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Facilitating flow experiences among musicians.

Have you ever been ...

* So totally absorbed in playing your musical instrument that you lost track of time?

* So engrossed in your music that you felt transformed or "in the zone"?

* Surprised by playing better than you thought you could?

In recent decades, an increasing number of researchers--most notably Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1)--have examined peoples' ability to become totally and effortlessly absorbed in activities that stand out in their lives. Csikszentmihalyi coined the term "flow" to refer to a state of focused absorption--a merging of action and awareness--where consciousness, mind and body become harmoniously directed, without indecision or anxiety. Analogous terms for flow include attaining a "state of chi," (2) as well as being in "the zone" (athletics), being in "ecstasy" (religious mysticism) and being in "aesthetic rapture" (artists and musicians).

In the current stud> we sought to identify some important elements that may promote flow states among instrumental musicians. As longstanding musicians, we were particularly interested in discovering why some musicians regularly experience flow, while others rarely do. With one of the authors being a piano teacher, we also were interested in exploring how characteristics associated with the flow state can be identified. If intrinsic enjoyment of playing music is indeed an important predictor of prolonged music study, (3) then we believe it is important to find ways of making the flow experience more attainable for music students. We specifically wanted to draw attention to things musicians might do to get into flow more often, while being mindful of Csikszentmihalyi's contention that there are no quick gimmicks or easy shortcuts to achieving flow. (4) In contrast to generic advice for promoting flow (for example, establishing clear goals, obtaining relevant feedback, keeping challenge and skill levels reasonably balanced) that Csikszentmihalyi and others have applied to a wide range of activities, we were more interested in a refined and useful understanding of flow to which instrumental musicians can easily relate. Our strategy was to delve into some demographic and individual differences that may predict flow proneness among adult musicians. To date, published research about flow among musicians has tended to target youth of high school age (5) or below. (6)

Elements of Flow

Using research findings from a wide variety of seemingly disparate contexts, Csikszentmihalyi has outlined some general conditions that purportedly facilitate flow experiences: (7)

* The task requires above-average concentration.

* The activity stands out from daily life.

* Challenge and skill levels are relatively matched, thus averting boredom from too little challenge and anxiety from too much challenge.

* The task is freely chosen.

* The task is totally absorbing, often leading one to lose track of time.

* Goals are clear.

* Means and methods are clear for reaching goals.

* The experience provides immediate feedback.

It is not difficult to identify how the aforementioned flow-promoting conditions might apply specifically to instrumental musicians. For instance, in line with Lori Custodero's thinking, (8) skilled musicians often have substantial control over what music they play and with whom they play their instruments. Echoing the high level of challenge seeking that has been found among high-achieving music students, (9) in our observations, many musicians also seem to enjoy learning at least somewhat challenging new music, exploring new musical styles, joining or forming new musical groups and expanding the settings in which they play or perform. Additionally, immediate feedback tends to be an integral part of the activity, as musicians learn to monitor their playing and hone their skills on specific passages. With the right combination of elements, instrumentalists might easily become engrossed in playing for long periods of time without realizing it.

Concepts Closely Related to Flow

In a general sense, flow states have much in common with the more established concept of mindfulness.

According to Ellen Langer, (10) a mindful approach to any activity involves continuous creation of new ways of organizing experience, openness to new information and awareness of different perspectives. From this cognitive angle, finding flow entails engaging in activities that are challenging enough to require new perceptions, perspectives and behaviors without being overwhelming.

Flow also is related closely to the concept of being "in the zone," a well-known phenomenon in sports. Susan Jackson and Csikszentmihaly (11) have applied flow theory specifically to sports by focusing on the same basic conditions that tend to elicit flow more generally, most notably the balancing of challenge and skill levels.

Predicting Differences in Flow Proneness

We believe that applying basic flow principles, combined with Barry Green and Timothy Gallwey's "inner game" theory (12) and related approaches for keeping one's attention in the present, hold much potential for helping musicians play in deeply rewarding ways. Guided mostly by flow theory, we wanted to find out why some instrumentalists experience flow so much more often than others. Toward this end, we predicted that some specific individual and demographic factors (for example, dealing with abilities, goals, self-confidence, age and gender) largely can explain differences in flow proneness among instrumental musicians.

Method and Results

Ninety adult classical instrumental musicians, averaging 59 years old, completed an anonymous mail-in written survey containing numeric rating and write-in items about the experience of "flow" while playing an instrument. For the write-in description, five elements were required for it to be considered a "flow" experience: (a) it stood out as a special musical experience, (b) it involved total absorption while playing, (c) the goals were clear, (d) there was confidence in task accomplishment and (e) attention was focused on playing the music and not on task-irrelevant thoughts. The respondents were proficient musicians who, on average, had played their instruments for thirty-six years and continued to play for seven hours per week. Specifically, 34 percent played violin, 17 percent piano, 14 percent cello, 7 percent flute, 6 percent viola, 4 percent French horn, 2 percent clarinet and trumpet and 1 percent oboe, bassoon, Celtic harp, guitar and accordion; the remainder did not specify an instrument.

Finding Based on Quantitative Data

Flow proneness--the ability of musicians to get into flow when they play their instrument--showed wide variation in our sample. As predicted, following a multiple regression analysis, the individual difference and demographic predictors in the survey together accounted for a large degree (51 percent) of the differences in flow proneness between musicians. From the data, we identified five key predictors of flow proneness, the first two of which were most salient:

* Self-confidence and self-trust while playing

* Desire to experience and express feelings through music

* Having experience goals

* Ability to maintain focus on the music

* Ability to play without self-criticism

Gender, age, experience and proficiency levels showed no direct impact on flow proneness. However, the data hinted at indirect effects. For instance, "self-confidence and self-trust while playing" was positively related to self-rated proficiency and to lifetime years of playing. Furthermore, women appeared to have slightly more self-confidence and trust than men while playing their instruments.

Findings from the Written Descriptions

Respondents' descriptions of specific musical flow experiences fell along five basic themes. Here are some examples:

1. Absorption, Heightened Awareness, Clear-mindedness [36 responses]

* "The nervousness of the minutes before the performance disappears with the lifting of the curtain. The two-hour concert seems to be only minutes long."

* "I was able to lose myself in the work and concentrate on feeling the dynamics and balance with the other instruments. The feeling of well-being and satisfaction came from the group playing as one and sharing the raw enjoyment of the music."

2. Emotional Involvement [32 responses]

* "[I] got caught up in the youthful driving emotion of this piece to the point where I was swept up in the passion and flow."

* "It was a just-for-fun sight-reading evening. The music was captivating. I could sense what we were all feeling. We were all left with a sense of pure delight."

3. Sense of Connection with Others [26 responses]

* "I felt positive, healthy, revived, and very relaxed. I wanted to share the music with close friends. It made me feel in love with life."

* "I was playing a very majestic piece with my teacher. I attempted to perform with the same gusto that he showed."

4. Sense of Everything Clicking into Place [20 responses]

* "I don't have to think about fingerings, bowings, dynamics, etc. I just play it and enjoy it."

* "Every time I play something new happens. It is almost as if I were listening to the result of all the hard work without working hard."

* "We all melded together--everything fit just right--the musical sounds were encircling me. A state of alertness and focus--being in the moment, moment-after-moment."

5. Sense of Transcendence [12 responses]

* "In the second movement of a string quintet I found that after a mysterious plucking of strings, the cello bursts forth, in unison with the violins, in a soaring melody that is almost shattering and lifts one out of his seat. The feeling is one of floating on air."

* "Hypnotic, transcendental, feeling totally integrated, at one with the universe."

A small proportion (12 percent) of participants reported their flow experience occurred while sight reading. Many flow experiences (45 percent) occurred while playing in an ensemble. According to participants' estimates, these flow states lasted an average of twenty-seven minutes, and most (62 percent) occurred in nonperformance situations. Of the composers behind the flow-producing music, the romantic era was most frequently represented (38 percent), followed by the classical era (20 percent), contemporary era (16 percent), baroque era (13 percent) and other (13 percent).

Respondents also were asked to describe what they think led to their flow experience. The replies yielded six dominant themes, listed from most to least frequent: (1) Love of Music (for example, "The fantastic power of the composition itself!"); (2) Familiarity with the Music (for example, "Knowledge of the music, previous study and practice of the music, and [a] supportive non-judgmental ensemble;" (3) Emotionality (for example, "Combination of adrenaline rush; sound of the rest of the orchestra during their 'peak'"); (4) Letting Go (for example, "Relaxed mood, not feeling controlled by time restraints"); (5) Connection/Rapport (for example, "The ability to connect with another person on an exceptionally lofty plane;" and (6) Concentration/Focus (for example, "Focus, concentration, desire ...").


The data provided clear support for our exploratory research hypothesis, which had predicted that certain individual difference and demographic factors affect flow proneness. The findings also enabled us to identify a handful of prominent predictors of flow proneness among instrumental musicians. Two predictors--"self-confidence and self-trust while playing" and "desire to experience and express feelings through music"--were the most salient. Three additional factors--"having experience goals," "ability to maintain focus on the music" and "ability to play without self-criticism"--also were important. Self-criticism has been found to be related to the perception of threat, (13,14) which often leads to performance anxiety. Overall, the findings validated the set of variables we initially selected for understanding flow potential.

General Conclusions and Suggestions

Based on respondents' descriptions of flow while playing their instruments, it appears that musical flow experiences may be multifaceted and facilitated by factors that go beyond the matching of task challenges with skill levels. Although most of the descriptions reflected a profound sense of mindfulness, there were substantial variations as to the content of that mindfulness. For example, mental clarity or emotional self-awareness were major elements of flow for some individuals; whereas, an enhanced sense of connection with other musicians was more prominent for others. In a general sense, it is conceivable that the mindfulness underlining flow among musicians might be enhanced by steps that simply expand one's awareness while playing (for example, to encompass feelings, moods, bodily sensations, thoughts, imagery, sounds, rhythms, patterns and so forth) without interfering with the music making.

Our findings, indicating flow is not affected directly by experience or proficiency levels, support Csikszentmihalyi's contention that flow is promoted more by striking a relative balance between challenge and skill rather than having an absolute level of skill per se; (15) the potential for flow thus appears to be available to novices and professional musicians alike. However, the data suggest that playing certain types of music (for example, classical compositions from the romantic era) may be especially conducive to flow. Additional research would be required to delve into possible causes for this, especially in light of the fact our study did not control for type of music played during flow experiences.

Interestingly, flow experiences tended to occur more often in small ensemble situations than while playing alone. This could be because of some inherent property of chamber music that lends itself to flow--perhaps the opportunity to interact with others, that have been found conducive to intense flow experiences, at least among women. (16) It also could be that coordinating one's music playing with others--without a conductor--is likely to pose a substantial challenge to play and listen mindfully regardless of proficiency level, especially when one is sight reading new material or participating in a temporary group. It also is possible that the prominence of flow experiences while playing chamber music simply reflects the dominant musical activity of many of the people we surveyed.

It is noteworthy that some individuals apparently had never experienced flow while playing their instrument. This absence has been seen in many people, including nonmusicians. (17) For the most part, these respondents appeared to have low self-confidence with their music playing and to lack the openness to discovery, new experiences and feelings that encourage flow experiences. Furthermore, these participants tended not to embrace goal setting. More generally, our findings strongly hint that establishing explicit experience goals may especially benefit musicians for whom flow is elusive or infrequent.

Specific Suggestions for Enhancing Musician's Flow Potential

Based on the five key predictors of flow we found, we offer some concrete suggestions. The approaches are potentially applicable for instrumental musicians (for example, students, amateurs and professionals), as well as music educators who work with them.

Listed below are some steps and strategies to enhance each factor. The ideas reflect a wide variety of sources, including flow theory books (18) and empirical studies, (19) methods for playing the inner game of music, (20) approaches for fostering mindfulness, (21) ways to enhance body awareness, (22) techniques for overcoming performance anxiety or evaluation apprehension, (23,24) items from our survey and suggestions from survey participants, in quotes below. Concentrating on at most a few suggestions at a time may be needed to prevent overload. Being overly intent on attaining flow probably will deny musicians the very experience they seek.

Increasing Self-Confidence and Self-Trust While Playing:

* Practice sight reading regularly to acquire self-confidence for approaching new or unfamiliar musical situations.

* Recall times when you have played similar or quite challenging music successfully and acknowledge that these capabilities are still intact.

* Nurture an attitude of openness about discovering new things about your abilities and the music.

* Aim to surprise yourself by playing better than you thought you could.

* Suspend self-judgment and self-criticism whenever possible.

* "Make a conscious decision to take a risk" with your music.

* "Play music that you're passionate about--music that touches your soul and invites you to express your innermost feelings."

* "Don't worry so much about every note ... and your body will know what to do...."

Boosting the Desire to Experience and Express Feelings Through Music:

* Choose music that is likely to bring joy to yourself and others.

* Choose music or musical settings that can provide you with new feelings, experiences and insights.

* Embrace an attitude that encourages experimenting with different ways of playing the music.

* Before playing a piece of music, bring attention to body sensations, posture and breath.

* Allow your feelings about the music, and awareness of them, to flow and change as the music progresses, without trying to interfere.

* "Have enthusiasm, sit at the edge of your seat, think about your dreams and fears."

Creating or Enhancing Experience Goals:

* Set a goal of being aware of feelings or bodily sensations as the music is played.

* Embrace the process of playing, rather than just the outcome.

* Be okay with whatever feelings about the music may arise (including negative ones).

* Allow yourself to move with the music (and to be moved by it).

* Consider Alexander technique training for musicians.

* Pay attention to any imagery and stories your mind may want to create to fit the music.

* "Play something that appeals to your mood or the mood you would like to be in."

* "Concentrate on the composer and what you think he is trying to say."

* "Get absorbed--love the music! Experience each note, phrase, feeling as a distinctive gem."

* "Play as if you had written the music."

Enhancing the Ability to Focus on the Music:

* Create explicit performance, learning and experience goals before you begin playing.

* Learn to physically relax just before playing by, for instance, taking a deep breath or two.

* Accept that physical symptoms of nervousness are normal and usually most intense just when one begins to play--especially with or for others. The symptoms naturally dissipate as the playing continues, unless one continues to focus on them.

* Acknowledge that you are likely to play your best when you focus on what you want to accomplish or experience and don't allow mistakes to be distracting.

* Learn to gently, and nonjudgmentally, bring the focus back to the music when it wanders.

Enhancing the Ability to Play Without Self-Criticism:

* Learn to become nonreactive to self-criticism, in other words, be a silent witness to it, and learn to refocus attention on the musical activity.

* Set realistic standards and avoid imposing impossible or perfectionistic demands on your playing.

* Acknowledge any mistakes nonjudgmentally and matter-of-factly.

* Learn to overcome the urge to stop at every mistake.

* Shift any destructive or distracting self-talk toward more constructive and enabling thoughts.

* Decrease the perception of threat.

* Use humor to maintain a sense of perspective.

Directions for Further Research

Naturally, additional study and refinements are needed to develop confidence about the core flow-promoting factors suggested by our data. Despite the support for our research hypothesis, almost half the differences in flow proneness between respondents could not be accounted for by the core factors. Future research that identifies additional factors would be valuable in this regard. Focusing more on nonclassical musicians, including improvisational players (like jazz, rock, new-age and so forth), and composers, might be a logical next step. Also, gathering data from professional musicians and students, as opposed to the amateurs we targeted, might yield a more complete picture of flow proneness among musicians; we currently are administering a modified version of the flow survey to college music majors. Furthermore, expanding the methodology to include interviews with musicians and music educators might be a good way to discover new factors and validate the ones found in our study.

Overall, we believe that experiencing "flow" while playing music is a major component of the enjoyment behind playing an instrument. In addition, enjoyment of music is likely to lead to positive aspects of playing music, such as intrinsic motivation, confidence in performance and a lasting love of music--and, therefore, less student attrition. If being in flow indeed enhances music making, the ability to diagnose individual flow barriers and help people play music more consistently in flow, appears to be critical for musicians and music educators alike.


(1.) Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly, Beyond Boredom and Anxiety. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1975); and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. (New York: Harper & Row, 1990).

(2.) Yasui, B. (personal communication, 2002).

(3.) Lee, Kenneth, "The Possibilities of Time II: Flow," American Music Teacher, 52, No. 2. (Oct./Nov. 2002): 92.

(4.) Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly, Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life. (New York: Basic, 1998).

(5.) O'Neill, Susan, "Flow Theory and the Development of Musical Performance Skills," Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education 141. (1999): 129-134.

(6.) Custodero, Lori A., "Seeking Challenge, Finding Skill: Flow Experience and Music Education," Arts Education Policy Review 103, No. 3 (2002): 3-9.

(7.) Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.

(8.) Custodero, "Seeking Challenge, Finding Skill: Flow Experience and Music Education."

(9.) O'Neill, "Flow Theory and the Development of Musical Performance Skills."

(10.) Langer, Ellen, The Power of Mindful Learning. (Cambridge, MA: Perseus, 1997).

(11.) Jackson, Susan A. and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow in Sports: The Keys to Optimal Experiences and Performances. (Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 1999).

(12.) Green, Barry and W. Timothy Gallwey, The Inner Game of Music. (New York: Doubleday, 1986).

(13.) Kirchner, Joann, "A Qualitative Inquiry into Musical Performance Anxiety," Medical Problems of Performing Artists. (2003): 78-82.

(14.) McCoy, L. H., "Musical Performance Anxiety Among College Students; An Integrative Approach," Dissertation Abstracts International Section A; Humanities and Social Sciences 60. (1999): 4-A.

(15.) Csikszentmihalyi, Flow.

(16.) Allison, Maria T. and Margaret C. Duncan, "Women Work and Flow," Optimal Experience: Psychological Studies of Flow in Consciousness, edited by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Isabella S. Csikszentmihalyi. (Cambridge University Press, 1988): 118-137.

(17.) Bloom, A. J. and A. L. Reese, "Categories of Flow Experiences Among College Students," paper presented at the 71st Annual Meeting of the Eastern Psychological Association, Washington, D.C. (2001).

(18.) Csikszentmihalyi, Flow.

(19.) Edited by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Isabella S. Csikszentmihalyi, Optimal Experience: Psychological Studies of Flow in Consciousness.

(20.) Green, The Inner Game.

(21.) Langer, The Power.

(22.) Valentine, E.R. et al., "The Effects of Lessons in the Alexander Technique on Music Performance in High and Low Stress Situations," Psychology of Music 23, No. 2. (1995): 129-141.

(23.) Rack, J., "Performance Anxiety in Student Musicians," Dissertation Abstracts International Section A; Humanities and Social Sciences, 57. (1996): 1-A.

(24.) Ristad, Eloise, A Soprano on her Head.. Right-Side-Up Reflections on Life and Other Performances. (Moab, UT: Real People Press, 1982).

Arvid J. Bloom, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology who has spent several years researching practical ways to promote flow experiences. He also is an accomplished violinist with forty-four years of experience spanning classical, bluegrass and improvisational styles.

Paula Skutnick-Henley, M. Ed., a licensed psychologist and award-winning ragtime pianist, has taught piano and composition independently since 1976. She is an adjunct of psychology at West Chester University, and she plays keyboard and sings in a blues band and has composed several musical theater works.
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Author:Skutnick-Henley, Paula
Publication:American Music Teacher
Date:Apr 1, 2005
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