessions? What are your best tips to get there? Comment below or send me a message, I’d love to continue the conversation.