Mental Flow State

Mental Flow State

Over the years in the forums here, I have mentioned the elusiveness of the ‘perfect moments’ in sessions. It seemed to me to be God’s cruel joke that the better we get at playing music, the harder it is to find music that stimulates you. When you’re first entering the fun world of Irish sessions, each and every session has the potential to be ‘the best session you’ve ever played in’. But the more you play, the harder it is to find that kind of euphoria from music. I have been known to call it "catching the dragon" (a reference to a heroin high, and no, I haven’t done heroin), because one little taste of it keeps me coming back for more, even though those moments can be few and far between.

There are a lot of related terms, like "playing in the pocket", "effortless playing", and "being in the zone". For many years, I equated these feelings to playing with players that were much better than me. The important part of that idea was that it was out of my control, and those fleeting moments were created by the people I was playing with. I started a thread many years ago, lamenting that I only liked my playing when I was playing with a couple of specific players. Over time, I started realizing that I could provide that kind of musical inspiration for myself, but it is hard to just manifest that on demand.

In the last few years, I started to realize that it’s not just inspiration that helps me get to that state. I had a week-long experience at a camp a few years ago, where basically every session was effortless and the music was great. Yes, I was surrounded by a lot of really phenomenal players. But there was more to the story than just inspiration, and I started searching for what other factors were coming into play that made the music so wonderful that whole week.

And it dawned on me that what I have been experiencing with more and more regularity is the concept of ‘mental flow’. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flow_(psychology)#Music Quoting from that article:

"[the flow state] is the mental state in which a person performing some activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity"

"Musicians, especially improvisational soloists, may experience a state of flow while playing their instrument. Research has shown that performers in a flow state have a heightened quality of performance as opposed to when they are not in a flow state."

This flow state tends to release endorphins (nature’s heroin?), and the intense sense of happiness, calm, and euphoria is definitely the dragon I am chasing, and one of the main reasons why I play this music. When I am in that state, the music feels almost completely effortless, I am almost entirely relaxed, and my mind is riding the wave of the music and forgetting all of life’s stresses. It is a very peaceful state, which is a bit surprising, considering that it’s often loud and there are a lot of distractions! But with the endorphins ‘flowing’ along with the music, it is maybe the most satisfying feeling I ever experience! And I have found that I experience this more often than I used to, if I make the right conditions exist…

So how do I do that? It’s a good question that I don’t have a definitive answer to, and everybody is different, so what works for me may not work for you. But this is what I have come up with so far:

Prerequisites:
1. A solid familiarity with your instrument
2. A solid foundation in Irish traditional music
3. People to play with (I occasionally will reach a flow state when playing by myself, but it’s never as satisfying as when I reach the state while playing with others)

Helpful things:
1. Playing with my eyes closed helps me center the focus to the movements of the melodies
2. Playing with people that I know well and play with often (not required, but certainly helps)
3. Use of substances like alcohol or cannabinoids (legal where I live) can sometimes help, but overuse makes the state impossible to reach
4. Solid rhythm is where it starts. If I concentrate on the rhythm as much as the melody when I first start a tune, I can find the ‘groove’, which can create an almost trance-like state that can lead to the flow state
5. Spontaneity can be a catalyst, too, when a tune occurs to me that I haven’t played forever and everybody immediately joins in, or when someone starts a tune that feels like an old friend

So, no ‘easy button’ to press to enter the flow state, and I can’t just summon it on demand. It’s more of a situation of doing what I can and hoping it happens… But at least I’m happy to have a name for it!

Do you experience the flow state in your music? Do you have other suggestions of how to bring it about when you’re playing?

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Hi Reverend

Great post, very well expressed.
I hope you find more of those moments and zones.

Keep safe and well everyone
All the best
Brian x

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Yes, but it is a rare bird.

It happens to me when I am able to focus my attention completely outward and not have any attention on my own playing. It is sort of an out-of-body experience that only happens if I know the tunes so well that playing them is nearly an autonomic process like breathing.

That being said, a lot of external factors seem to adversely affect my ability to achieve this state, for example high ambient noise levels, uncomfortable seating, that one player in the session with the bad tuning or poor rhythm. When distractions are present the flow turns into a internal conversation about trying to include the distraction while maintaining a state of flow. That also has its own benefits.

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For me, it’s about being prepared. I go into that state when I do what I set out to do. It isn’t all the time, but I wouldn’t call it rare

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Excuse me but this doesn’t look too healthy on first glance; "Mihaly Csikszentmihályi and others began researching flow after Csikszentmihályi became fascinated by artists who would essentially get lost in their work.[9] Artists, especially painters, got so immersed in their work that they would disregard their need for food, water and even sleep."
I love food, water and sleep.

* [9] Abstract: Much of recent scholarship on the Zhuangzi has focused on the distinctive picture of spiritual fulfillment offered by its various "knack" stories. These stories describe a special kind of skillful action marked by fine-tuned responsiveness, non-deliberative spontaneity, effortlessness, and enjoyment. Scholars agree that the Zhuangzian theme of effortless action, or wuwei, indicates an intimate relationship between spiritual satisfaction and skill. However, this emerging consensus has so far failed to produce a clear analysis of the transcendence of wuwei with respect to everyday instances of skillful spontaneity. This essay attempts to clarify the issue of transcendence by using the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of flow as a reference point. While flow may not provide a comprehensive theory of wuwei spirituality, it sharpens our thinking about the various kinds of transcendence that wuwei might entail. A comparison between wuwei and flow also helps to clarify more general questions about spirituality and its alleged separation from religious belief in the modern world.

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Reverend said nothing about the alignment of the stars,
which is surely a component of ‘the flow’, in my experience…
a random, but discernible lift, where time becomes inconsequential,
and immersion in the moment envelopes you.

A rare, and memorable event.

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Oh, and, I totally agree with myself!
(Some sort of weird editing glitches going on hear on the mustard board)

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Decades ago, I followed Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s seminal writings on this; his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience has terrific insights applicable to playing music. Or see this abridged version (six pages), readable online: http://www.psy-flow.com/sites/psy-flow/files/docs/flow.pdf.

As a kid, it was easy for me to slip into flow states, usually while playing sports or doing something athletic that required intense focus and a high degree of coordination or exertion. I never noticed myself going *into* flow, but coming *out* of it felt like waking up from a pleasant dream. I learned to use it as an escape, which explains why I don’t remember much from math class from about 3rd Grade onward.

I’d experienced flow when playing music on other instruments, but when I started learning fiddle, it took years to feel fluent enough on the instrument for flow to happen. Now, decades along, it’s easy again. The liner notes on some well-known Irish fiddler’s CD call it a state of "fierce relaxation," which sounds right to me.

In flow, time slows down, so even when your fingers are flying through a tune, nothing’s rushed, and you have all the time in the world to make choices, swerve into variations, change things up.

I can be conscious of that, but if my analytical mind kicks into gear—"How does the B part go? That roll was awful. Why is everyone else playing a different tune in a different key?"—it knocks me out of flow. Which is weird, because I can be aware of all sorts of external stuff, what might normally be distractions, and stay in flow. But that internal voice blows me right out if it starts reciting technique or mechanics, or critiquing mistakes.

I think of it as going inside the tune. I have to be relaxed for it to happen, but other than that, there are no real prerequisites. But there are helpful prompts.

Years ago, because I enjoy flow so much (it’s a great high), I decided to train myself to slip into flow on purpose, so I went through a phase where I paid attention to catch myself at that moment of entering flow and ask, "What does this feel like? What specifically is happening right when I go under?" Here’s what I came up with for playing music.

I’m grounded. Standing or sitting, I’m comfortable, in balance, feet flat on the floor. It’s a feeling of relaxing into solid support.

My breathing slows. To prompt this, I often take a few slow, deep breaths as I wade into a tune.

I usually close my eyes or let my focus fall on some mid-distance space in the air between me and the floor.

I listen to the sounds coming from my instrument, not judging them, just acknowledging them. And that leads me to focus on the tune spooling out in my head.

When it all comes together, that’s where my focus stays, on the tune, and I’m in flow.

Like Reverend, I find that a little alcohol helps. It quiets that verbal, analytical, self-noticing voice. I can get into flow when playing alone at home, but for me, playing with one or two others does make it easier because the other musicians support the tune. I can let go of any "responsibility" for keeping the tune going and just let my bow hand and left fingers dance along. This is true even when I’m the one "leading" the tune.

As a listener, you can often tell when other players slip into flow, too. Even solo performers on stage visibly and audibly slip inside the tune. They quit moving self-consciously, more entrained with the music. No matter how energetic their movements are, their playing looks relaxed and effortless. Often their eyes close or go distant; I’ve seen musicians’ eyes roll back in their head. Their playing, as excellent as it might be from the start, eases into an even smoother, effortless sound.

Wow, now I really want to go play some tunes….

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AB, that’s why it’s a good idea to have a snack before you go to a session. 🙂

There’s water in beer, so that’s taken care of.

As for sleep, the best flowy sessions last till sunrise, so it may help to invest in some heavy, light-blocking drapes.

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Thanks, Reverend. It’s rarely effortless for me when someone uses a Wikipedia link as their source material.
On this one the Wiki article seems to try hard to cover all the bases. Fortunately the documentation is very thorough and includes articles which get more directly on to music and what you’re talking about. You pointed to one indirectly. In her article* flow is described as being "fully engaged" which is apparently is "directly correlated" with effortless playing ~ Fascinating! Thanks for the heads up.
Catch ya’ later!

* "Flow Theory and the Development of Musical Performance Skills" by Susan O’Neill

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"For many years, I equated these feelings to playing with players that were much better than me. The important part of that idea was that it was out of my control, and those fleeting moments were created by the people I was playing with. I started a thread many years ago, lamenting that I only liked my playing when I was playing with a couple of specific players. Over time, I started realizing that I could provide that kind of musical inspiration for myself, but it is hard to just manifest that on demand."

Conal O’Grada answered a question about this in a recent workshop. If I recall it was asked by Grey Larsen which was likely based on the concept of a mental flow situation. The reply might surprise you. I’ll rewind the tape & send you Grey’s query w/Conal’s response.

Great discussion!

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Looking forward to Conal O’Grada’s thoughts on this. I’ve asked a number of top-flight fiddlers about it and gotten everything from good insights to blank stares.

For me, sessions often induce two similar but slightly different types or levels of flow. One is the deep sense of being inside the music, following the tune in your mind’s ear. The other is a bit more aware and interactive, listening attentively to the each player’s contribution to the overall sound, but still inside that sound, still in a state of fiercely relaxed flow. They’re not mutually exclusive.

I’d like to hear others’ experiences of this.

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gimpy, I’ll send you the info as well. I just went digging through both of Conal’s workshops & eventually found it in his 2nd workshop ‘Playing the Music Sliabh Luachra’. It’s between 19:38 - 21:54 for anyone who actually paid for the workshop & has the recording. I will give this teaser for Reverend (& gimpy) since it’s a small bit of the workshop & they’ll appreciate it in anticipation of my sending them the full 2m 16s… Conal begins his response, "eh, I’m not sure a lot of it is spur of the moment." He is referring to performance, not specifically session playing, but I think it’s not a significant distinction in terms of flow or spontaneity. The whole workshop is brilliant. I’m still finding nuggets each time I listen!

I won’t get this out tonight (Reverend & gimpy) but I will try to send it sometime tomorrow.

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My work is creative/artistic and I am frequently in "flow state". I never knew what it was called, but for me it’s that feeling of starting to work on something and then glancing at clock: "It’s 1:30?! I’m starving! And I really have to go to the bathroom!!"

I get in the "flow state" with music too - lose track of time, lost in music. Sometimes it’s when learning a tune, playing along with something, or my amateur attempts at ‘composing’. For me, it’s actually more rare when playing with other people - because then I am aware of trying to fit my volume/speed/notes with the group. I can’t just ‘let go’ like when I play for myself.

I guess, ‘flow’ is a feeling of rightness … feeling like you are in the right place, right time, doing the thing you were ‘made’ to do? But I don’t really "try" for it…it comes and it goes…I’m okay with that. For me, "flow" state comes easily late at night, maybe because I’m more relaxed. (Unfortunately my family does not like to hear music late at night - like when they are asleep - so I haven’t been able to take advantage of that time with music! 🙂

Oh, and agree with Gimpy - flow state when playing, feels like you are just "listening" to yourself play, letting it happen…I think I have had flow state a few times when performing. After finishing, there was clapping and I actually got startled - ‘what’s all that noise!’ Forgot that I was playing in front of people! Does feel like coming out of a dream.

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AB, thank you! No rush, and PM me if you need contact info.

Cancion, yes, that startle when a tune ends and you suddenly realize/remember that other people are in the room!

I also often experience it as listening to myself play, or "as effortless as listening to someone else play," even though I’m the one moving the bow and wiggling my fingers.

And it comes easiest at night for me as well, though I’ve conjured it at any time of day.

One significant advantage of learning to ease into flow when you want to is you can do it over and over during the course of a session. Especially as the night goes on, it feels like I don’t fully come out of the flow state between sets, so it’s easier to slide back in when the next set starts. Instead of being on or off, all or nothing, during a session I tend to float between deep and shallow flow, and the change from one to the other is fluid and indistinct. It feels like an immersive experience; sometimes you’re near the surface and sometimes you’re deeper in, being carried along by a friendly current.

Also, it feels faster than reflexes. More intuitive or instinctive, like my mind runs slightly ahead of the tune. Variations that I’ve played before pop in before I’m even aware that I could play them.

And fresh, new variations that I’ve never even thought of before just happen. Years ago, when that sort of surprise happened, it would startle me out of the flow. I’d "wake up" long enough to think, "What the heck was that? And how did it go—I want to remember it so I can play it again!" Then as soon as the tune or set ended, I’d replay the variation a few times to help it stick.

I liked the idea of making a mental post-it note so I wouldn’t lose the variation, but I wanted to stay in flow. It occurred to me to try an idea from meditation. You’re sitting there focused on inhaling and exhaling, and your brain keeps finding other thoughts to latch onto: "I need to call the garage for an oil change," or "My boss thinks I’m an idiot," or "This floor is hard, my arse is numb." The theory is, instead of being bothered by those thoughts, you simply notice them, acknowledge them without judging, and then let them go to focus back on breathing. To apply this tactic to music, I "practiced" noticing surprise variations (often they were 4 or 8 or even 16 note melodic detours) while staying in flow. It’s like rising to the surface for a quick sip of air and then sinking right back into the current. The more I did it, the easier it got. And I found that I could remember the variations later, even days later, without having to replay them to glue them in place.

In my experience, flow and meditation are similar—if not the same—states. Meditation is a form of flow that centers on simply being in the here and now. A basic form it to relax into a focus on breathing; you lose your self awareness and become breathing. With music, you lose your self awareness and become the tune.

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My personal brand of executive dysfunction readily brings states of ‘hyper-focus’, so that’s probably why I am in general in flow more often than not when playing, and sometimes I can’t really get out of that hypnotic state in an instant which is a problem when I then actually have to speak to people!

In general if in flow, I am playing something my fingers already know, and not trying to do anything extra than what I already know (i.e. not playing any ornaments that I am aware I can’t play at that speed) then I just focus my attention on some particular aspect of the sound/rhythm to the exclusion of everything else. As said, it is very similar to meditation, except a lot easier as music is much more easy to get lost in than breathing! If it’s difficult to get into flow for me it’s possibly about some thoughts getting in the way or something, or being self conscious or trying to play ‘my best’.

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When the music means something more than a series of notes and whoever is listening also hears more than a series of notes. In my opinion that is all that can be asked of music and what every musician should strive for.
I know it doesn’t always work because of all the stuff that can get in the way but when it does…

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For me, achieving flow is about connecting the music with my presence. What I mean by "presence", is whatever space I find myself in; whether physically, socially, or mentally. I call this "feeling the music". For example, there are two distinct spaces where I have immediate access to my own flow state:

1. Being in deep emotion
2. Being in a strong duet

1. Sometimes, I am deeply in love. I felt this way after reading Hans Christian Andersen’s "The Little Mermaid". I feel this way while sky-watching on a dramatically partly cloudy day. I feel this way after listening to certain music collections sometimes. Sometimes it’s the bittersweet combination of hope, sorrow, desire, affection, and even regret, that leaves my in love. And when I am just… overwhelmed with the "warm fuzzies", the music is just there.

2. I could name a number of experiences for strong duets. One day I will never forget was when having the piano out busking, a stalwart looking gentleman who was traveling asked me if he could sit in with me with his soprano saxophone. Of course I oblige. Upon returning , he told me to play my usual set and he would simply follow. Over the course of what may have been an hour, I played the most lovely piano covers that I knew, and he led gorgeous improvised melodies in any key I played in and over any chord progression that come up. It was total and absolute magic. I didn’t know that the soprano saxophone was such a rich and sweet sounding instrument, and I am still positively taken aback at the music I remember hearing that day. My heart!

I don’t believe that music overall becomes less stimulating as you get better at it. I don’t know where that kind of thinking comes from, but it hasn’t been to my experience. In my experience, that stimulation shifts, and grows, and wanes, and moves, and swells based on wherever I find myself present compared to the music. I can’t reach a flow state if I’m trying to play dance tunes when I’m upset; Or if I’m playing in 90* Summer weather; Or if I’m playing with a musician who doesn’t know how to listen and a dancer who doesn’t know how to dance. Ah, but when the music and the space are attuned to one another, ha! It’s hard to get out of the flow state.

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These are some great insights! Gimpy, every word you wrote rings true to my own experience, and I appreciate your ability to express it so eloquently!

AB, I will be very curious to hear more from Conal.

And Jerone, thank you for mentioning emotion. That is a part of it, but it seems a bit of a chicken and egg problem to me. Do the emotions contribute to the flow or vice versa? I guess it goes both ways.

As far as music becoming less stimulating, that was almost the point of my post. In the past, I was searching for external stimulation to get to the flow state. I was relying on other people to provide it for me. Whereas, now, I am talking about finding that stimulation from within, and realizing that I have at least some control over it. When I was relying on others to help provide it for me, I would get really excited about a session, because having played with the exact same people and reached that state before, I would be excited by the prospect of it happening again. But I would be sorely disappointed when it didn’t happen. It seemed to me that the better that I got, the less frequent I would reach a state where I was having that much fun. The epiphany here is that I have some control, and I can make it happen. So now that I am a more experienced player, it is easier for me to conjure that state on a regular basis, and every session has the potential to be super satisfying!

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Regarding different activities of:
1) creating
2) practicing
3) recording
4) playing for enjoyment or no particular purpose
…….. I’ve found that the best sense of performance "flow" happens when I’m as fully focused and actively engaged as possible. No divided attention going on. No worries about mastery of the instrument or the content of the music, and not that I’m ever a perfect player, so that means totally, and I mean TOTALLY not being concerned when physical or musical "mistakes" or imperfections happen, because it’s all about consistently going forward with the musical activity. The often pointless and harmful left-brain analytical linear categorizing psychotic is not allowed in the room.

I’ve found that it takes a little time to get there, so the first 5 or 10 minutes of playing or creating, are best spent playing thoughtless carefree things on the instrument in order to simply warm up and purify my attention down to playing, some particular musical content, and first filtering out and then eliminating divided attention. Then have a list of things to do, I have to know what I’m doing, even if it’s going to be spontaneous explorations, THAT too is a purpose. Find a general purpose and take off on those train tracks.

Creating is it’s own hurricane of possibilities and being unlimited and right-brain and whole-body, wholistic to the extreme, is a purpose and technique. Practice needs to be purposeful, but with a VERY relaxed mind. I really enjoy practicing the physical interaction with the guitar or keyboards or wind instruments, getting the coordination practiced and movements woven into muscle memory.

Recording is where the %#^&* hits the fan >>> by then the music is mostly figured out and practiced well, and creativity is still allowed but tends to be less than 25% of what goes on. But left-brain self-consciousness with all it’s BS distractions and internal divisions, tends to always happen to some degree, because that little light is on a machine saying "we’re listening and this is important, right now, do it best for this take". So recording both entices best performance and peak discovery, but also often drags up nervousness and mistakes, so I think the ideal setup is when the musician/creator can have very fast access to controls and play their part as often as they wish, which takes the self-consciousness pressure off, and lets them capture the most preferred take among many, or in the case of the patient, perhaps some slicing and dicing of selected smaller parts of the performance (Miles Davis and Frank Zappa doing that to a large degree).

Playing for fun or live performance should involve a warmup session of some minutes, to get the focus and body interaction with the instrument, fully engaged. There are some advantages on some occasions, of just walking in cold and suddenly playing, but that isn’t for everyone and in group work, can cause problems if the player(s) don’t handle that well. Warmups are essential for sports, and for music and creativity for the same reason. Above all, I think the idea should be KEEP GOING!!!!!!!!!!!! Learn how to crush the life out of the little left-brain analytical critic who tries to control your head, any kind of pre-meditated idea sitting there thinking that being apart from flowing with the music matters in any way. OWN your own experience and decide what to do with it.

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You bring up some good points, Robert. Divided attention is the bane of the flow state. I think that’s why things like closing my eyes can help.

Recording is another matter completely. I often wish that my albums had even an inkling of the flow state! I commonly tell people that my best playing is in sessions, where I’m relaxed, comfortable, and there is no distraction. But I have a pretty bad case of "red light syndrome", where I never get anywhere close to relaxed and comfortable when I’m recording. I am in the early planning stages of a third album, and I’ve been wracking my brain trying to figure out ways I could better capture some of the magic. Since I am generally working as the recording engineer as well as playing, my attention is automatically divided. So it possible that things could be different if I had someone else dealing with the technical aspects of the recording.

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It’s interesting that we can all talk or type about such an inner, personal experience and find clearly common ground, a shared sense of what it feels like.

Thinking about the music losing its spark, I remember going through a phase where a new tune would lose its magic as soon as I learned it. Once I understood the specifics of what made a given tune sound so special, it would turn ordinary. Thankfully, this phase didn’t last too long. At some point, I no longer experienced tunes that way—they held onto their magic even after I knew them inside and out. Maybe that’s due to flow.

As much as I love the tunes, it’s the flow itself that I’m addicted to. So a given tune doesn’t have to be exciting or stimulating for me to want to play it—in large part as a doorway to flow.

Consider the Mountain Road, which is a fine, well-built tune, a classic example of a solid, pulsey Irish reel that can be played lyrically or with fierce drive. I’ve played it many thousands of times over the past 40+ years, and it always get the feet tapping and dancers into the air. You might think it would go stale after 8,274 renditions…I mean, it’s not a Paddy Fahey melody with unexpected twists, or an intricate four-parter, or an wistful tune like the Golden Castle that tugs at your heartstrings.

But I’m always happy to play the Mountain Road because it takes me to flow, like any other tune. In fact, the sheer repetition of familiar tunes, week after week over many years, probably greases the slide so it’s even easier to slip into flow. And then we associate the wonderful flow feeling with the tunes we know and play. A bit like Pavlov’s dog—ring a tune and my jaw goes slack and I start drooling. 😀

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"The often pointless and harmful left-brain analytical linear categorizing psychotic…." Hey, I resemble that remark! 😉

Seriously, a big part of why flow is so alluring and addictive is that it silences that left-brain critic.

For me, the main trick for getting into flow is to not try to *make* it happen. Instead, I take a few deep breaths, relax, ease into a well-worn tune, and *let* it happen. In its own time.

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I’m addicted to that flow state as well. It’s very easy for me to lose myself in my harp playing (Gaelic style). But I spend entirely too much time playing/improvising on accordion in various "groove" styles - forro, chicha, cumbia…
Playing in reggae, afrobeat, salsa and various Latin style bands - the polyrhythmic interplay is certainly conducive - it’s kind of what it’s all about.

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The distinction between making it happen and letting it happen is a good one! It’s only recently that I’ve understood this to be a flow state, so the more that people talk about their experiences with it regarding music, the more I understand it and can hopefully use that information for my own purposes. 🙂

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Use it for good only, Reverend, never for evil! 😉

Re: Letting it happen. I meant to also say that it’s mostly about learning to trust that it will in fact happen if you just let it. Instead of "hoping" that you’ll slip into flow, trust (or believe or happily assume) that you will and then enjoy the slide.

I’d sure like to hear thoughts on all of this from musicians who seem primed to go well inside the tune and shed any self-focus when they play. No doubt there are plenty of musicians here who could describe their experience. I’m also thinking of people like Kevin Crawford on the Gort session tape, or Tim Edey on guitar, or Tommie Potts taking a tune for a meandering stroll, or Martin Hayes when he’s in the throes of tripleting all over himself, or Paddy Keenan nearly all the time. It’d be interesting to hear what they think of flow and how readily it comes to them (or not), and any perceived differences in the experience between performance and sessions.

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I’ve begun to experience this with music on occasion as I get better; there’s that moment when your fingers just KNOW where to go without thinking.

Going behond Reverand’s "Solid Rhythm", I would call it Rhythmic Drive, and that provides a foundation for the Lyrical or Melodic flow.

Relating this to my personal Practice, I am good enough at dancing tango that I can readily enter the flow. That doesn’t mean always, because as they say "It takes two to tango." When everything clicks, when both my partner and I are ON, when the music channels through me into movement, it is sublime.

I notice that this happens more easily when dancing/navigating on a floor that is busy with other dancers, rather than when rehearsing solo or performing. One reason perhaps is that entering the flow requires an "intuitive reactiveness". If I’m thinking ahead, forming a plan and then executing it, my time-sense extends too far into the future, which engages the analytical-planning side rather than intuitive-reactive side of the brain.

Relating that back to playing in a session. There’s that moment when the set finishes, someone launches an unexpected new tune, and your brain and fingers leap to join in.

Re: Mental Flow State

When I’ve experienced what I suppose is a flow state while playing music, it’s felt like getting out of the way of the music and letting it happen. There’s some similarity there to how it feels to me to dance in the flow… that, too, feels rather like being "not in the way" so the music happens in/around/through me, or wherever/however it feels like being in that moment.

I love Tom’s tango example, because I have experienced that flow state in multiple dance styles including Irish, Argentine tango, and what I suppose would be called tropical or social Latin dances - salsa, bachata and the like. The latter instances require a dance partner to flow back and forth with, so I suppose in the first example the musician(s) — or maybe the music they’re spinning in the air? — would be my partner.

Re: Mental Flow State

I cannot seem to edit the part of the workshop at this time. I tried but the current state of video editing is well within reach yet everything avoids my grasp. Frustrating because it’s really worth sharing.

AB

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Re: Mental Flow State

No worries, thanks for trying AB!

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Re: Mental Flow State

Have some patience. I didn’t say anything about giving up.

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Re: Mental Flow State

Thanks for all the effort, AB!

And Lisa, I have seen you dance with a very Zen look on your face. I suppose that might be related to a flow state 😉

Re: Mental Flow State

AB, I didn’t say anything about you giving up! 🙂 I’m still hoping you’ll make it work, or transcribe it and upload the text here, or something. And I do appreciate your efforts!

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Re: Mental Flow State

Thanks for starting this discussion Reverend. I have experienced this Mental Flow State but not often enough. I remember feeling it very powerfully during Willie Clancy Week 2018, at a session in the back of Clancy’s Pub. Just a random group of musicians who played some tunes together. We gelled, understood each other, got it, if you know what I mean. I was meant to meet some friends for dinner at eight but cancelled the plans, as I couldn’t possibly leave and break this spell. Since then I have been in pursuit of this feeling at sessions. Sometimes it happens, but more often it doesn’t appear. Paddy Jones (RIP) refers to it as The Draoicht, which is an Irish word meaning Druidism, Witchcraft or Magic. Paddy Fahy’s music is said to ‘have the Draoicht’. Here’s a link to an interview with Paddy Jones. It’s worth listening to the whole interview, but skip to 9:40 to hear him try to define it. He refers to it as ‘a beautiful, magic journey’ and ‘another dimension’.
Slainte! Paul
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gqoc4Kx6ToY

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Re: Mental Flow State

Thanks, Pi! I had heard the term The Draoicht before, but had completely forgotten about it! That is a great interview. I like it! "The magic sometimes happens and sometimes doesn’t." And I like that he mentions that it happens most easily when people are also experiencing it with you!

Re: Mental Flow State

I like Paddy’s sense of the Draoicht’s ability to transport both the musician and the listener to another dimension, of of being "on a roll." I think of that bit as "momentum," perhaps what Tom Stermitz above was getting at with his "rhythmic drive."

FWIW, I think of "drive" as a descriptor more of pushing the beat, playing slightly ahead of it, and playing with a fair amount of pace. Think of Michael Coleman’s playing of Tell Her I Am. And contrast that to Martin Hayes’ playing of the same tune, which is lyrical and easy, not driven. But Hayes’ version still has great momentum, a sense of natural assuredness or inevitability. I’ve heard it described as "a strong, sure sense of the tune," the idea that the player will not and cannot fumble or lose the tune in mid-flight because they’re inside it, they’ve become the tune.

In old interviews (maybe in the Northern Fiddler? maybe elsewhere), some musicians talk about this as "living inside the tune."

The other notion I get from Paddy Jones is that the Draoicht or flow comes from both the musician and the tune itself. They both contribute to it. An academic might says it’s where the player and the tune "intersect." For me, it used to feel like I could get into flow only on special tunes, the ones that I was really drawn to. But as I grew more at home on my instrument and with this music, flow started to happen on lots of tunes, on any tune. It starts to feel like the old, mostly rural musicians sound—unself-conscious, deep in the tune. (I’m thinking of Patrick O’Keeffe, Denis Murphy, Johnny Doran, WIllie Clancy, Junior Crehan, Joe Ryan, Patrick Kelly, John Kelly, Paddy Canny, Joe Bane….) Flow feels like a gateway to The Music as a whole.

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Re: Mental Flow State

"In my experience, that stimulation shifts, and grows, and wanes, and moves, and swells based on wherever I find myself present compared to the music. I can’t reach a flow state if I’m trying to play dance tunes when I’m upset; Or if I’m playing in 90* Summer weather; Or if I’m playing with a musician who doesn’t know how to listen and a dancer who doesn’t know how to dance. Ah, but when the music and the space are attuned to one another, ha! It’s hard to get out of the flow state."
So true, Jerone. Thanks.

Great discussion, Reverend. I have finally copied the 2+ minutes from Conal’s workshop. Will send that to Reverend & gimpy momentarily. For context he is talking about a video he showed during the workshop ~ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gg7d0vuPSNw


I hope you like the clip I’m about to send. It’s only one bit & after listening to the entire workshop again last night I’m convinced there are other parts which may apply more directly to this thread. Having said that it stood out because of the question Grey asks & (Conal’s) his response is right to the point. Great musician and fantastic workshop. There I go again cannot stop talking about the workshops.

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Re: Mental Flow State

@Rev I remember you’d mentioned my Zen dancing face! I imagine that’s because when I’m dancing with musicians who are really "in it," I can get out of the way and just let the music tell me what to do. Depending on the music I might or might not need to consciously "dress the steps up" just a bit, but the most fun is when the music goes and all I have to do is follow.

Gimpy, I really like what you shared of Paddy Jones talking about the draíocht coming from both the musician and the music. And Jerone, I feel like maybe you were saying something similar in the bit AB quoted above?

@AB: I love that clip of Jackie Daly’s playing, and am now really curious to hear what Conal said about it… but I’m not familiar with the workshops you mentioned. Is there somewhere that one can purchase access to the entire workshop recording?

Re: Mental Flow State

Hello, Lisa. I’ll send you a message with a Dropbox link of the clip from Conan’s workshop on Sliabh Luchra music. The actual workshop was on April 16th through the Irish Music School of Chicago (irishmusicschool.org)
I don’t think recordings are still available from the school. However there may be other workshops coming up. Today they had two workshops with Mary Bergin.

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Re: Mental Flow State

Hi, AB - thank you very much!

Re: Mental Flow State

You are welcome, Lisa M.
I’m assuming one needs to register for the workshops before the event begins. But not 100% sure that the recordings aren’t available after a workshop is completed. Either way here is a link for workshops ~ http://irishmusicschool.org/master-workshops

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