Hungarian-American Psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi made his life’s work on what makes a person resilient and happy with their circumstances, whatever they might be. In the 1970s he did an exhaustive study involving tens of thousands of people whom he interviewed about the times in their life when they felt they performed their best.  

He interviewed expert chess players, dancers, surgeons as well as everyone else from assembly line workers to sheep herders, elderly Korean women to teenage Japanese motorcycle gang members. 

The conclusion he drew from this study was that when people performed their best, they all described a similar cognitive state. He named this state as Flow. He was able to demonstrate that this flow state is available to everyone, if conditions are met. 

The good news is, that Flow does not need 10,000 hours of practice which frankly is fabulous news for my students, most of whom have not lived long enough or practiced hard enough to achieve this milestone. 

So what is Flow?

Csikszentmihalyi explains that:

         “our best moments usually occur when a person’s body and mind are stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile – this state can be called FLOW”

Fortunately for us, there is a lot of research on flow  in the performing arts. Studies in dance, music and theatre have shown flow to have a significantly positive impact on creativity, intrinsic motivation, teaching and performance artistry as well as authenticity. When expert performers are asked to describe their greatest performances they describe themselves in a state of flow where there is no need to worry or question one’s adequacy. For example, this quote is from a dancer.

     “Your concentration is very complete.Your mind isn’t wandering, you are not thinking of something else: you are totally involved in what you are doing… your energy is flowing very smoothly. You feel relaxed, comfortable and energetic.”

Whilst most of us are not teaching expert performers, based on my experience of running Performance Anxiety workshops in schools, when you ask students to describe the best performance they’ve ever done, several give detailed descriptions of themselves in a flow state. 

What are the characteristics of Flow?

  • Stress is dampened
  • Loss of sense of self, no need to question yourself or how you are doing
  • Performance is implicit, you don’t think about it, you just do it, performing by feel, the parts of our brain involved in overthinking remain quiet
  • Time is distorted, it either progresses incredibly slowly or speeds up enormously
  • Concentration is completely on the task at hand
  • There is a merging of action and awareness, of being a spectator of your own performance
  • Feeling of being in control in a situation we might normally perceive as beyond our control
  • It feels awesome! Being in a flow state is intrinsically rewarding as our brain fires off 6 neurochemicals simultaneously that set off our brain’s reward pathways 

Now before we get back to our students, what about you? Have you ever experienced being in a flow state whilst performing? When writing? Composing? Choreographing? Marking? Take a minute to think back on the times you have performed your best, when time has stood still or raced by and remember how it felt to you. Did you do something completely unexpected? Were you able to achieve something you had believed to be beyond your ability? Did it feel good?

I don’t know about you but the moments I have experienced Flow during my life have been magical and I have been working harder in recent years to include these moments in my offstage work as well as in performance. Reflecting on Flow and the joy it brings to me has also encouraged me to include Flow in my student’s performances, as early as possible. 

So what are the conditions necessary for Flow and how can we create a performance environment that facilitates a flow state for our students.   

What triggers are needed for Flow? 

1. Skill vs Challenge Balance

For flow to exist Skill and Challenge need to be high and equal. There needs to be sufficient activation to hold the student’s attention but if the challenge is too easy, boredom sets in and activation is not high enough. Conversely, if the challenge is too difficult then anxiety will block flow occurring.

2. Knowledge is implicit

There has to have been sufficient skill acquisition and rehearsal that the challenge can be performed without the activation of the pre-frontal cortex (the learning centre of the brain) which is also the part prone to overthinking.

3. Motivation must be intrinsic

We’ve got to want to do it. Choice of repertoire and the student wanting to do the task is important here. Feedback on task execution is usually immediate, allowing the student to pivot their performance execution as they go.

4. There is deep immersion in the task

Students are given circumstances in which they are able to concentrate and immerse themselves in the task at hand without unwanted distraction.

For me, facilitating flow in my students has meant rethinking repertoire choices. Ensuring the skill/challenge balance is equal and high and developing challenges where my students are motivated to practice so their knowledge for the task is implicit. This has become my challenge.

Have you thought about trying to increase flow in your students’ performances? Are there other challenges to promoting flow that you perceive but I have not thought of? If you can think of any, please share in the chat below.

 

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2008). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper Perennial.
Kotler, S. (2021) The Art of the Impossible: a peak performance primer. New York: Harper Collins.

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