For all that it asks from us; from pleading with our parents to buy that first instrument, to the discipline of weekly lessons, to giving up free time to practice for hours at a time when our friends were all outside playing, to being a ‘band geek,’ to performance anxiety and fear of judgment, to the stigma and stereotypes of being a musician; Why do we play music? We do it, quite simply, because it makes us happy. Music gives us a voice to express what words cannot, but it also gives us a challenge. It seems that there’s something in the human spirit that needs to be pushing forward, to strive, to be challenged, to overcome and to achieve in order to feel good.

Happiness could be described as the feeling we get when we have a sense of purpose, a direction, and what comes from participating in the pursuit of reaching our goals. With this in mind, we turn our attention towards the process of what author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls ‘the psychology of optimal experience,” or what is often simply described as flow. A ‘flow state’ is a condition where one’s perceived skills are adequate to meet the present challenges and where there is something novel about the experience, which helps us feel as though we are pushing our limits or “at the edge” of our abilities. It involves gaining personal satisfaction from engaging in a challenging activity while having the skills needed to be ‘in the game.’

Listen to this TED Talk where the author talks about how a musician creates an environment where his self-awards seems to disappear amidst the creative process. (Skip to about 7 minutes in to get the the heart of the talk.)

One condition that is often reported by individuals who enter a state of flow, is a sort of ‘opening up’ or ‘freeing’ of the mind. It doesn’t seem to matter if the activity is intense, such as playing basket ball, skiing or playing hard rock music, or calm, such as playing golf, cooking, gardening, or playing gentle music. When a person engages in their ‘flow activity,’ what’s important is that they experience something new and challenging while feeling as though they have the skills to meet those challenges. People sometimes report that it is within flow experiences that they are able to come up with their ‘best ideas’ or ‘receive inspiration’ they can apply to other areas of their life. It seems that entering into a flow state is about more than feeling good. It’s also a kind of enhanced state of mind, closer to what some might call an ‘elevated state’ or ‘the state of optimum performance.’

Flow State Chart

Flow State is achieved when challenges and skills are balanced.

Author Victor Wooten writes, “… when I play at my best, I’m not thinking. I’m in the ‘zone.’ Music is flowing through me, but this flow is broken sometimes when I make a mistake. […] when I practice, I use ‘concentration’ to learn what the technique is. Then I use ‘not concentrating’ to get completely comfortable using the technique.” Notice that he talks about both developing skills (using concentration to know) and being in a state of flow (in the ‘zone’). He also states that he is at his best when he is in the ‘zone.’

As it turns out, achieving a flow state is not only about what we can do – It’s also about what we think we’re doing, hence the use of the qualifier ‘perceived’ when referring to skills. You are likely to maintain a flow state as long as you ‘think’ your skills are adequate, even if by some objective standard, they are not. This might account for prolonged levels of engagement of people, where they have been provided with some technology, such as an instrument with fixed tuning, that has the effect of filtering out any potential ‘wrong’ notes. Other examples include having someone play a small part in a larger context, such as striking a triangle at the apex of a piano piece or singing small portions of a song using a ‘fill-in- the-blank’ strategy. Simplified tasks, along with ample reinforcement can help elevate the client’s perceived skills (subjective level), thereby helping to maintain a flow state, regardless of their objective skill level.

The kind of feedback we get from an activity has the potential to dictate to what degree we seek it out and whether we keep doing it. As long as we get something out of it, meaning there’s something that we find reinforcing, novel, and enjoyable, we’ll usually keep doing it. There are myriad techniques and strategies available to us to help people connect with and maintain a positive relationship with musical experiences. We examine them and may more in the Therapeutic Drumming Course.