Practicing “In the Zone”: Understanding Cognitive Flow and its Effect on Practicing

woman sitting at piano practicing

By Chrissy Ricker, NCTM

Have you ever been so wrapped up in playing your favorite piece of music that the outside world seemed to disappear? Have you ever been so absorbed in practicing a new piece that you completely lost track of time?

If you answered “yes” to either of the above questions, you have experienced a state that psychologists call “cognitive flow.” From athletes to artists, musicians to video gamers—participants of many different activities have reported experiencing this state of total immersion; this feeling of being “in the zone.”

What is flow, and why is it important?

The term “flow” was first coined by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (pronounced “me-HIGH CHEEK-sent-me-high”) in 1975. In his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csíkszentmihályi describes flow as “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.” 

Csíkszentmihályi became interested in the phenomenon of flow after hearing of the experiences of artists who became so immersed in their creative work that they would forget to eat or even to sleep. Despite these hardships, the artists reported experiencing a feeling of great happiness and satisfaction while creating their art.

These experiences led Csíkszentmihályi to want to understand exactly what causes the phenomenon of flow and which activities were more likely to lead to experiencing it. Although research has shown that some people are able to reach a flow state more easily than others, Csíkszentmihályi and other researchers in this field have theorized that there are three main criteria that make achieving a state of flow easier:

  1. Our task must have a clear set of goals.
  2. We must receive clear and immediate feedback while performing our tasks.
  3. Our task must be challenging, but not overwhelming in difficulty.

Because of these criteria, activities like sports or playing chess are highly conducive to achieving flow. Players must follow the rules of the game, experience feedback by scoring (or losing) points, and experience the physical and/or mental exertion of challenging an opponent.

So, why is understanding the concept of flow important to us as music educators? Csíkszentmihályi theorized that our ability to achieve a state of flow during an activity can greatly contribute to both our motivation to continue this activity and to our overall happiness while participating in this activity. In other words, if we can help our students to achieve this state of flow during their practice sessions, they are likely to enjoy practicing more and to want to practice more often.

How can we help our students get “in the zone”?

So, how can we help our students to get “in the zone” when they practice and achieve this state of cognitive flow? Let’s take a closer look at the three criteria that can help us achieve a state of flow:

1. Our task must have a clear set of goals.

Studies have found that it is easier to achieve a state of cognitive flow when we are performing a task with clear directions and structure. This is why activities with clear rules of play, such as sports or chess, so often encourage a state of flow.

We can help meet this first criteria by making sure that our students’ assignments are clear and easy to follow. For example, instead of saying “practice this piece with the metronome,” we might say, “practice measures 1-16 5 times, hands together at 60 on the metronome.” This gives students a much clearer goal for their practice sessions at home, which in turn makes the task more engaging.

Fortunately, Tonara can help with this! Tonara Studio’s comprehensive assignment module makes it easy for teachers to create detailed, goal-oriented assignments for their students at every lesson.

2. We must receive clear and immediate feedback while performing our tasks.

Research has found that feedback is important to maintaining a state of cognitive flow because it allows participants to see their progress and adjust their actions as they perform a task. For example, video games often provide constant feedback for players in the form of progress bars, energy levels, timers, location maps, and more. This feedback allows players to make better decisions as they play and to track their progress through the game.

To meet this second criteria, students need feedback between lessons so that they know they are practicing their pieces correctly and making progress. This feedback could come in the form of self-assessment (“Did I remember to play forte at m. 12?” “Did I make my staccato notes detached?”).

Tonara Studio also offers features that make it easy for students to receive feedback as they practice. For example, teachers might use Tonara’s compare recording feature to provide students with a performance model and to give students immediate feedback as they practice at home. Tonara’s messaging features are also a great way for teachers to stay connected and provide feedback and encouragement as students practice independently between lessons.

3. Our task must be challenging, but not overwhelming in difficulty.

Studies have shown that maintaining a state of flow requires a balance between challenge and skill. If an activity is too easy, we become bored, which causes us to leave a state of flow. If an activity is too challenging, we become anxious, which can interfere with reaching a state of flow.

The repertoire we assign our students can play a large part in helping us to satisfy this third criteria. In terms of experiencing flow, the ideal piece of music should be difficult enough that students will be fully engaged in practicing it, but not so difficult that they will feel overwhelmed. The goal is to provide students with what they perceive as an “achievable challenge.” I have found with my own students that there can be a fine line between “challenging” and “overwhelming” when it comes to the repertoire, and it will be different for each student! So, keep each student’s individual threshold for challenge in mind as you create your assignments.

Take Away

One of my biggest takeaways from Csíkszentmihályi’s book was that achieving flow in practice doesn’t happen overnight. Csíkszentmihályi writes: “Most enjoyable activities are not natural; they demand an effort that initially one is reluctant to make. But once the interaction starts to provide feedback to the person’s skills, it usually begins to be intrinsically rewarding.” 

So, keep encouraging your students and helping them to build their musical skills through engaging and goal-oriented assignments. Once your students experience the feeling of practicing “in the zone,” they will be on their way to a lifetime of enjoyment through making music.