Music as a catalyst for flow
I stand in my bedroom, headphones on, song on repeat. My cue approaches. I lift my violin to my shoulder and wait, carefully ensuring my entry is exactly in time and in tune. I love the music and the feelings that come with it. The harmony, the tension, the mixture of timbres and musical textures. I tighten my core muscles and bend my knees – the best stance for playing for me - internally grounded but flexible limbs. I make my entry… Damn. I came in on the wrong note.
I rewind the recording. I listen again. This time, correct note but I come in a half second too late.
I rewind the recording. I listen again. My playing is all perfect until I realise I forgot to stop playing and picked up the guitar part by accident. I love that part, jealous I have to rest instead of joining in.
I rewind the recording. I listen again. I play through the whole song. Rest when I should rest. Play the right notes and rhythm when I need to. I finish off with enthusiasm, pleased to have made it through the whole song without forgetting anything. But there wasn’t the emotion there that the song conveys.
I rewind the recording. I listen again. I channel the curious vibe of the song. I come in a little too early.
I rewind the recording. I listen again. I think “screw it, I’m just going to enjoy this one”, and I play my part and the guitar part during my rests. I put my own emotion into it. Potentially it sounds a little more frustrated than the original vibe of the song. Probably because I’m a little frustrated with my inability to play it perfectly and with feeling.
But funnily enough, that’s what I’m doing now. I’ve let go of my drive to be perfect and suddenly it sounds great and I’m not missing any notes. Funny how that happens.
I then make a mental note: “This time, try not to try too hard. That seems to work for you”.
I rewind the recording. I listen again. I forget my entry because I’m not paying full attention, because this time I’m not trying too hard. OK… So that doesn’t work either.
This is what practice looks like for me in the lead up to a performance. If this is me, all alone practicing with no pressure, you can only imagine what my mind is like once I’m playing in front of people at rehearsals and shows, and my performance anxiety is thrown into the mix (which has plagued me most of my life).
Now that I work as a Clinical Psychologist, I often reflect through my professional lens on the many roles music can play in a person’s life. For my younger self, it helped me express my feelings when I didn’t know how to do so verbally. It also helped me improve my fine motor skills, self-discipline (through repetitive practice), and communication between my left and right brain hemispheres, which has definitely helped me develop more creative and flexible ways of thinking and reacting.
Music gave me many opportunities to meet new people in the various groups I performed in, and explore new cultures through learning how to play their music and travelling overseas on music tours on occasion. Through learning and understanding different genres and eras of music, I also learned about the historical contexts surrounding major composers such as Wagner and Shostakovich.
Music was also one of the first areas where my anxiety really affected my functioning and I was unable to run away from its effects, because they were right there in front of me – forgetting lines in pieces, the dreaded shaky bow, slowed reaction speed during fast passages, and being unable to play in tune due to the sweaty palms I would get as a result of what I now know is the human physiological threat response.
When experiencing performance anxiety, I would not allow myself to fully inhabit the music due to fear of negative judgment and fear of making errors if I relaxed too much, so my posture and facial expressions were often quite stilted, even though in my heart I was very in tune with the music I was trying to play. I had a hard time making eye contact with other musicians I was playing with, when I really needed to do so in order to play more in sync with them. In hindsight, I’m amazed I achieved what I did with music while dealing with all that, and am in awe of musicians who go on to become professionals when still struggling with unmanaged performance anxiety.
Through my studies and career in Psychology, I have developed a new relationship with music. In hindsight, I can really appreciate the opportunities it gave me for emotional and creative expression, learning to work together with a team of other musicians, and (attempting to) sync up my mind and body movements – which likely helped improve my neurological functioning. On occasion, when feeling calmer when playing, it gave me my earliest experiences of flow and mindfulness, which I now know are essential for Psychological wellbeing.
More recently my music practice has become a meditative experience – watching my mind and body interact, sync up and become disjointed at times, and how my mind then reacts to that, and how I react to my mind. We all have lots of voices in our heads that tell us what we should be doing, how we should be playing, and what will or won’t help us improve. Sometimes those voices are really helpful and sometimes not. When we engage with them a lot rather than taking a step back, we can get caught up in old patterns.
When we achieve a state of total engagement with the music, and our emotions and interpretation of a piece, we can experience flow, creative expression and joy. To move more into this space, I have learned to ask, ‘why am I playing? How can I enjoy this experience more? How can I bring down barriers between myself and the music I want to express?’, rather than ‘How can I look better to my musical peers? How can I stop the audience from thinking I’m terrible? Why do I even think I have the right to perform when I am not the best violinist out there?’
My mind still asks these questions of me, but what is the use of indulging them? I won’t get to experience the joy of playing or be respecting the many ways music can contribute to the human experience – emotional and creative expression, conveying beauty, and bringing people together, to name a few. By consciously letting go of these old thought patterns, I allow my whole self to become an instrument for the music, rather than the musical performance becoming a tool for my own validation – where is the joy and beauty in that?
As a violinist, I am a big fan of TwoSet Violin - YouTubers who bring a comical side to the world of classical music (especially violin). Recently they shared a video about the (often unacknowledged) impact of the perfectionistic, high-pressure culture of the classical music industry. They shared their own experiences of mental health difficulties and provided information on things they have found helpful for overcoming their mental health struggles as musicians.
I highly recommend this video and the advice TwoSet provide - follow this hyperlink to watch the video: (66) Opening Up About Our Mental Health - YouTube