Flow – Pleasure, Enjoyment, Anxiety, and Practice

Generally unexplained, we often experience moments where the usage and passage of time becomes irrelevant concerning the task at hand. Why? The atomic clock is still churning out reliable data we use to keep industry moving forward. Physically, our nails are still growing and our hearts are still beating. What makes us say, “Time flies when you’re having fun?” Such experiences are a result of a common word practiced by today’s psychologists known as FLOW. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes the importance being completely engaged through the use of both pleasure and enjoyment. He postulates that the quality of life does not depend directly on what others think of us or on what we own. The bottom line is, rather, how we feel about ourselves and about what happens to us. To improve life one must improve the quality of experience (Csikszentmihalyi 1990).

Powering through the anxious moments of not only a performance but the preparations of those performances is a key trait that must be learned early on. Through this discussion an educator will be better prepared to observe the challenge/skill-level-potential ratio in order to create a firm foundation of learning – the challenge always needs to be slightly greater than the current skill. Ascertaining how to practice and differentiating quality versus quantity will add to that foundation where one will be able to properly balance their anxiety and boredom so as to create a flow opportunity.

Flow is generally experienced in a positive atmosphere through pleasure and enjoyment. Csikszentmihalyi defines pleasure as a feeling of contentment that one achieves whenever information in consciousness says that expectation set by biological programs or by social conditioning have been met. He further explains that enjoyment occurs when a person has not only met some prior expectations or satisfied a need or desire but also gone beyond what he or she has been programmed to do and achieved something unexpected (Csikszentmihalyi 1990).

Steven Kotler states that there are three distinct changes that occur during flow. (1) Kotler asserts that flow is a product of profound changes in standard brain function. In this state, our brainwaves move from the fast moving beta waves of normal walking consciousness down to the far slower borderline between alpha and theta waves – near day-dreaming. He further postulates that flow is caused by “transient hypofrontality” – the temporary deactivation of the pre frontal cortex, which houses our higher cognitive functions (Kotler 2014). A recent study demonstrates the flow state of transient hypofrontality. They determined that this state would explain why participants experienced more anxiety when performing less challenging tasks. It is in such tasks that analytic cognitive processes have more opportunity to interfere with the focused attention of flow and facilitate a more disintegrated or distracted attention that is characteristic of anxiety. This explanation is also consistent with distraction theory, which proposes that when an individual’s attention is diverted from the execution of the task by task-irrelevant thoughts, performance is impaired and there is a greater likelihood of anxiety (Fullagar, Knight, and Sovern 2013).

Kotler also asserts that during flow, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain charged with self-monitoring and impulse control – goes quiet. The voice of doubt, the inner critic goes quiet. Also, neurochemistry changes dramatically. Kotler alleges that the brain releases a tremendous amount of hormones, flooding the system with pleasure-inducing and performance-enhancing chemicals with considerable impacts on creativity (Kotler 2014). The addition of these pleasure inducing chemicals provide a greater opportunity for enjoyment.

Csikszentmihalyi’s studies have suggests that the phenomenology of enjoyment has eight major components (Csikszentmihalyi 1990). The components below reflect my own personal experiences with dealing with flow.

  1. Immediate Feedback: This type of flow is usually governed by the necessity for goals that are clear and feedback that is immediate. From a solo performance standpoint, the task you are required to accomplish is clear. Deliberate practice, prolonged exposure to quality performance opportunities, and mental rehearsal in order to present a high quality performance as accurately and musically as possible is a necessity. Although this type of activity requires a very long time to prepare and accomplish, the component of feedback is very important. Live performance is a continuous cycle of production and criticism. Engagement with an audience is a big proponent of what I do necessitating constant observance in order to provide proper satisfaction not only to myself but to those who have paid to watch me play. This is especially evident for the chamber organizations with which I perform. Audience engagement generally directs how I am going to feel during the live performance thus providing energy into the flow experience – if things are going well! There is another type of flow that fits this category. The experience of flow during an activity that has no clear goals but is entirely dependent upon immediate feedback. The best example of my experience with this type of flow is based on sight-reading. Although I have not had the opportunity to play for a Hollywood soundtrack, I have heard the stories. I am a horn player, therefore my ear and psyche gravitates towards those to play it. My friends in the LA horn scene have described the absolute joy of looking at a piece of music for the first time and recording it without rehearsing it, which brings us the next component.
  2. Clear Goals &
  3. The Merging of Action and Awareness: This refers to the actual moment of the performance. Concentration is all-inclusive, my mind is no longer wandering, and the only process occurring is that of the performance. This state is generally very hard to achieve, one must become so involved in the task allowing all attention to be concentrated on that relevant moment. Csikszentmihalyi articulates this point very well by saying that the purpose of flow is to keep on flowing. There have been numerous occurrences where I have been very excited about my playing in that moment, which unfortunately constitutes a moment of ‘wandering.’ The instant that moment occurs – CHIP! – the moment is no longer in flow and I now instantly move into recovery mode in order to properly continue the performance. Any lapse in concentration stops flow but that does not constitute a failure. Flow can be achieved once more if the mind is capable of allowing the next flow opportunity to present itself. Students spend so much time worrying about failure and not enough time properly learning about recovery. To simply get back on track by playing the right notes is not a recovery, the ability to re-engage with your surroundings and focus to the point where distractions fall by the wayside is a recovery.
  4. A Challenging Activity that Requires Skill: Competitive challenges are a great example of this type of flow. For me, soloing in front of an orchestra or band has provided a fantastic opportunity for flow. In order to stand in front of an ensemble I must be as prepared. That type of preparation requires a strong reliance on the cognitive skills I have developed in order to perform – engaged short term memory, the ability to unconsciously cue into long term memory (trusting that what I put into LTM is accurate), and the capability to handle anxiety. The competitive nature of this component is between me and my ‘self.’
  5. Concentration on the Task at Hand: Be it sight reading for a major motion picture or soloing in front of a popular orchestra, the allowance of irrelevant information is not acceptable. Most recently, I performed the James Beckel Jr. Glass Bead Game with an ensemble at the Peabody Conservatory. I remember walking on stage and walking off stage. I do not remember the performance itself. My concentration on the task at hand provided only a narrow window of appreciable time – time I was aware of my existence.
  6. The Paradox of Control: I struggle with this. Perfection is not attainable, which may be why I do well in situations where I am playing and make mistakes. Yes, in principle, I should be able to accomplish a perfect performance, but when I try to do so my presentation is generally boring and less engaging. The paradox lies within the flow experience requiring a sense of control and a lacking the sense of worry about losing control. It is within this component where the construction of my activity allows me to develop sufficient skills to reduce the margin of error to as close to zero as possible. Csikszentmihalyi properly asserts that what people enjoy is not the sense of being in control, but the sense of exercising control in difficult situations.
  7. The Loss of Self-Consciousness: The “Zen” moment. In flow there is no room for self-scrutiny because enjoyable activities have clear goals, stable rules and challenges well matched to skills – there is little opportunity for the ‘self’ to be threatened. Recital performances are very good examples of this component. I prepare a program that is engaging yet difficult enough to display my skill set. If I am able to provide a good balance, flow is achieved and the audience is pleased.
  8. The Transformation of Time: This component is heavily related to most others. During a flow experience the sense of time and actual passage of time are no longer related. ”Time flies when you are having fun!”

The eight components of enjoyment are self-driven to produce a specific byproduct, to enjoy something without being aware of time. Categorizing the experience can give the participant another sense of enjoyment. An autotelic experience is specific and describes accomplishing a task without the expectation of any future benefit; simply doing the task itself is the reward (Csikszentmihalyi 1990). People who experience an autotelic event are internally driven, generally by a sense of purpose of curiosity. Educationally speaking, an autotelic experience can be described as an opportunity for a student to take part in a process that satisfies their curiosity without any concern for the end product. This can also apply for anyone, which offers prospective to those whom many in society do not understand.

Everyone is different and everyone requires a different need when it comes to flow experiences and some may not be ‘legally’ available. The flow experience is not “good” in an absolute sense, many are going create a flow experience (robbery) depending on their motivation, but it is still considered good because it increases the strength and complexity of the ‘self’ (Csikszentmihalyi 1990).

How is one able to ‘trigger’ the experience of enjoyment or an autotelic experience within flow? Kotler incorporates Csikszentmihalyi’s components of enjoyment and proposes 17 different triggers that speed the entrance into a flow experience. They are broken down into four categories (Kotler 2014):

  1. Four Psychological Triggers: Internal strategies that drive attention to the now.
    1. Intensely Focuses Attention
    2. Clear Goals
    3. Immediate Feedback
    4. The Challenge/Skill Ratio
  2. Three Environmental Triggers: Qualities of the environment that drive people deeper into the ‘zone.’
    1. High Consequences
    2. Rich Environment
    3. Deep Embodiment
  3. Nine Social Triggers: ways to alter social conditions to produce more group flow.
    1. Serious Concentration
    2. Shared, Clear Goals
    3. Good Communication
    4. Familiarity
    5. Equal Participation
    6. Risk
    7. Sense of Control
    8. Close Listening
    9. Always Say Yes
  4. One Creative Trigger: Pattern recognition and risk taking. Creativity triggers flow; then flow enhances creativity.

These triggers assist a participant with qualitative material to better assist their journey to creativity. It is accepted that every flow activity, whether it involved in competition, chance, or any other dimension of experience, had the commonality of providing a sense of discovery, creating a feeling of transporting the person into a new reality. It pushed the person to higher levels of performance, and led to previously undreamed-of states of consciousness. In short, it transformed the self by making it more complex (Csikszentmihalyi 1990).

The amount of challenge people experience at that moment and the amount of skills they have at that moment decide whether or not you will experience flow. When both challenge and skills are elevated one will generally experience flow – the flow channel. Below is an older chart created by Csikszentmihalyi,


Here (above) he describes the flow channel and the necessity to balance challenge and skill keeping boredom and anxiety at bay. He produced a second chart (below) at a recent TedTalk (Csikszentmihalyi , 2004) incorporating more categories better delineating challenge and skill. Creating a balance with students can be very difficult due to the individual’s different appreciation of the task at hand – one can be less engaged that another. It is the job of the educator to realize the need of the student and provide the ratio required for their greatest growth potential.


How does remaining in the ‘flow channel’ affect one’s experience with flow especially if they are low skilled or high skilled? In a recent study it has been found that both flow and performance anxiety were associated with the balance between the perceived skills necessary to perform a task and the perceived challenges inherent in the task. That balance between challenge and perceived skills is an essential precursor to flow, even in the performance of a complex task such as playing a passage of music (Fullagar, Knight, and Sovern 2013).

Performance anxiety has many descriptors and many have used the following to describe their malady (Kirchner 2011):

  1. The experience of a persistent distressful apprehension about and/or actual impairment of performance skills in a public context to a degree unwarranted given the individuals musical aptitude, training and level of preparation.
  2. Severe anxiety about performing.
  3. Fear of failure.

Thus far, it has been determined that being in control without the fear of losing control is essential during flow. Musical performance anxiety 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 highlighted (Kirchner 2011). It is the delineation of self and flow that needs most attention. According to Don Greene, there are four skills that allow an individual to get past distractions and focus their attention (Greene, 2002):

  1. Presence of Focus: It is about remaining in the present moment, in the here and now. Refrain from thinking of what is coming up, or thinking about what is about to happen. Greene suggests creating an attentional, or imaginary, protective boundary that encompasses the individual is performing in. The more visual the barrier, the more effective it is.
  2. Intensity of Focus: There are two aspects of intensity: energy and control. Pacing is important in order to have sufficient energy to focus when it is most needed. Remaining in the present moment allows an individual to control the reality of the situation.
  3. Duration of Focus: Employ adversity training. It sustains the duration of focus by combining all distractions: visual, auditory, and sensory, which are competing for attention. Attempt to focus with all distractions occurring simultaneously.
  4. Mental Quiet: The ability to minimize distractions and keep the mind quiet. This correlates with Kotler’s earlier assertion of ‘day-dreaming.’

The ability to focus on the intrinsic rewards of an experience, as opposed to the consequences, opens musicians to a greater possibility of entering a state of flow. Being free from concern over what others are thinking, or your own expectations, provides a certain freedom. Establishing goals promotes focus and diminishes distractions. Providing feedback supplies the information to assess progress towards established goals (Kirchner 2011). The groundwork for a flow experience is laid during the many thousands of hours of intense, concentrated practice when the budding musician is fully engaged and completely absorbed (Chaffin and Lemieux, 2004). As an educator we are tasked with knowing how a student learns in regards to practice. At least five stages have been posited (Doyon and Benali, 2005; Hodges and Sebald, 2011):

  1. Fast or Early Stage: Signals an initial boost in performance that may occur within 5-30 minutes after training begins.
  2. Slow or Later Stage: Shows further gains with repetition.
  3. Consolidation Stage: Motor skills continue to evolve during rest following practice. It has been demonstrated that sleep plays a critical role in consolidation.
  4. Automatic Stage: During this stage a newly learned motor skill requires minimal cognitive resources and is more resistant to interference in the form of competing motor tasks.
  5. Retention Stage: The motor skills can be executed without the need for further practice.

These stages are entirely dependent upon the participant’s use of deliberate practice. Deliberate practice occurs when individuals are (1) given a task with a well-defined goal, (2) motivated to improve, (3) provided with feedback, and (4) provided with ample opportunities for repetition and gradual refinements of their performance (Ericsson, 2008; Hodges and Sebald, 2011). We as educators have the tools to better recognize a student’s current level of ability, their achievement possibilities, practice potential, and overall goals. All of these traits are needed in order to create opportunities to learn how to cognitively approach both physical and mental rehearsal in order for a student to contain anxiety and best experience flow.


Chaffin, R., and A. Lemieux (2004). General Perspectives on achieving musical excellence. In A. Williamon (Ed.), Musical excellence (pp. 19-39). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2004). Flow, the secret to happiness. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/mihaly_csikszentmihalyi_on_flow?language=en

Doyon, J. and H. Benali, (2005). Reorganization and plasticity in the adult brain during learning of motor skills. Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 15, 161-167.

Ericsson, E. (2008). Deliberate practice and acquisition of expert performance: A general overview. Academic Emergence Medicine, 15, 988-994.

Fullagar, C. J., P. A. Knight, and H. S. Sovern (2013). Challenge/Skill Balance, Flow, and Performance Anxiety. Applied Psychology: An International Review, 62(2), 236-259. doi: 10.1111/j.1464-0597.2012.00494.x

Greene, D. (2002). Fight Your Fear and Win. New York: Broadway Books.

Hodges, D. A. and D. C. Sebald (2011). Music in the Human Experience: An Introduction to Music Psychology. New York: Routledge.

Kirchner, J. M. (2011). Incorporating flow into practice and performance. Work, 40(3), 289-296. doi: 10.3233/WOR-2011-1232

Kotler, S. (2014). Flow States and Creativity. Psychology Today: The Playing Field. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-playing-field/201402/flow-states-and-creativity

Kotler, S. (2014). The Rise of Superman: 17 Flow Triggers. Rise of Superman. Retrieved from http://www.slideshare.net/StevenKotler/17-flow-triggers