"Mindfulness" has become a buzzword in the last few years. It is often associated with calm and peace of mind. It is a concept that is present in all wisdom traditions under different names; meditation, prayer, ritual, yoga, tai chi, etc. are all lumped into the category of "mindfulness" or "mindful practices." These practices are not only the domain of contemplative Eastern philosophers, monks, yogis, and New Agers, they can be used by people from all walks of life and backgrounds. Basketball players use visualization to get "in the zone." High-powered business types are participating in corporate retreats, which are meant to increase productivity, and Western medical doctors are prescribing these practices to treat stress. Stress is the reason for 75 to 90 percent of all medical visits!
Get in the Flow
While evidence is plentiful on the benefits of mindful practices for everyone. They are particularly beneficial for musicians. All musicians, whether they play an instrument, compose, and/or sing, use their body and mind to create their art. Creativity flourishes when we are in what researchers refer to as the "flow state" which these practices have been shown to aid a practitioner in achieving. Flow state refers to a state of mind where a person is "fully engaged" and a balance is struck between "challenge of the task and the skill of the performer." In fact, comparisons to music are often used by researchers and scientists when describing this state of mind. Hungarian psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, describes it in his 2008 TED talk as, "The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost."
The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost. — Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Hungarian psychologist, TED Talk, 2008
A clear example of this state can be found in a letter to his son, Hans Albert, that Albert Einstein wrote in 1915. He wrote, “I am very pleased that you find joy with the piano. This and carpentry are in my opinion for your age the best pursuits, better even than school. Because those are things which fit a young person such as you very well. Mainly play the things on the piano which please you, even if the teacher does not assign those. That is the way to learn the most, that when you are doing something with such enjoyment that you don’t notice that the time passes. I am sometimes so wrapped up in my work that I forget about the noon meal....” Einstein describes a full engaged mental state where challenge and skill are balanced and time seems to slip away. He was deep in the flow state.
Though we can read explanations such as these which compare music and flow. Musicians often find themselves having a difficult time "going with the flow" as Taoist Monk Yun Rou describes it. (I had the honor to interview Monk Yun Rou with my podcast co-host, Spencer, for Conscious Community Magazine. Click here to read the article and listen to the conversation.) The music seems stuck inside us and we become frustrated. Some musicians, even accomplished ones, will give up on music altogether due to the blockage of flow. Mindful practices which brings our minds into an alpha state which assist us with letting go of mental blocks, overthinking, and increase holistic mental connections. When musicians enter this state, the music seems to "play the musician" rather than the other way around and challenging music becomes natural and feels effortless. So, what are some of the mindfulness practices that we can "get in the flow?"
Tai Chi and Visualization
Tai Chi (Tai Chi Ch’uan) is a martial art the began in seventeenth century China. It was originally a battlefield art but now is practiced for its slow, controlled pace and meditative qualities. It's known for its physical benefits, including relaxation, strength, flexibility ,and balance. Tai chi requires disciplined practice like music does and the practice brings the practitioner into a relaxed, centered, and clear mind. The slow rhythmic flow of tai chi and its artistic expression helps musicians tune in to the music within.
One of the most significant benefits of a tai chi practice for musicians is learning how to practice visualization. Tai chi requires the practitioners to visualize the moment before completing it. This skill is an important one for musicians. When we visualize a musical performance, rather than physically perform it, we are training our brains. Scientific studies have shownl that thoughts produce the same mental instructions as actions. Mental imagery relates to many processes in the brain, including: motor control, focus, perception, planning, and memorization. By visualizing, the brain is getting trained for physical performance. Moreover, these mental practices may enhance motivation, increase confidence, and help the practioner reach that ever important flow state.
Yoga: Postures and More
Yoga has become quite popular in the West in recent decades. Although there are eight aspects or "limbs" to yoga, what most Westerners consider yoga is the physical exercises or asanas. A yoga asana practice may help musicians find inner balance and reach flow. Yoga helps prepare musicians physically, as well as mentally for their best performance. A complete set of physical movements takes the practitioner through the full-range of motion. In fact, a set of postures is referred to as a "flow" in some schools of yoga. Many musicians develop posture issues due to the circumstances of modern life; we are often hunched in front of computers or over our phones. For example, backbends and poses that use the arms, such as the Warrior series, aid in physically opening up the body and prevent physical limitations from blocking flow.
In yoga, practitioners breathe along with their movements. For example, the practitioner may exhale while reach down and inhale while extending upward. Breathing along with practice is important for entering maintaining flow. This is natural for singers and wind instrument players, however, breathing along with playing is also important for pianists, drummers, guitarists, string players, and players of other non-breath-based instruments. Yoga practice also includes breath-work called pranayama which encourages concentration and focus. There are many great instructional videos for pranayama practice. I have included one from Yoga with Adriene who is my personal favorite Yogini YouTuber.
The mental and physical benefits can lead to improvements in performance for both amateur and professional musicians. A yoga practice has been shown to support the creative process, increase mental focus, and improve memorization ability.
Alexander Technique for Musicians
The Alexander Technique has a long history of aiding musicians. The technique's founder, Frederick Matthias Alexander (known as F. M. Alexander), was a performer himself (an actor) and designed his technique to encourage "flow." He said that the technique was giving "nature her opportunity," allowing for "change and growth." The technique is described as an "educational process said to recognize and overcome reactive, habitual limitations in movement and thinking."
The Alexander Technique has a long tradition of helping musicians perform with less stress and decreasing the chance of injury. Since musicians are required to perform complex movements over and over again, Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) is a concern for many. In 1988, the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians surveyed 2,212 orchestral musicians and found that 76 percent had a significant medical problem that affected their ability to perform their best.
According to www.alexandertechnique.com, "By helping musicians improve the quality of the physical movements involved in playing an instrument or singing, the Alexander Technique also helps improve the quality of the music itself. A violinist's stiff shoulders and arms will get in the way of a pleasing sound; a singer's tight neck or jaw will cause the voice to become less resonant. By helping musicians release undue tension in their bodies, the Alexander Technique makes possible a performance which is more fluid and lively, less tense and rigid."
F. M. Alexander encouraged practitioners to "un-do the unhelpful." Alexander encouraged students to be mindful of how they move and what habits they have. Be paying attention to how we move, we are able to move in a less restrictive way, allowing our minds and bodies to enter flow.
Tai Chi, Yoga, and the Alexander Technique are just three tools musicians can employ to achieve flow. These practices are by no means the only ones. You can delve deeply into any of these practices to improve your performance and increase the longevity of your musical pursuits, whether that's as professional performing musician, music teacher, or as a hobbyist.
What do you do to enter into a "flow" state? Are there other performance techniques or practices that you have discovered? Please share you thoughts. Keep making music! There's a song waiting to flow out of you that can not come from anyone else.
Resources to Explore
The following sites were referenced for the creation of this post. They are a great bouncing off points for anyone looking to find more "flow" in their music practice.