The paradox of control in peak performance
Is this all?… This is too easy, it can’t be it.
And yet… think of the last time you played and everything seemed to go by itself.
You feel totally merged in your playing. You are one with the music. Body, mind and emotions are totally aligned.
You somehow find yourself playing with sound nuances you never thought of before… you don’t even know how you could have produced them. Your senses are heightened and creativity is flowing.
The most demanding technical passages, quick runs… all fall easily into place as you feel you have all the time in the world… as if it all is happening in slow motion.
You are totally involved and playing is spontaneous and automatic, no need to think, worry, anticipate.
You are completely in harmony with the environment and yet like in a cocoon. Nothing can take your attention away from your playing, and yet you are aware of everything.
A paradox: you feel in control without controlling.
You play even better than you ever thought yourself capable of.
Back to reality… mmmm… is this elusive ‘state of grace’, as my teacher Philippe Hirshhorn used to call it, so capricious it will not be tamed?
Or can something be done to at least higher the chances it might happen?
Good news. According to research: yes :-)
Btw, in case you are wondering: yes the above mentioned situation is autobiographical ;-)
A ‘state of grace’
This concept has existed and recognized throughout history and cultures, from Taoism, to Buddhism, to Hinduism:
One of Taoism’s most important concepts is wu wei, which is sometimes translated as “non-doing” or “non-action.” A better way to think of it, however, is as a paradoxical “Action of non-action.” Wu wei refers to the cultivation of a state of being in which our actions are quite effortlessly in alignment with the ebb and flow of the elemental cycles of the natural world. It is a kind of “going with the flow” that is characterized by great ease and awakeness, in which – without even trying – we’re able to respond perfectly to whatever situations arise.”
The Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has dedicated years of research and writing to this highly focused mental state. He named this state “flow”, and defined it as “a merging of action and awareness where consciousness, mind and body become ordered and harmoniously directed, without feelings of chaos, indecision or anxiety.”
Flow, or being ‘in the zone’, is a state of peak performance.
The most universally experienced element is the automaticity of a flow state: a skilled action is performed without detailed, step-by-step, conscious control.
Sport Psychologist Robert Nideffer (1992) writes:
“To get into the zone, an athlete has to have practiced to the point that performance can occur at an automatic level. […] Researchers talk about the importance of becoming immersed in the performance, caught up in the “here and now.” The athlete stops thinking about the past, or worrying about the future. Instead, attention is focused almost exclusively on the external environment. When this happens, the athletes perception of the passage of time is altered.”
Strangely enough being in the ‘flow’ and ‘choking’ are divided by a very thin line, it really all depends on the way one chooses to direct one’s attention.
Dr. J.M. Kirchner (2011) says:
“In a state of flow, an individual’s attention is completely absorbed by the task at hand, with no room left for irrelevant thoughts, whereas in musical performance anxiety, the person is usually distracted and has difficulty focusing.[…] The goal in a state of flow is the process, but in a state of performance anxiety, the goal is directed on the end product. There exists a sense of being in control during flow, without worry over being in control, or fear of losing control. Musical performance anxiety, on the other hand, contains a desperate feeling of losing control. There is no preoccupation with self during flow, but generally in musical performance anxiety an individual is concerned about how they are coming across to those in attendance and what others are thinking of them. The sense of self is heightened. Flow is an enjoyable and calm state, producing positive feelings, as opposed to the negative thoughts and feelings that comprise musical performance anxiety.”
According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow state exists on a spectrum, as in any emotion, and is experienced when at least one, and often all, of the following conditions are present:
- Clear goal with as many sub-goals as realistically feasible which, while challenging, are still attainable.
- Immediate, relevant feedback that allows you to monitor progress in terms of the goals chosen.
- Skills match challenge but keep raising the stakes if the activity becomes boring
- Focused attention and strong concentration on what one is doing.
- Totally absorbed in the task. There is no room for worry, fear or distraction.
- Sense of ‘control without controlling things’ and without fear of losing control. There is no worry about failure.
- Self-consciousness disappears with no room for self-scrutiny. Lack of awareness of physical needs.
- An altered perception of time. You are so focused on the present that you lose track of time passing.
- Self-rewarding experience. You do something because you love to do it. The activity becomes an end in itself.
- Positive emotion: ease, flexibility, naturalness, things work harmoniously and effortlessly. Worries and concerns drift away. The activity runs smoothly, guided by an inner logic. All necessary decisions arise spontaneously from the demands of the activity without any deliberate reflection.
What to do
There is no magic formula (yet ;-) for achieving flow. There are, however, a number of things you can do to improve the chances of it happening. These tips will anyway help you prepare and perform better and more consistently. Ready?
1. Work on your self-confidence and self-trust while practicing and playing. Stop judging and criticizing your every move (unless you are prepared to also cheer every time you succeed). Challenge the things you tell yourself: does evidence support your statement? One mistake, or one bad performance does not dictate all future performances. Recall your successes and acknowledge that these capabilities are still intact. (read more here how to transform your inner critic)
2. Write down your progresses. In order to improve, you need to acknowledge where you are. Knowing where you are helps you set clear goals. Resist the urge to divide your attempts into simply ‘good’ or ‘bad’. You cannot learn anything from that. There are a lot of nuances in between, and it is vital you recognise those nuances. Only then you can make a clear plan on what you want to improve and how to do it. Be realistic, and I don’t mean be happy with whatever, but too often we have such high expectation that in our mind we compare ourselves with…cd’s recording… Start from where you are right now and of course push the stake higher, step by step: much more effective and much less frustrating. Remember also to give yourself credit for what has improved or for what you can play – do I dare say it? -..WELL :-)
3. Train yourself to silence your mind. Building your mental skills (powers of focus and concentration) is something you have to work on with as much determination as your technical and musical skills. Choose a parameter and keep focused on it, with calm and ease. Dr. Csikszentmihalyi in his TED Talk explains:
“Our nervous system is incapable of processing more than about 110 bits of information per second. And in order to hear me and understand what I’m saying, you need to process about 60 bits per second. That’s why you can’t hear more than two people. You can’t understand more than two people talking to you.”
If you want to have a chance to enter flow and reach your peak, you need to be sooooooooo completely involved in what you are doing that you don’t have enough attention left over to monitor how your body feels or to listen to your mind chatter.
4. Have a strong desire to experience or at least to express feelings through music. Flow is completely focussed motivation. Concentrate on the emotions you think the composer wants to portray, go with it as they change. Let go and be in the moment, you will be surprised what you can do if you stop over-controlling. Play as if you have written the music.
Philippe Hirshhorn used to say:
“Look at the music like a child looks at a new toy, full of awe and curiosity, experiencing and noticing all the details. Play the piece as if it were the very first time you hear it.“
5. Monitor your emotional state. If you’re angry, anxious or worried try doing something that will calm you down. Do you feel that your energy level is low? Do something to pick up your energy levels, whether it’s exercising or calling a friend who makes you laugh. Cultivate your emotional intelligence, according to research plays an important role in the induction of flow in performing artists.
Emotional intelligence can be generally defined as:
“[…] the ability to process emotion-laden information competently and to use it to guide cognitive activities like problem solving and to focus energy on required behaviors”. (Salovey et al., 2009)
6. Develop a routine. Before starting practicing or playing have a set of actions you repeat, like a ritual. This will help calm your mind and put you in the right state of mind. For instance: feel your feet on the ground (or your sitting-bones on the chair); take 3 deep breaths, feel the air entering your chest and filling it up; feel the contact with your instrument; hear the sound you want to produce; ‘see’ the sound being channeled like a silver thread or in an imaginary tube that goes out and fills the practice room (or hall); let go of the urge to control, relax and …play. Allow no thoughts between the routine and your first note. Even if you are just practicing, this will ensure that when you have to perform, the routine will be a second nature, and you will have more chances to get in the flow state.
7. Feeling of effortlessness. Before playing, bring your attention to body sensations, posture and breath. Any movement on the instrument should happen with a feeling of effortlessness. This does not mean the ‘couch-potato’ idea, but a feeling in the body of being unstrained, easy and flowing. It’s a sensation of ‘not doing’, of ‘not working’. Most of my trainees become very suspicious when they experience it: despite the fact that it sounds waaaaaaaaay better, they feel it is … too easy. They have been taught that playing is a difficult, heavy and serious matter … If you are one of those people, here a simple test you can do: play a simple tune (Happy Birthday or a children song). Review after playing how you used your body: how did it feel? What were you thinking? Which sensation did you experience? Now go back to the piece you were practicing: chances are your body and contact with the instrument feel very different. Your goal is to have the same feeling playing any piece, even challenging ones, with the same easiness and effortlessness with which you play the simple tune.
Think this is a lot of work? Well, you will get better, more consistent results in less time. Worth trying?
“The self becomes complex as a result of experiencing flow. Paradoxically, it is when we act freely, for the sake of the action itself rather than for ulterior motives, that we learn to become more than what we were.” (M. Cskiszentmihalyi, The psychology of optimal experience. 1990, p.42)