A State of Flow

As the saying goes, “You can’t control the weather, but that doesn’t stop some people from trying.” ~author, Frank Sonnenberg. 

Most people LOVE to be in control. We work so hard to control our mood, our emotions, our responses, our schedule, our routines,  our environment, our habits, our relationships… and the list goes on. We spend a good portion of our day keeping it all together and under control! 
Yesterday’s mid-April snow storm definitely reminded us that there are some things we just can’t control or predict no matter how hard we try or how much we plan; like the weather. 

So let’s talk about giving up some control in our lives…. 

In last week’s post I talked about the desired state of “flow” or optimal experience for artists.  (If you missed last week’s blog post, be sure to check it out here). Psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi describes a flow state as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

Csikszentmihalyi outlines the “Paradox of Control” as a necessary component to achieving a flow state. 

So what exactly is the paradox of control? Hint: you’re going to have to give up some control!

The paradox of control is when you are in “control” without “controlling”. You are fully immersed and absorbed in an activity (like playing an instrument or painting) that the activity becomes automatic and fluid. The activity becomes effortless, and yet every action is done with purpose and clear intention. This is the paradox of control and it is a beautiful thing: to be in control and yet not be controlling every outcome. 

As human beings it is so difficult to give up control. I see this with musicians and artists every day in the studio. Learning to trust ourselves, the skills we have acquired, and our incredible bodies is so dang hard! We want to control the outcome. We want the result to be *sigh* perfect. However, as musicians and artists, we must LET GO in order to experience  a state of “flow” and achieve peak performance. 

Research has shown that performers in a flow state have a heightened quality of performance. In a study conducted by de Manzano, Theorell, Harmat, & Ullén (2010), professional classical pianists were monitored as they played piano pieces several times to induce a flow state. Researchers found that as the pianists entered a flow state – a state of “effortless attention” – their heart rate and blood pressure decreased, and their facial muscles relaxed.  As the pianist’s body relaxed and attention became effortless, their overall performance improved significantly. 

The body never lies. As artists, control can make an appearance in many different ways. Most often control is detected through body tension. Tension in the face, shoulders, tongue, forehead, hands, arms, vocal cords, or other supporting muscles. Control cannot be hidden, no matter how hard you try;) 

A good artist-educator will help you to identify this tension and work to eliminate it. Control without controlling. Solid technique allows you to “control” the process without “controlling” the outcome. A good artist-educator will help you to trust your instincts, your body, and your skills. A good artist-educator will help you believe in yourself so that you can enjoy the artistic process, become immersed in your art without dwelling on perfection. A good artist-educator will give you the tools to discover the Artist Within and a state of flow – the ultimate reward for your hard work and effort.  

I have a student who is working on giving up control. She is learning to trust her body, her breath, and her excellent technical skills. She often connects the body tension she sees in her lesson with the body tension she sees and is working through in her daily life. The two are not mutually exclusive! Learning to let go is hard, focused work, but so worth it because giving up control = freedom. 

What would your artistry look and feel like if you were able to let go just a little and focus on the process rather than being hyper focused on controlling the outcome? 

Are you ready to learn how to give up control through effortless attention? Music lessons may be the answer. Come work with us this summer. Our summer private lessons program registration is now open.  


Andrea “giving you the tools to let go” Donais

American Psychological Association: https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2010-09991-001
Flow (psychology): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flow_(psychology)
Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mihaly_Csikszentmihalyi

Scroll to Top