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THE "FLOW" - A MYSTERIOUS CONCEPT

Updated: Sep 2, 2023

Words fascinate me. When I was in early grammar school and it was about time to leave for school in the morning, my mom used to find me sitting on the edge of my bed, half dressed but reading and oblivious to anything else. It often flummoxed her, and then me, because I was unceremoniously “mother-handled,” dressed, and rushed out of the house and into the car.


I heard the word “flow” about the time I restarted adult piano lessons 2.5 years ago. Just one more vague term in the piano world, I thought – until most likely I experienced it for a few seconds on January 23, 2023.


When I excitedly called my mentor friend Joe to tell him about what I had experienced, he labeled it as an experience of “being in the flow.” Since this just happened to me and only once so far, I can’t exactly agree or disagree with him.


What happened?


What happened was that I was playing a particularly gorgeous, lyrical and slowly-paced piece that had been arranged for me by composer Bruce Nalezny, who has a special connection to my piano by being the piano broker who located The Duchess for me. He continues to this day to be generous enough to listen to me excitedly recount my unique or special occasional adventures with The Duchess.


This moment was certainly unique and special!


As I was playing Part C of the four-part score, I felt tears well up and I lost my sense of space and time. It wasn’t exactly a feeling of sadness or even wistfulness, but it had to do with appreciation for being alive with all the ups and downs that every human being experiences. The feeling kept engaging me, enlarging and deepening all the way through to the last lovely concluding low F note at the bottom of the keyboard. By that time, more than a few tears were traveling down my cheeks, and I could not continue my daily “practice.” I had to stand up, go get a glass of warm water, and walk around to decompress – but decompress from what?


When I called Joe to tell him about this amazing new experience, he asked if I had played all the notes correctly or not? I was stunned to realize that I could not remember! The issue was simply irrelevant.


The tears and deep feeling I experienced had something to do with entering fully inside the music and the gorgeous melody and harmonies of this particular composition and arrangement of it.


Two scholars who have analyzed this experience, add elements of practicality to the answer. Glenn D. Wilson and David Roland in a chapter "Performance Anxiety" in the book The Science and Psychology of Musical Performance edited by Parncutt and McPherson, suggest three critical conditions to experience flow: (1) a skill challenge balance such that the performer is being challenged but not too far, (2) a clear goal or purse, and (3) that the performer looks for feedback before, during and after performing, assesses their progress and makes corrective adjustments to their future performances. To me the second two points sound more like how to pursue effective practice rather than being in the flow, and these two were certainly not there when I experienced the phenomenon. What I think is even more critical is that one be totally in love with the score, for any reason.

(While I did not video playing the special arrangement at the time, a late-2022 video at a gorgeous concert Grotrian [while I was searching for my Duchess] when I played my favorite part of the score from "The Merry Widow" by Lejar reflects my deep love of this melody, and in a more relaxed time and place might well lead to "flow.")



It did not involve visualizing any particular story, or thinking about the movie plot from which the theme piece came. I forgot about standing outside and observing myself with a critical or cautious eye as I played The Duchess. Whether or not I hit all the right notes did not matter and even if it did, I could not tell what the wrong notes might have been. Somehow, I lost “myself” – and found music and the melody for a few seconds.


My classical guitarist friend Tung Vu, shared his experience. "I remember my "flow" feeling lasting for just one second, but the moment I realized I was in the flow I immediately fell out of it. I remember being amazed at myself which took me out of the flow!" He was playing a song from the band "Taking Back Sunday" or "My Chemical Romance", practicing the song in full tempo when he suddenly fell into playing with pure instinct and feel. He paid no attention to anything technical and just "went after the music itself not worrying about how I sounded and also realizing that I was sounding the way I wanted to sound." Tung says that usually it feels like he's "chasing after" where he wants to go, but this time he was very present in his actions. The music felt like it was flowing through but not from himself. "I never felt more natural playing and it sounded really good!"


Bruce calls it “...a feeling of total immersion and of being part and parcel with the musical focus: nothing else exists in that moment. The music is so encompassing that you exist only through it and because of it.” He’s a long-experienced and well-trained musician, and so is lucky enough to report that “flow" can happen "every time I play the piano as long as I am in a quiet place (no competing sounds from elsewhere)."


Natalie Hodges, a former professional concertizing violinist, left the concert stage, as I understand it, essentially due to MPA (musician's performance anxiety). This was after 20 years of violin education and performance. She talks about flow, but without using that word, in her new book, Uncommon Measure: A Journey Through Music, Performance, and the Science of Time." She relates flow to time, and says of a joint performance with a pianist, that "...it didn't matter, whatever happened would be right; that we were free, creating time; indeed, that we didn't exist in time, but, rather, time lived in us." For her, too, flow seems to involve a disappearance. She reports that "it's a strange feeling, beautiful but also eerie," and that she was alone with her feelings. At the same time, she most enjoyed the improvisatory moment with her musical partner, "without thought of past or future...where life stands still."


I was able to understand more about this feeling and experience, through an analogy set forth in an interesting paper ("Intonatsiia and the Politics of Expression") delivered by John Bell Young in1998 at the word piano Pedagogy Conference in Ft Worth, Texas. Young was a music critic, author and pianist until he passed in 2017. In his paper he used the analogy of the actor, who when on stage must speak the script words as if for the first time, or "reinvent the text." So does the pianist need to do the same and thus "dissolve barriers" that would separate the piano score/music from the player. How I interpret this point is that we become "One" with the music, or -- we move into the flow! (You may request a copy of this paper via email to: rhapsody.dmb@gmail.com)


Joe and I agree that it is in such rare moments, that the piano and the composition are playing themselves and we are just there, nearby, aware, being, perhaps floating in the alpha state? – but we are not thinking, judging, or even trying to play. It just happens. The moment just “is.”


When does it happen?


Joe and I have only experienced it when we were practicing alone at home, but in watching pianists such as Horowitz in concert, it seems he just ignores the audience and enters into the music and completely forgets where he is. What an additional “performance” talent that is, quite aside from his technical proficiency!


For us amateur pianists, I suspect it’s a rare experience, because Joe said it has only happened to him once when playing my favorite piece in his repertoire, Debussy’s Arabesque No. 1. Joe’s been taking lessons for nine years and he’s quite dedicated to his daily practice. He says it happened, and he feels it might happen again, when he feels a “yearning” sensation in the music, not one that is particularly sad or depressive. I feel the same.


I surmise that when it happens, it will happen concerning a piece of music to which I am keenly attracted. Bruce says that for him, “flow depends on whether the music has within it the potential to make a connection with me.” I suspect I need more than just a “potential;” I need to already have cemented my love of the piece in order to set up a key sine qua non for flow to happen. I need the music to already have compelled my attention and my focus in prior practice and I surmise I must feel relatively secure in playing the piece in order to let go of thought or consciousness of my surroundings or self. Then I can succumb and fall into the vortex of flow.


Ming, a classmate of mine in Noa Kageman’s online Psych Essentials class, currently plays in a dance studio, principally for classes, but also in occasional demonstrations and concerts for students' families. He has incorporated music and piano playing into most of his life starting with piano lessons from age 6 to 18. After he completed the university he started weekly lessons again and they continue until today. In addition to the piano, singing has always been important to him and he has occasionally joined choirs. Ming says that he knows he is in the flow if he “seems to have free time between the notes” and if he is “singing inside.”


However, he does not need a particular style of music or piece to induce flow. He says:

“I feel in the flow only when performing, and am conscious of playing for someone, telling a story (however) it can happen (when I am) on my own, or accompanying someone. An early "flow" experience was playing for a flautist at school. I was very aware of her breathing. I was also breathing with her, and I felt I had choices when I played (like how the sound should be, and exactly when to play the note). That particular time, it involved Poulenc's flute sonata, the 2nd movement...An earlier experience was at my guardian's funeral. I played Schumann's “Träumerei” and a Scriabin piece. I think I learned the Scriabin in a few days, so it was probably not very secure. The Schumann piece I had performed before. I had tears as I was playing, because it was for Daddy. I played on an upright piano in a church and the whole school was present (Daddy was a past master at our school). I was very aware of shaping the piece, and I was singing in my heart.”


How or why does it happen?


In reflecting on my experience a day later, it seems that what happens when we are in the flow, is that our ego disappears. The ego - that “other observing” person who so often sits in judgment or waiting for confusion or a slip up!


It’s like the ego, that other hard-edged person who is also us, lives outside our body and draws closer and closer to us as we sit on the piano bench. As it comes closer to us, like a ghost, it fades. Then when it is all wispy tendrils of smoke, it sits down on our lap, dissolves into us, and we become one entity. Somehow at the same time our ego is approaching and dissolving into us, we soften like our ghost, and that allows us to meld with the sound and music and our piano. When we do, we forget who is playing whom or what. That is the closest I can come to explaining what happened to me.


Can we help it happen again?


I wonder if and how I might encourage it to happen again? How can Joe and I set up the conditions for it to happen? We agreed to keep an eye toward those questions and report back when we had more information.


I’ll let Bruce have the ultimate word on that question, at least for now (although I would love to hear from others about this matter and have asked several other musician friends, who are considering an answer):


(It’s important) not to try to make anything happen. Sometimes willpower can get in the way! It’s kind of like when you’re searching for a specific word you can’t quite remember; the harder you try to recall it, the further it recedes from mind. When you just relax and don’t try to force your focus or your thinking, it often comes of its own accord.


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