Monday, April 25, 2011

Flow and Something Else

In my most recent Horn Diary I mentioned how my playing in the Fauré Requiem on Palm Sunday induced an altered state during the performance which lasted for hours after the concert. In a comment, Jonathan West pointed out that that state of mind is described by "flow". In a subsequent comment he said that in the hundreds of times he's performed (and he's high level, not an amateur), he's experienced "flow" only a dozen or so times.

Judging one's own mental states is a dicey proposition at best, but my sense is that I've experienced "flow" hundreds of times - practicing, performing, composing, running group music sessions, etc. - so I'm pretty sure there's a semantic issue here.

I've been wandering down the foggy ruins of time trying to think of other times I might have had experiences like the one playing the horn in the Fauré on Palm Sunday, and the only one I can come up with is my having attended a teaching given by H. H. the Dalai Lama and having had the opportunity to shake his hand. 

I've also been trying to find words to describe both experiences and have come up with:

Exalted - in a state of extreme happiness, from the Latin exaltere from ex- 'outward, upward' + altus - 'high"

Exultation - show or feel elation or jubilation, esp. as a result of success, from the Latin exsultare, frequentive of exsilire 'leap up' from ex- 'out, upward '+ salire 'to leap'

Individuation a process of transformation whereby the personal and collective unconscious is brought into consciousness (by means of dreams, active imagination or free association to take some examples) to be assimilated into the whole personality.

I want to take this discussion further in a subsequent post and would welcome any further comments or emails on this subject, and I can't help thinking our Vermont readership might have something interesting to say on all of this.


  1. I think perhaps I need to clarify my previous comment. The most extreme manifestation of flow, leading to euphoria and what you describe as "altered consciousness" is something that is very rare in my experience, it has happened to me on perhaps a dozen occasions in my life.

    I've worked out roughly what the circumstances are that are likely to trigger it. They include

    - the piece has to be really stretching me, technically or musically or emotionally (or all 3)

    - the performance has to matter to me in some important way, either personally or musically

    - it has to go really well, not only in my own playing but that of those around me

    It is that sense of musically being on a high wire and not falling off, when you are just inside the outer limits of what you are capable of doing on a really good day. When this happens to me, I'm walking on air for days afterward.

    However a much milder version is relatively routine, when I'm playing a concert I know is within me, it goes well, and I can finish a concert with a feeling of "job well done". That provides a nice warm feeling on the inside. It is recognisably the same type of feeling, but in intensity it is but a faint echo of full strength version.

  2. Jonathan - Thanks so much for that follow up. I've been thinking along similar lines, that the intensity of flow may vary, and that in exceptional situations something else may be blended into the flow experience (your "the performance has to matter to me in some important way" suggests this).

    Coincidentally / synchronistically - right about the time I had the Fauré experience, came across an article on neural networks that may hold part of the answer, and will post on that here soon.

    One thing that's occurred to me is that in straight forward flow experiences, time seems to fly. Sometimes working on something I'll look up and over an hour has passed it what seemed 15 minutes or so. In the Fauré, if anything, time slowed and I was more deeply aware of each passing moment.

    Thanks for triggering this discussion into one of the most therapeutic aspects of music making - and one so rarely talked about in any sort of definitional way.

  3. I'm not sure that the "time flying" you describe is particularly flow, that's more concentration.

  4. Jonathan -

    On reflection, I think you're exactly right.

    I've got a couple of more things to post on all this, but then will leave it be for a while. Seems thinking about it all just makes me more aware of how much I don't know.

    Can't resist suggesting you post on this subject sometime. It's certainly more over on the musicality side of things than the mechanics of technique. My guess is that your wonderful ability to cooly observe yourself and others while making music could be brought to bear with interesting results.