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The positive pianist: How flow brings passion to practice and performance

We have all experienced times when, instead of being buffeted by anonymous forces, we do feel in control of our actions, masters of our own fate. On the rare occasions that it happens, we feel a sense of exhilaration, a deep sense of enjoyment that is long cherished and that becomes a landmark in memory for what life should be like.*

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi,** the author of the above quotation, is responsible for the term flow as it relates to human psychology. The flow state he described, a "sense of exhilaration" and "deep sense of enjoyment," may be experienced by participants in any number of pursuits. Those who experience flow have usually chosen to take part in a specific activity for the sheer joy of doing it—not from any expectation of reward. When we do something for the simple love of doing it, we are intrinsically motivated to do it. When intrinsic factors are not present, then extrinsic factors often become the engine behind the action. These include performing an activity in order to

- Receive praise.
- Be paid or receive a reward.
- Impress friends and acquaintances.
- Satisfy a teacher, receive a grade, or fulfill an academic requirement.
- Satisfy's one parents or significant others.
- Avoid punishment or embarrassment.

When compared to intrinsic motivation, these extrinsic motivators all fall far short. Yet piano teachers, entrusted with imparting the art of making music, often resort to such approaches in order to motivate ourselves and our students. 

All of us—yes—all of us became musicians due to love. Talk to most pianists and the majority of us will cite the awe, joy, feeling of oneness with the universe, and heart-palpitating love we felt when we recall our early or first connections to the piano. I, for one, can (my heart is pounding as I type these words) vividly remember when my great-uncle's Lester spinet arrived in my home. I was seven years old—a second grader—and there it was in my living room—a piano! My desire to learn to play the piano must have been extreme since it motivated my somewhat musically indifferent and financially challenged parents to arrange to have the piano moved from my great-uncle's residence in Washington, D.C. (he had been a Dean of Theology at Catholic University), to the living room of my small ranch style home in North Arlington, N.J. Do you remember similar feelings? If you could observe that little-self moment with the eyes of your big-self—what do you think you'd see? Would you be jumping up and down? Running around with glee? What would the present you see in your childhood eyes?

Our recognitions and acknowledgments of such feelings can help us to get in touch with our authentic selves. Trusting in and teaching to our students' authentic selves can in turn inform our decisions as we guide them. Yet how often does it occur to us to allow this intrinsic desire to make music drive ourselves both as musicians and as teachers? Recall that the Latin roots of the word educate are e- meaning "out of; from," and duca, meaning "to lead." If we accept as a given that the student herself has this joy within, then it obligates us, as educators, to lead her more fully toward her authentic self, the person she is meant to become.

The joy of playing must be the main motivator.

The aforementioned extrinsic motivators of the promise of a reward and/or the fear of punishment cannot enable this. In 1969 a graduate student in psychology named Edward Deci—destined to become a major leading expert in intrinsic motivation study—tried an experiment. He placed two groups of college students in rooms with several magazines and a puzzle similar to a Rubik's cube. One group was offered payment for solving the puzzle, and the other group was simply asked to play with the puzzle. As expected, the first group worked extremely hard to solve the problem. What came next is fascinating and significant.

The day after the experiment, Deci invited both groups back. Only this time, he told the first group that there was not enough money left to pay them for solving the problem. This group responded by losing interest in the task. The group that was never offered money, however, actually spent more time with the puzzle than they had before. Thus, the presence and then absence of payment detracted from the motivation for the task. However, the fascination with the puzzle fed on itself and provided motivation for further exploration. This, along with many other classic motivation experiments, demonstrates that engagement in an intrinsically enjoyable act can be stymied by the introduction of an extrinsic reward. Of course, this pertains just as much to playing the piano.Thus, the joy of playing must be the main motivator.Individuals simply learn better when, driven by their authentic nature to undertake an action for intrinsic reasons, they end up doing it over and over again. As expertise grows because of increased time on task, so does the desire to seek greater challenges, which leads in turn to greater expertise and the desire to seek even greater challenges—and on and on. Thus, a virtuous circle is created as the motivation to grow toward our authentic selves fuels growth, which in turn motivates further desire to grow, and on and on. Can you think of any artists, entertainers, or sports figures who excelled at their craft yet didn't love what they were doing? A majority of these individuals relate periods of "being in the zone," of intense concentration, or of experiencing "flow" when performing or practicing their craft or action.

The characteristics of flow

Over the years, Csikszentmihalyi's research concerning flow enabled him to identify several characteristics that are consistently present when one is in this state.

1. The challenge being attempted is at a level slightly above that of the individual's skill levelFlow can arise when one is participating in an enjoyable activity, such as games and sports that make use of a high level of motor skills. The pianist is practicing something slightly above or at his or her skill level.
2. There is a high level of concentration lead-ing to the exclusion of extraneous thoughts such as worry or concern. The concentration of the placekicker in football or the basketball player preparing to take a free throw is unaffected by the screaming fans or the effect of his actions on the game's outcome. Nothing else exists for the practicing or performing pianist except what he or she is doing.
3. Goals are clear. There are clear goals every step of the way. In contrast to our daily routine where we may be uncertain about what to do next, a person in flow has a clear sense of immediate and long-term goals. The pianist knows what he must do from moment to moment in order to musically interpret the score
4. There is no fear of failure or losing control. The task that one chooses is manageable and technically solvable. One never feels out of control. Having banished all extraneous thoughts, we are so consumed with what we are doing that we ignore everything outside the action being performed and there is no fear of failure. The fencer never fears a sudden loss of balance, and the third rower in crew is in perfect rhythm with the other members of her boat. Her mastery leads her never to doubt her ability to stay in sync with the others.The pianist plays a manageable passage at a manageable tempo in a manner that nevertheless provides artistic satisfaction.
5. Self-consciousness diminishes or disappears. Our sense of self, also extraneous to the action, disappears. When we are in flow, fear of embarrassment or humiliation disappears because the voices of self-doubt have disappeared. Self-aggrandizing thoughts will also disappear, for they, too, have nothing to do with the action being performed. The pianist is fully engaged.
6. One's perception of time becomes altered. The oft-used expression "time flies when you're having fun" comes into play here. We cannot believe how much time elapsed while we were in flow. The Japanese film director, screenwriter, producer, and editor Akira Kurosawa had this to say about the phenomenon: "When you are enjoying life, time flies by; when you are not, it stands still, though in reflection of this stillness, the observant may note how much of it has passed, and how much has been wasted." The pianist optimizes his time spent learn-ing as minutes feel like seconds and every action is packed with meaning.
7. Action and awareness merge. Being in flow is to be completely absorbed in an activity. In our everyday experience, our minds are often disconnected from what we are doing; it's as though we were operating on autopilot. What the pianist thinks and does unites into one thing.
When we are in flow we are simultaneously happy (perhaps even joyful) and at our very best. Thus, "emergent motivation" (the desire to do an action over again and again) becomes a reality. Success leads to a desire for more success, which leads to further success. When we lead a student to this state of flow we are giving perhaps one of the greatest gifts that can be given to another person. Leading our students to flow is the key to both their self-actualizations as artists and to their progress. But how can we do this?

It has been my experience that often during practice, students will work in a manner that is undisciplined, unplanned, and, as a result, unfocused. The result of this "mindless" approach to studying the piano is that students are often unresponsive to the many minute technical and musical problems that emerge during practice—simply because they do not notice them. Their inattentiveness to the demands of the present moment often leads them to become distracted and hence chaotic in their learning as they move through the entire piece in a disorganized manner. Their lack of a conscious or mindful approach to their work prevents them from experiencing the enjoyment that could have been derived from fostering flow through mindful attention to detail. In addition, most often random and even negative thoughts such as "Why can't I do this?" or "This is so hard" creep into consciousness, further eroding self-esteem and motivation and leading to less time on task due to self-discouragement.

The study of skill acquisition in combination with flow holds answers for us that may lead our students to greater heights. In order to become teachers who are capable of leading students to flow we must resist the temptation to tell students how to view a piece or play a passage, as such an approach fosters dependency and inauthenticity in their playing. How often have we heard criticisms regarding a pianist's lack of ideas? Do we really wonder why this state of affairs exists if we as teachers rely heavily on such dogmatic statements as "Do it like this" or "This is how Beethoven intended it"? Really,now. As my father kiddingly used to say when one of us would make such an impossible to substantiate comment—"Were you there, Charlie?"

We learn best when we enjoy what we are learning.

To take the steps necessary to lead our students toward becoming true authentic artists, we must listen deeply and simultaneously on musical, emotional, and spiritual levels. And we must do it via the music that we and our students are learning—whether two measures or forty pages long. We must help them navigate the score and carefully scaffold their efforts so that success will lead to success. Perhaps more importantly, we must ensure in our weekly lessons that all negative communications, especially those which are demeaning or insulting, are banned. My research and that of others has established the undeniable fact that we learn best when we enjoy what we are learning. For that reason, and just as important, we must be careful to ensure that the primary goal of our weekly assignments is to enjoy the exploration of a given amount of music. Thus, we must make sure that each student's frustration tolerance is taken into consideration so we do not go near that threshold. If the three flow-stopping emotions of frustration, anxiety, and boredom are not present during each student's practice week, conditions conducive to going into the flow state will have a far greater chance of emerging. To paraphrase Euripides, who asserted that "the wisest men follow their own direction," the wisest teachers empower their students to follow their own musical direction. Teaching and learning towards flow will do this.

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