How to Reach Flow State for Ultimate Piano Practice Performance
Have you ever been so deeply immersed in what you’re doing that you lose all sense of self and time? If you have, you might have entered ‘flow state’ – a heightened sense of cognition whereby our entire being is focused on the task at hand. People report feeling an incredible sense of clarity and even ecstasy when in this state of mind.
Flow state: a state of mind where we are 100% absorbed by what we are doing, accompanied by feelings of joy, fulfilment and intense focus.
As you can imagine, being able to go into a flow state is one of the best things we can do in our practice. Harnessing flow state creates an ideal environment for peak performance and learning, and being able to invoke this state of mind will help you learn and grow at an accelerated rate.
But how do we reach this state of mind? Is it something that just happens or are there things you can do intentionally to trigger it?
While research hasn’t yet given us a quick entryway into this mysterious state of mind, we do know of several mechanisms that may contribute to unlocking flow.
The first and perhaps most important piece of advice is that flow state is always preceded by a period of intense focus and concentration, so it should come as no surprise that the first thing you need to do is concentrate and immerse yourself in your chosen activity. If you’re reading this, I assume that is piano practice!
Flow state does NOT appear when we are relaxed or passive. It is an outcome of being actively engaged with something.
In this article, I will give you nine tips on how to set yourself up to reach flow state more easily. If you follow the advice below, you’re much more likely to attain a level of focus that is not only going to make you feel amazing, but that’s going to do wonders for your practice.
Tip #1 – Optimise your space
Reaching flow state necessitates that we have the freedom to focus intensely without interruption. So creating a space that is conducive to that freedom is crucial.
Create a quiet, disruption-free environment. Ideally, your piano is located in a separate practice room. Switch off any computers or tablets, silence your phone or set it to do not disturb.
If your piano is located in a shared room with lots of other people around, this first step is a lot harder. Many people like to place their piano in the living room, but unless you can guarantee quiet time for practice, this is probably one of the worst places for your practice.
If you do have to share the space, ask people to be respectful: they need to be quiet, and no tv or radio can be playing. No one should be interrupting you unless it’s an emergency.
Tip #2 – Have a clear goal in mind for each practice task
Once your environment is optimised, it’s time to concentrate on the task at hand: your practice. It’s a good idea to take a few minutes to outline your goals for the day.
It’s important that you practice with a clear goal in mind, as this will make it much easier to concentrate. For each piece, etude or exercise you’re about to work on, set yourself a realistic goal for the day. This may include performance goals such as being able to play a section 10 times without error, or specific practice goals such as revising and memorising the fingering for a tricky passage.
Tip #3 – Break down practice goals into single tasks
Sometimes your goal for the day may be bigger than a single practice task: play the first phrase of the exposition at 50% speed accurately. To achieve this, you may need to break down your practice into smaller segments: play each hand individually a certain number of times, work on your phrasing and general interpretation, perhaps practise a specific technical challenge in the passage.
Once again, it bears repeating that taking the time to reflect on, think through and plan your next move is a crucial component to the practice process – even if this means there may be longer stretches of ‘silence’ during practice. Just because you’re not actively playing the piano does not mean you’re not practising and it will NOT deter tour brain from going into a deep focus mode.
Tip #4 – Not too hard, not too easy
Next, you’ll be putting fingers to keys. In order to achieve flow, it is imperative that you work on a passage that feels challenging but not daunting. In other words, the challenge should slightly outweigh your skillset! That ensures you remain focused and actively engaged with the activity, both elements crucial to achieving flow.
If you find the task at hand too easy, try and make the passage harder. If the task is too difficult, either reduce your speed or cut down on the length of the passage you’re working on.
Tip #5 – It’s ok to be uncomfortable
What I’m about to tell you is a really important part of learning, and it’s the part that will make or break your career at the piano: get comfortable with a little discomfort. Because it’s in that slightly uncomfortable space that we truly grow and learn, particularly with physical skills.
I’m not talking about physical discomfort! Any discomfort (or worse, pain!) in back, arms, hands or anywhere else in the body must be addressed and eliminated.
We are, however, talking about mental discomfort. Our best practice happens when we feel right on the edge of things being too much, too soon. We learn most deeply when our brain is being challenged.
I admit it takes considerable skill to learn to know where one’s limits are. However, you will never learn what “too much” means for you unless you do the work and practise and gain the experience that is required to understand those limits. No one – not your teacher, not your friend, not your coach – can give you that information. It is an incredibly personal, subjective experience.
Tip #6 – Practise at the right time
When you practise is just as important as where you practise. Everybody has a different time of day that works best for them. When it comes to practising the piano, some people prefer practising in the morning, some prefer practising at night. Find out what your perfect practice time is each day and schedule your practice during this time.
For me, my ideal practice time is in the morning. That is when my brain is freshest and when I feel I can get the most done.
Having said that, this doesn’t mean you cannot practise any other time of the day, or that any time other than your ideal time will stop you from reaching flow state. It simply means that certain times might be more conducive to reaching flow state than other times. Just make sure you’re not overly tired or exhausted.
Tip #7 – Get curious
Curiosity remains one of the most powerful motivators for learning. Draw upon a sense of curiosity each time you sit down at the piano.
Curiosity can take many different forms. It can be as simple as wanting to find out how far you’ll be able to take a certain passage. Or it can be as complex as wanting to deeply understand the underlying harmonic structure of your favourite part of the music.
Find something new to be curious about each time you sit down to practise. Get curious about the music in front of you. Get curious about how your body moves when it plays that music. Get curious as to how an audience might respond to your specific interpretation.
Curiosity will motivate you to practise with an open mind, open ears and a hunger to know and do more. It will always stop you from practising mindlessly and instead focus your cognitive abilities on the task at hand.
Tip #8 – It’s about the journey, not the destination
A key ingredient to reaching flow state is the ability to switch off the voice of the future and instead be focused on the now.
In your practice, this means that you concentrate on the specific small task at hand rather than simply playing through large sections at a time. It means practising slowly with awareness of all the small details, rather than only worrying about getting the right notes in the right order at the right speed.
If you are someone who is unable to practise very slowly in very small sections you are unlikely to reach a flow state. This is because typically these students are unable to separate performing the piece from practising the piece. They are perpetually stuck in a mindset that pulls them to the end result: the performance. They spend little time working on small areas to improve and jump ahead to playing through large sections at a time because they are too impatient to delay the gratification that comes from playing (large parts of) a piece.
Whereas a student who is concerned with a very specific challenge, and is trying to work at that challenge in that moment, without being chased or distracted by mental images of them playing an amazing performance, is often able to reach the elusive flow state, AND learn at accelerated pace at the same time. This means they tend to not only learn more deeply, but also faster and will be able to perform more securely.
Total attentiveness on the now is precisely what the brain needs to be able to hyperfocus.
Tip #9 – Give in to passion and find your purpose
Finally, the most important part of reaching a state of flow is that you are partaking in an activity that ultimately aligns with your passions and interests in life. You need to CARE about what you’re doing!
It should be a given that when you learn to play an instrument, you love the sound and the feel of that instrument. You love the music written for this instrument. You want to get highly competent at playing this instrument.
If you’re not emotionally invested in learning to play the piano, practice will never be anything but a means to an end. And flow state cannot be reached unless you are passionate about what you do!
Passion, I know, is a tricky word. I’m not saying playing the piano must be your number one priority in life. Leave that for people who want to dedicate their lives to music and music performance. But you do need to possess a deep love of learning how to play. If you want more tips on how to regain your passion for piano playing, I’ve written a blog post about this specific topic not too long ago. You can find it here.
If you follow the tips above, you are much more likely to achieve a state of flow. It bears repeating that the key ingredients to flow state are that we must be engaged, focused as well as partaking in activity that we enjoy and that we feel we’re good at, while still being sufficiently challenged to the point of light discomfort. If the conditions are right, our mind will go into a sort of hyperfocus mode (flow state) that makes us feel ecstatic, motivated and deeply fulfilled.
During this state of ‘flow’ your learning will happen at an accelerated pace, but perhaps more important, you’ll derive deep pleasure and satisfaction out of your practice. Now who wouldn’t want that?