The Power of Flow

I recently presented a workshop on Peak Positive Performance Strategies at a new festival sponsored by the Manhattan School of Music for Amateur Chamber Musicians.  This was a wonderful opportunity for me to share some techniques on overcoming performance anxiety based on my own personal experience as an amateur pianist and chamber musician, as well as my professional experience coaching professional musicians around their career success.

The Festival was a week long affair combining instruction, coaching, workshops, Master Classes culminating in a final performance and attracting 30 dedicated amateur adult chamber musicians from around the country!  My goal was to help these hard-working, committed adults enjoy their experience as performing artists.

Performing successfully requires not only exquisite technical and musical preparation but also the right mental attitude.  Your attitude stems from your perception of reality based on your experience.  These experiences can determine if you are inclined to view events in a favorable or less favorable light.

With this in mind, I started the workshop by polling the participants on their attitudes around the upcoming performance.  The answers ranged from “dread” to “not so bad” to “excitement”.   As I explained, your attitude is a BELIEF, not a TRUTH.  Attitudes arise out of your inner thoughts, with the good news that you can change your thoughts by making a choice to embrace the positive. 

One way to tap into the positive is to articulate who are you when you are at your best.  Your “best self” is a reflection of your at a very high level of performance known as Flow.

“Flow” is a term that entered into our vocabulary thanks to the positive psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi in his book Flow:  The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1990).  Csizkszentmihalyi researched the conditions that lead to optimal performance.  In a nutshell, Flow is doing something that you are really good at, that stretches you, that fulfills you and that makes you feel true joy.  It involves knowing what you want to achieve and getting the feedback that tells you how you are doing.  You are thus inspired and challenged to increase your level of performance.  As such, Flow is a growth experience that finds the “sweet spot” where your skill level meets the challenge at hand.  Flow also presumes that you can control the experience and that you have the ability to cultivate and master the skill through training and discipline.

In essence, my goal in the workshop was to help these musicians learn what they were like at Flow and to use that information to help them enjoy performing.

To capture this positive energy, we brainstormed what it was like to be at Flow. I then encouraged each person in the group to create an affirmation starting with “I am_____ “ and filling in the blanks with the words that best described them at Flow. 

Then we addressed the perennial problem of the inner critic, the voice that says “I am not good enough.”  In my experience,  most high achievers, whatever the field, have some version of this thought so we explored ways to attack it head on.

Three things resonated very powerfully for the group:

1.    Have an answer for your inner critic

When you hear the voice that says, “I am not good enough” respond with a statement based on who you are at Flow. 

2.    Reframe the experience of performing

Instead of feeling that you have to give a perfect performance, look for the opportunity in the challenge.  Think about how the performance is an opportunity to share your love of the music, to be your best self and  to practice non-judgment and learn how to overcome your fears.

3.    Be of service

In a prior post, I detailed the many ways that musicians can be of service.  Not only does it make you feel great but it is also a mechanism for overcoming fear and beating that inner critic!

By the end, one woman expressed that her goal in the performance was to be in FLOW!

And not surprisingly, the sum total of these techniques, together with the fantastic coaching, instruction and other workshops that the participants experienced at the Festival, enabled them to walk out of the workshop feeling much more in control of and positive about their upcoming performance experience.


I followed up with the participants to see how they enjoyed their performances.

One woman shared:
“I credit the fabulous flow to the preparation as well as the positive energy we brought to the experience.”

Another was able to let go of perfection and instead focus on the joyous experience of making music with her fellow chamber musicians. Yet another used the words of her Flow affirmation during the performance so that she could let go of the need to be perfect and instead be her best.

Bottom Line:

Once you view performing as an opportunity to be your best and to be in Flow, you can change your very thoughts and bring that spirit of positivity to the experience.  This mental attitude, together with hard focused work on achieving technical mastery and musical excellence, can make a huge difference in your ability to enjoy your musical experience.