Last week, Ealaín brought a workshop to my attention on the concept of “flow” in music practice and teaching. It was presented by a German violinist and psychologist named Andreas Burzik at New England Conservatory. I only saw the posting a couple hours before the workshop began, but because I’ve been on sabbatical, I had the flexibility to just jump in the car and drive up I-95 to Boston to see it.
“Flow” is a psychological state very similar to mindfulness. It has been studied and written about extensively by the eminent psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced Me-hi Chik-sent-me-hi), author of the book “Flow.” From what I understand, flow is a state of reduced thinking, or even non-thinking, in which the participant is fully absorbed in a given activity, and optimal experience just happens. With this single-pointed focus, one’s physical actions are executed with ease and enjoyment. Flow is often described by athletes as “being in the zone” or “being unconscious.” Conservatory-trained in Germany, Mr. Burzik has been teaching the practice and concepts of flow to musicians around the globe since discovering the writings of Csikszentmihalyi fifteen years ago.
The workshop was great, but rather than give you a play-by-play, I’d like to share two concepts that were touched upon that I found especially relevant to my sabbatical.
We started the workshop exploring the idea of “doing vs. non-doing,” or in the context of flow, intense effort vs. fluid ease. To illustrate the difference, he had us air-bow on imaginary violins. Once we started “playing”, he barked at us to play faster and louder. As we picked up the pace, he continued to get in our face to go faster still. The tension that built up in my body and mind with this drill sergeant approach was immediately palpable. (Perhaps this is how many music students feel, particularly in orchestra?) Then Mr. Burzik changed his approach and calmly asked us to play our instruments in a loose and fluid manner, not for the purposes of speed and volume, but just to move our bodies without effort. It felt easy, relaxed and dance-like. This was a vivid example of “doing,” with it’s striving, tension, intensity and anxiety, vs. “non-doing”—allowing things to happen in an organic way and paying attention to the body’s balance. Since the workshop, I have been paying more attention to my body in my practice. It’s amazing how much easier tricky passages can be with non-doing. Just playing things with much less tension makes everything work better.
The other powerful idea I took away from the workshop was about teaching young children: “One of the biggest mistakes we make with our students is when we start to instruct them,” Mr. Burzik told us with Yoda-like pithiness. Yes, our students need to be taught the fundamentals of good technique in any instrument, he explained. But when we try to relay information in a way that is too verbal, we risk making the process of learning a cognitive experience rather than an experiential one. New information being taken in by a student is often more easily understood if it is felt and experienced in a relevant way rather than thought about abstractly. He suggested that we could teach the rudiments of set-up and technique with imagery, games and sensory experiences. For example(my example), rather than telling a student to “keep your violin up” over and over and over, we can ask the student not to let any dishes fall off the table, or we can place a little finger-puppet (Bruce the Posture Moose) on the violin and tell the student not to let him fall off. Or when teaching a bow hold, rather than tell the student to keep their thumb bumpy, tell them to keep their mouse hole round so that Morris the Mouse can get through. To a young student just starting, a tall violin or a bumpy thumb on the bow are abstractions; to them, it makes little difference if the violin is tall or not. Not letting the dishes fall off the table or not letting Bruce the Posture Moose fall off the violin gives them something they can relate to and experience rather than process intellectually. It got me thinking that perhaps almost everything a student needs to learn can be taught in an experiential, sensory way. Whether it’s posture, rhythm, intonation, phrasing or anything else, the less verbal the teaching, the more experiential it is for the student. This makes things easier to process and more open to flow. It made me think of my own teaching and how wordy I can be sometimes. It also made me think of when I’ve tried to learn a new skill from a book or an overly verbose instructor. I can easily get lost and frustrated and see Easter-Island heads floating about in a confused haze. Certainly there are students out there, even young ones, that respond well to abstractions. Every student has a unique learning style after all. And when a student is older and able to understand and process why a tall violin is important for sound production and alleviating tension in the arms and hands, Bruce the Posture Moose would be perhaps unnecessary. However, I would say in general: Less talk, more Bruce.