My guest writer this week is pianist and teacher David Jones. David is Head of Keyboard at Cheltenham Ladies College (in the UK) and artistic director of a new and exciting piano Summer school: The Thinking Pianist. In this article, David explores the fascinating concept of ‘Flow’ and how we might achieve it in our piano playing and in our teaching.
When was the last time you were so absorbed in an activity that it was consuming all your attention, perhaps for a significant length of time so that you might even have forgotten to eat or drink? And by “activity” I mean something active and challenging; however rewarding and absorbing it might be catching up on our favourite Netflix boxset, that use of our time might more appropriately be termed a “passivity” – though there is nothing wrong with that! I imagine we are all familiar with the concept of being “in the zone” when engaged in a challenging activity, perhaps most vividly symbolised by the lone surfer successfully riding an enormous wave, using nothing but experience, skill and intuition to survive. I hope that anyone reading this article has been able to experience, however fleetingly, this sense of “Flow” when performing, whether that be to a trusted friend or family member, or a large public audience. It may even be the case that the desire to achieve this Flow experience more regularly or more intensely has been one of the prime motivators for your continuing involvement in playing a musical instrument.
The Flow experience can of course occur during practice as well as performance. When we feel practice is going well, we are usually in a similar (though possibly less heightened) state: ideas are flowing, potential solutions to troublesome issues are emerging and sometimes we can literally feel improvement with each successive repetition – it can be exhilarating. And, if we also happen to be teachers, we quickly develop a sense of mission to help all our pupils achieve these flow states in their practice as often as possible.
I was dimly aware that, since the 1970s, there had been specific psychological research into these “flow states”, but it wasn’t until October last year that I became directly inspired to investigate further. Sadly, this was due to coming across the obituary of the key figure who pioneered this research: the Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Various articles celebrating his work appeared in the media and, interested to explore further, I bought a copy of his classic work on the subject: Flow.
The original edition of Csikszentmihalyi’s book, published in the early 1990s, is subtitled The Psychology of Optimal Experience, which increased my fascination, but I ended up buying an updated Penguin 2022 edition entitled Flow – The Psychology of Happiness, which makes it sound a lot more like a popular self-help title, which I personally found slightly off-putting. However, I wanted to discover more about why the author’s early investigations into Flow states in performers, athletes and surgeons had led, over a long career, into a conviction that he was looking at one of the most important mechanisms through which human beings achieve lasting happiness and fulfilment in their lives. Despite the rather hyperbolic subtitle of the new edition I was not disappointed.
Csikszenthihalyi’s work chimes strongly with the ethos of The Thinking Pianist, the piano summer course I set up in 2021, which from the outset was designed to appeal to anyone for whom playing the piano is a fundamental source of well-being, whether aspiring professional, experienced teacher or dedicated adult learner. Engaging with a hugely challenging activity which demands total integration of physical, intellectual, musical and even what might be termed spiritual aspects of ourselves can undoubtedly provide a deep sense of purpose, meaning and fulfilment.
Csikszentmihalyi’s research has been based on a huge amount of observation of real lives, with thousands of participants self-reporting subjective experience through a specifically developed technique called the Experience Sampling Method. It was fascinating to learn about people who had managed to “scale-up” the concept of Flow to embrace their entire working day, and by extension almost their entire lives. Intriguingly, many examples of this were given where people had quite repetitive jobs but had developed imaginative ways of retaining challenge and interest, thereby ensuring Flow. The idea of Flow as a concept which could be achieved over an entire lifetime (however challenging a prospect that is!) reminded me of one of the core aims of all Ancient Greek Philosophy – that of eudaimonia, which I think is most helpfully translated as “flourishing”. Flow in piano practice translating into flourishing in one’s daily life – now there is something we could definitely explore at The Thinking Pianist!
In chapter 3 of Flow, the author begins a detailed description of the conditions necessary to enable what he terms an Optimal Experience, or Flow Activity. Interestingly, he also makes clear that, for his purposes, it will be helpful to use the words enjoyment and pleasure almost as technical terms to distinguish between two different types of experience, which I found very persuasive. His concept of a pleasurable activity is one which primarily satisfies an urge or instinct but does not necessarily lead to a growth of the self. This could be as simple as eating when you feel hungry or watching television as relief after a long day; this kind of activity obviously has an important place in all our lives. However, enjoyment is the term he uses to describe what is happening during a Flow activity, where we are much more actively engaged and stimulated.
Csikszentmihalyi’s research led him to identify the following key qualities of a Flow activity. Not all of these necessarily need to be present, but often many are. He was fascinated by the similarity of language used by thousands of different people describing hugely varied activities when feeding back about their Optimal Experiences:
Ideal conditions for the occurrence of a Flow Activity/Optimal Experience
1 Focussed attention to the activity is possible (i.e. distractions are minimum or zero)
2 There is a well-matched level of the activity’s challenge and the participant’s skill
3 Clear goals can be discerned, and clear feedback obtained
4 There is a sense of exercising control, sometimes effortlessly so (i.e. worry/self-doubt is minimum or zero)
5 A sense of total absorption in the activity can develop, sometimes a paradoxical feeling of loss of self-awareness and heightened “sense of self”
For an activity to be capable of continuing to generate Flow experiences, it must be possible for the level of challenge to be increased to match the increasing level of the participant’s skill. Although this is stating the obvious, it is important to realise that this is the very reason why Optimal Experiences lead to the growth of the self. As our skills increase, we discover (or are introduced to) new levels of challenge, which require development of further skills, or better integration of those we already have. When one considers that the human brain literally makes fresh connections between living cells every time we learn something new, it is difficult to doubt that this process will lead, via complex biochemistry which is the subject of ongoing exciting research, to anything other than a sense of personal growth, achievement and fulfilment.
When thinking about how to apply Csikszentmihalyi’s work directly to piano practice, teaching and performance, I recently came across The Positive Pianist by Thomas J. Parente (published in US by OUP, 2015), a book which does just that. Parente’s enthusiasm and energy comes across on every page and he is full of good ideas; I am especially pleased that he utilises one of my favourite concepts in teaching – Chunking – as the main way of ensuring that the immediate challenge of our activity (i.e. the bit we have chosen, or assigned, to practise) is not too far above our skill level (or that of our pupil). I am excited to do further exploration of Parente’s book and website, though he did get me thinking immediately about one particular conundrum. From my reading of his book thus far, he seems to make the assumption that, if we can get a student to achieve flow in their practice, they will automatically be achieving good results. According to Csikszentmihalyi however, Optimal Experiences are subjective, so it would be theoretically possible to achieve Flow even when practising or playing “badly”. But this is a big question and perhaps a subject for a future article!
As a final thought for this introductory article, I would like to mention a point Csikszentmihalyi makes early on in Flow, which seems to have acquired sharper focus due to global events in the last few years, particularly in the world of mental health and well-being. Modern consumer society largely conditions us into thinking that what counts most in our lives is that which will occur in the future, and that it is mainly our material and/or career success which will lead to long-term happiness. The theory of Flow strongly re-focuses us on the present moment, and the importance of giving our full attention to what is happening right now as key to our personal growth and fulfilment. Csikszentmihalyi research backs up most people’s common-sense view that the positive, growth-of-the-self effects generated by attention-absorbing Flow activities persist into our daily lives even when we are not immediately involved in the activity.
In summary, the individual activities involved in studying, practising and performing on the piano can self-evidently provide several lifetimes’ worth of potential flow experience, as can be attested by the large number of established pianists who will, without hesitation, tell you that they are continuing to learn about their craft and to develop as artists and musicians, some of them to an advanced age. The few thoughts given above have hopefully served to outline this fascinating topic. I intend to explore these ideas more fully in The Thinking Pianist course this summer (details below) and perhaps to flesh out more details in a future article. Meanwhile I sincerely hope all readers continue to find Enjoyment as well as Pleasure in their piano-playing!
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly: Flow – The Psychology of Happiness, Penguin/Rider Classics 2022
Parente, Thomas J.: The Positive Pianist – How Flow can bring passion to practice and performance, published in US by OUP, 2015
Find out more about The Thinking Pianist piano summer course, here.
This year’s course dates: 16-23 July 2022, Cheltenham, UK
Follow The Thinking Pianist on Facebook, here.
Copyright © David Jones 2022
For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.
You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.