We songwriters heavily depend on our creative energy. If we’re creative and energized, we can write awesome songs in just 30 minutes or less; but when the muse deserts us or our batteries are empty, we can’t seem to get anything done for weeks on end.
Professional songwriters know how to keep their creative juices flowing. Each of them has their personal secrets that let them write more and higher quality songs than the rest of us. This article is about one of these secrets – and how you can master it for bigger musical impact.
What is flow?
The psychological phenomenon named “flow“ by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi is less a method but more an observation of human behavior. You almost certainly experienced flow moments in your life. Flow is “the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity“ (Wikipedia). When you’re in the flow, you truly live in the moment, you’re happy and you perform at your best.
As musicians we’re gifted to experience such flow moments more often than others: we feel it while composing, playing on stage or recording an album. If you’ve forgotten about space and time in a recording studio only to notice after the fact, that you spent 10 hours without food and sunlight, completely immersed in your music and feeling completely happy, you’ve experienced flow. We also regularly experience flow during a live performance – especially when soloing. Somehow things just happen effortlessly and everything turns out right – it’s pure joy.
So being in a state of flow not only makes us happy, but it also let’s us produce our best work.
The challenge now, of course, is how to get into a state of flow on purpose?
How to do it?
Unfortunately you can’t simply trigger a state of flow – flow just happens. But you can create the circumstances that make a state of flow more likely.
The main ingredient to flow is a balance between the two aspects challenge and skill. First, what you’re about to do (e.g. songwriting or rehearsing), has to be “challenging“. But challenge alone can lead to various states of mind depending on your skills to handle that challenge. So the second aspect “skill“ has to fit the challenge. If your skills are not adequate, you will feel anxiety and worry. If your skills are better than what the challenge demands, you feel in control, but missing the excitement of flow – it's boring. So the trick is to take on an activity that is neither too challenging nor too easy for your skill level.
In a solo for example don‘t just stick to the licks you already master - challenge yourself a little by playing more difficult lines! But don‘t stress yourself with overly hard phrases that create anxiety even before you play them. Find the balance and you can enter a state of flow.
Once you have entered a flow state, you will not be easily interrupted; but right at the beginning, when you try to get into flow, distractions can really hinder the process. So prepare for what you‘re about to do.
For songwriting for example it is important to have everything available for your composing session: your instrument, a recording device, paper or a tablet, maybe a rhyming dictionary and an undisturbed environment. Nothing prevents flow more than having to fiddle with non-working tech (“why am I hearing nothing on this channel?“) or being constantly interrupted with other tasks. One such form of preparation is (of course) having enough music theory skills, so you don’t get stuck half way through the first verse.
To improvise in a state of flow during a live concert, you also need to rely on your skills (so practice beforehand) and knowing your instrument. But it’s equally important to trust your band to support you and simply to have your monitoring set up properly (i.e. do good sound checks!). Then find that sweet spot between too easy and too difficult, in which your skills just match the solo challenge you set for yourself.
A nice side effect of operating at the challenging edge of your skills is that you will get better over time. Because the secret that gets us into a state of flow is also the secret of learning and getting better at our craft. You can use flow not only during live shows or in songwriting sessions, but also during daily practice of your instrument!
Practicing in a state of flow does not only feel much better, but it keeps you going longer and it let’s you operate at the upper edge of your current skill set. Nothing is better to advance quickly in developing new skills.
For example take a lick you can play at medium tempo in one key. A good challenge to get you into flow would be to play this lick in different keys repeatedly and to slowly speed it up with a metronome. Simply things like this can create a flow state.
As a musician you depend on managing your energy. Flow is a way of channelling all your potential into an actual performance or composition. Understanding the state of flow and how you can best enter it is crucial for any artist.
Take the lessons from this article and seek situations in which your skills balance the challenges (and the challenges balance the skills!), in which you feel at the same time relaxed, but excited. Getting into flow during a live concert, a songwriting session or just during daily practice is not that hard, as long as you create the circumstances to get there.
Now try it right away: sit down to practice something or write that song you wanted to write this week. And most have all: have fun making awesome music!