Many people in music, visual arts, sports, and public speaking are familiar with performance anxiety. To overcome such anxiety and induce peak performance, we can try to achieve the flow state. With this state, instead of crumbling under the pressure, you will rise and surpass the occasion.
Some of you may have the impression that the flow state has some mystical or new age implications, but keep reading and I’ll explain the hard science behind it.
What is flow?
The term “flow” was first coined by Hungarian psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. He and his team of psychologists began noticing this state of mind in the 1980s when studying artists who were so absorbed by their work that they forgot their physical need for food, water, and even sleep. Being so consumed by their work, they lost track of their sense of self, and all that was left was their work.
Flow is defined as a state of intense concentration on the present moment, a merging of action and awareness, a loss of ego or self, a sense of control over the situation or activity, a distorted sense of time, and an experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding. In other words, the outcome of the activity is no longer important; the act of doing is rewarding enough.
What happens physically and chemically in your brain is that your prefrontal cortex—which controls complex thought processes, harbors your sense of self, and controls your perception of time—starts to shut down. This is why it feels like your sense of time and sense of self disappear during flow states, and you’re just an observer watching your body perform trained movements. Additionally, your brain waves slow down to right between the point of Alpha and Theta waves.
Many of you may already be thinking back to past experiences that fulfill the criteria of a flow state. The truth is, all of us have experienced the flow state. Many athletes refer to it as being “in the zone.” Many of us who practice our instruments at home have probably experienced it countless times. With no pressure to perform well, the home is the most common place for musicians to experience the flow state. Some musicians call this state of mind as “the space.” Joggers experience it as “runner’s high.” Pool players have described it as being in “dead stroke.” For religious folks, it is often induced during group worship and singing. Very often, it physically feels like a full blown mystical experience. As you can see, the flow state is common in everyday activities. Let’s now focus on flow states experienced by musicians.
A study performed on professional classical pianists found a significant relationship between the flow state of the pianist and his or her heart rate, blood pressure, and major facial muscles. As the pianist entered the flow state, he/she entered a state of effortless attention, and even though the attention was effortless and the body was relaxed, the performance improved during the state. Imagine that you can play music feeling relaxed and focused instead of tense, over-concentrated, and overexerted, a common problem for many players and me in the past.
What do I need?
The first requirement is that one must be involved in an activity with a clear set of goals and progress, which gives the task direction and structure. This is why short-term achievable goals are important when you practice. You must set goals that anchor you to the present moment rather than long-term goals, which shifts your focus to the future.
The second requirement is that the task at hand must have clear and immediate feedback. This helps you navigate around any changing demands and allows you to adjust your performance to maintain the flow state. Considering that we’re dealing with music and sound, we often receive pretty immediate feedback.
The last requirement is a good balance between your perceived skill level and the perceived skill required of the task at hand. In other words, besides the mental aspect of playing music, the technical aspect is also important, and you must be confident in your ability to complete the task before you. This third requirement cannot be stressed enough, because the task MUST be at the right level, neither too difficult nor too easy. You will not achieve the flow state in your performances if you are ill prepared, or simply not skilled enough for the song that you’re playing. Additionally, if you are unprepared, you’re going to experience more anxiety, which is an emotion that prevents the flow state.
What’s in the way?
Fear is the enemy of the creative and hinders the mind from being free to play and create. You fear failing during a performance and taking a blow to your sense of self-worth, and therefore you pressure yourself to perform well. Unfortunately, fear feeds into pressure, and pressure feeds into fear.
This is how people crumble. Ever notice that if you pressure yourself to do well, you end up doing terribly, or you did fine but didn’t have a good time performing? What about those performances with no pressure at all? Maybe you were playing for friends, or maybe the organizers weren’t paying you very well. How did you do then? I bet that you did a lot better and enjoyed yourself a lot more than when you felt pressured.
Remember that at the end of the day, we’re only playing music. There is no mortal danger to playing music. If you feel stressed before a performance, remind yourself that there’s no lion in the corner of the room waiting to pounce on you. Oftentimes, the brain is unable to differentiate mortal danger from danger to the ego.
The only dangers exist in your mind and ego. You feel pressured and afraid because you want to impress your audience. Instead of focusing on impressing your audience, I ask that you focus on expressing the music. When you focus on impressing, you tend to overthink and doubt yourself. One of the key components of the flow state is allowing your sense of “I” to shut down, which is impossible if you’re too focused on the outcome of your performance. Learn how to mentally stay out of the way and just let your hours of practice take over. If you can allow that to happen, you will allow the flow state to take over.
Many musicians treat music performances as never-ending competitions. This mindset generates fear because you’re always wondering whether you’re good enough, in which case performing is not enjoyable. You’ll be too concerned with whether you’re doing better than the previous performer that you, once again, prevent your prefrontal cortex or sense of self from shutting down. Many successful athletes explain that during high level competitions, they only focus on what they are doing, instead of what their competitors are doing or have done. Similarly, focus on your actions rather than the actions of others. Stop comparing yourself to other people!
Once you learn to let go of the fear, you’ll find freedom in your music.
Exercise your mind
What can we do to improve our ability to flow during performances? A couple of mental exercises will help you out. Many of these ideas come from the world of athletics as the mindset of a high-performance musician is similar to that of a high-performance athlete.
Self-talk and positive affirmations
One of the requirements for inducing a flow state is perceiving your skills to be up to the task, which means having confidence in your abilities. Unfortunately, many musicians have a habit of not believing in themselves. Some people are always thinking that, “I’m no good right now, I need to practice more and maybe in a year or so, I’ll be happy with my abilities.” The problem is, if they tell themselves they’re no good every single day, they will still feel and believe in the same thing a year later, because the mental pathways have been carved so deep.
Psychologists describe thoughts as skiers going down a hill. The more often they go down the same path, the deeper the carving in the snow becomes. This is surprisingly more common than many people would imagine, which might explain why a recent study found that 70% of working musicians in the UK suffer from depression and anxiety.
If you lack confidence in your abilities, you tend to second-guess yourself, which again leads to overthinking and self-doubt, which reactivates your prefrontal cortex. The thing that prevents you from dropping into the flow state is the thing that gives you your sense of self. Aren’t we our greatest enemies? An effective way to overcome this problem is what psychologists call self-talk, or positive affirmations. The idea is simple: talk to yourself in your head and tell yourself that you are capable of anything. Remember, you are what you think.
When doing self-talk, stick to direct phrases that begin with “I.” For example, “I can do this,” “I am capable,” or “I have the capacity for greatness.” They might sound ridiculous, but hey, if the cutting edge of psychology says this works, who am I to say they are wrong? When you make a mistake, don’t think, “Oh god I’m terrible.” Reframe the mistake and look at it as just a bump along the road. Laugh at your mistakes and let them go, and then bring yourself back into the moment.
There is, however, a fine line between confidence and delusion, so we need to maintain some objectivity about our abilities. This will be addressed in the section dealing with mindfulness meditation.
Here’s another technique that athletes use often. Before a performance, it helps to just sit down and visualize yourself performing. Try to really see everything in your mind’s eye. Your brain often has trouble distinguishing between daydream and reality. Ever had a dream that feels so real that you woke up feeling like you dropped into another dimension?
When you visualize yourself performing, see yourself perform from that effortless space, as if you’re just an observer watching your body move. Your body is making all the right moves and hitting all the right notes and you’re not involved at all. It’s as if something has taken over you and you are just an empty vessel for the music. See yourself in the flow state.
Many writers use exercise to drop into a flow state. Low intensity exercise can clear our minds for long periods of time. Your brain gets quiet when you exercise because you become so absorbed by the activity. Doing some light jogging or yoga is a great way to prepare yourself for a performance and reduce the pre-performance jitters.
This is something that musicians, athletes, top CEOs, actors, and artists have been doing. Mindfulness cultivates a present moment awareness. Too often we’re stuck ruminating about past failures and achievements, or looking forward to a future that hasn’t unfolded yet. Mindfulness teaches us to be clearly, and effortlessly, focusing on the present moment, one of the things that happens during the flow state. Mindfulness builds up that concentration, and eventually you are absorbed by even the most mundane tasks.
Oftentimes during performances, we are stuck in our previous successful or failed performances, so much so that we are distracted from what we’re doing. Stay focused on the task at hand, and you will have more success dropping into the flow state.
Here’s how to practice mindfulness meditation:
Set a timer for 10 minutes to an hour, depending on how much free time you have.
Sit upright with a wakeful posture.
Close your eyes and focus on your breath.
There’s no need to change the way you breathe. Just focus on how effortless it feels to breathe naturally. You can focus on the rise and fall of your chest or stomach, or the breeze that passes by your nose as you inhale and exhale.
When thoughts intrude, do not react strongly to it. Simply observe where your mind has gone to, then firmly but gently bring your awareness back to your breath.
It’s normal to have thoughts or even entire stories played out in your head. The key is to always bring your attention back to your breath when you catch yourself drifting off in thought. Do it 10 times, a hundred times, a thousand times, however many times you drift away.
Do this until your timer goes off.
As you can see, if you practice having effortless but focused attention on something mundane like your breath, it becomes easier to have effortless focus on playing music. As you practice mindfulness more often, eventually you’ll want to bring mindful attention into things you do every day like brushing your teeth, showering, or walking. Just pay attention to how everything feels.
As you practice meditation more and more, you will find yourself falling into the flow state every so often. The more often you fall into the flow state, the easier you can enter it again. Remember that mental pathways get deeper the more you repeat them.
Meditation also helps you view your abilities as a musician in a detached manner. You tend to stop attaching your self-worth to your playing, which allows you to objectively decide what you need to work on next. The dissolution of the ego allows us to view ourselves objectively.
Time to perform
When it’s time to perform, remember to focus on the task at hand. Stay in the present moment. Don’t think about the outcome of your performance. At this point, the present moment is all that matters. Assuming that you’ve already spent hours practicing your pieces, now you need to let go and trust your training.
Imagine that every song you’re playing is the easiest song ever and all you need is just effortless focus. Even if you do make a mistake, don’t react by trying harder. Remain relaxed and focused. Have you ever noticed when you make a mistake and you try to save the song by playing it with more effort, it suddenly feels uninspired, and at worst, you make more mistakes?
If you feel pressured before the performance, remember that it’s normal. Even the performers of the highest level experience stage fright. The key is to notice that you’re feeling stressed, and allow that feeling to pass. Don’t dwell on the pressure, or it just generates fear and more pressure.
Finally, if after all of the preparation you still didn’t do well, remember that it’s no big deal. The world doesn’t end because you had a bad performance. Even the greatest musicians have disastrous performances. The only thing that matters is that you don’t attach your self-worth to your performance. What matters is not the obstacles we face, but how we respond to them, so pick yourself back up and get back on that horse.
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Manzano, Örjan De, Töres Theorell, László Harmat, and Fredrik Ullén. “The Psychophysiology of Flow during Piano Playing.” Emotion, vol. 10, no. 3, 2010, pp. 301–311.
“New Mental Health Survey Finds Over 70% of Musicians May Be Depressed.” The Violin Channel, 1 November 2016, https://theviolinchannel.com/mental-health-survey-musicians-depressed-anxiety-uk/. Accessed 29 November 2016.
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