How Flow Enhances Piano Practice

An Excerpt from The Positive Pianist

Positive_Pianist_Thomas_Parente
In her kitchen, while my future wife and I were sipping her homemade lemonade and eating Italian pastries, my grandmother told us that the key to happiness is to love what you are doing. Perplexed, I asked, “even if it is something you don’t like to do, like sweeping the floor?” “Yes,” she answered, “for the love of doing it will ensure that it gets done right.” Still skeptical, I told her that I didn’t think it was possible. “If I don’t like sweeping the floor, how can I possibly learn to love doing it?” “It’s easy,” she answered. “Just don’t think of anything else and notice what you’re doing.”

My grandmother told us that the key to happiness is to love what you are doing.

I have often thought about her words and wondered whether they could be applied to all situations, in particular to my work as a pianist and piano teacher. Since becoming aware of the concept of flow nearly twenty years ago when I read Finding Flow (1997), by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, I have come to believe in the power of my grandmother’s words. Csikszentmihalyi led me to understand that even the simple tasks performed by a goatherd or farmer could provide a peak experience of enjoyment and full concentration—better known as flow. At that time, I was also reminded of the advice contained in the book Be Here Now (1971), by Ram Dass, who encouraged full and unmitigated attention as a path to heightened awareness. His and Csikszentmihalyi’s writings seemed like good advice if one had to sweep the floor or herd goats. However, was this “love what you do” idea applicable to something as complex as learning to play the piano? As a teacher who believed in being open to new ideas and ways of doing things, I was extremely curious.

Despite Csikszentmihalyi’s assertion that chess masters, composers, athletes, and even top surgeons went into flow and credited much of their success to being in this state, I still had my doubts, despite the fact that as a Dalcroze eurhythmics teacher of small children, my students and I had frequently experienced the flow state. As a practitioner of Dalcroze eurhythmics (the prefix eu- from the Greek meaning “good” and rhythmos coincidentally and significantly meaning “flow”), I had gradually grown accustomed to experiencing many of the characteristics of flow. What was compelling upon first contact with the Dalcroze method and continues to this day is the sheer joy that often occurs in a eurhythmics class for everyone involved, myself very much included. My own students concur with this statement as they often relate how pleasurable they found the experience to be. I learned later that the presence of the flow state in children had been the topic of research conducted by Professor Lori Custodero, who had developed an observational tool for measuring flow in children.

The question whether being in flow could aid in learning the piano was of vital importance to me, since as a pianist and private and group piano teacher I was personally invested in learning the answer to this most fundamental of questions. I had an additional sense of urgency, since I had come to the piano not as a child, as had most of my fellow pianists, but far later. With a lot of catching up to do, I was intrigued by the following idea: Imagine what one might be capable of learning at the piano if “love what you do” were indeed the secret not only to life but to learning a Bach fugue! I am now convinced that finding ways to ignite passion for piano practicing is something we seldom think about but is, nevertheless, essential to our growth as artists.

* * * *

The great question that perplexes all artists, no matter where they are on the continuum of proficiency, is how to retain one’s individuality and the spark of life that animates our love of the art, while taking the steps that are necessary to develop greater skill. Most often, skill development becomes akin to the doctor who advises us to take the bitter medicine since “it will be good for you.” So many of us have acquiesced to this notion of life, that the doors to our souls that once were open gradually close. To paraphrase this great question, How do we maintain “the love” during learning? As we will discover in the coming chapters, the path is clear and we already have the answer. Really we do!

How do we maintain “the love” during learning?

Over the past three years my search for the answer has intensified, leading me to a more thorough study of the literature on flow as I have pursued my doctorate at Teachers College, Columbia University. In conjunction with this research, I have discovered that “teaching to flow” is a compelling way both to energize my teaching and to enable my private students and secondary pianists—students for whom piano is not their main instrument—to learn in a way that is relatively conflict-free, even joyful. I have found that the more I teach to flow as an organizing principle, the greater the achievements of my students. I have learned as well that the best way to lead students to flow is through teaching awareness of flow characteristics and encouraging student collaboration.

The Positive Pianist: How Flow Brings Passion to Practice and Performance draws on my forty years of teaching and research to show piano students and their teachers how to draw on every student’s natural curiosity and drive for mastery to develop the proper mental attitude and focus for practicing the piano. Through achieving a state of total concentration—or flow—the student is able to give full attention to the art of practicing and make the kinds of moment-to-moment decisions that affect positively every aspect of music-making. The book shows not only how the practice session can be organized to optimize the emergence of the flow state, but also how the flow state once achieved can provide both optimal learning conditions and musical enjoyment. Throughout the book I will attempt to provide students with the ability to make small, intermediate, and grand decisions that are well suited to their ability at any given moment. Since the goal is to attain optimal learning conditions (or flow), central to this strategy will be the notion that the pianist’s moment-to-moment psychological, musical, and physical reactions are to be trusted and reacted upon so they may learn how to use this information while they practice to enhance their musical experience.

To that end, I provide in my book an overview of what I hope will be useful insights and techniques for manipulating conditions so that you as a student or as a teacher may experience the optimal experience of flow.

This excerpt is adapted from The Positive Pianist: How Flow Can Bring Passion to Practice and Performance by Thomas Parente © 2015. Reprinted with permission.
Guest Writer Dr. Thomas J. Parente is an Associate Professor of piano at Westminster Choir College of Rider University. He is the author of several books including The Positive Pianist: How Flow Can Bring Passion to Practice and Performance (Oxford University Press, 2015), The Evolving Class Pianist (Linus, 2012), and the Awaken your Musical Passion through the Piano series (Videnotes, 2014). Dr. Parente has presented many workshops, courses, and clinics both nationally and internationally on the psychological state of flow as experienced by musicians. He maintains a private piano studio in Montclair, New Jersey.

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