Part 4: Get Into The Zone
Learn to let go – and train laser focus
Getting into the perfect state of mind before you start to play is a huge step forwards. But then you want to actually play music from that state.
The first thing you’ve got to do is give up control.
This sounds crazy at first. But consider this:
Imagine I put a wooden plank on the floor and ask you to walk along it. Easy, right? Most people walk casually and confidently to the end.
They’re not trying to control how they walk. They just walk.
Now imagine you have to walk along the same plank… 100 feet up in the air. Can you feel the difference just thinking about it?
Most people now focus entirely on not falling. They worry about movement mechanics that didn’t cross their mind when the beam was on the floor and they stop trusting their body’s ability. This causes movements to become jerky rather than graceful.
The physical task isn’t any harder – but thinking about the consequences of failure and taking conscious control of your movements makes things worse.
Exactly the same thing applies when you play music thinking of the consequences.
You need to trust that your body already knows what to do, rather than playing to avoid mistakes. This is what allows you to get into the Flow state – while trying to control every little technical detail blocks you from getting into Flow.
So letting go is what gives you the chance to perform at your full potential.
You might lose some technical control at first but it works out better in the long run. So build the ability gradually over time and don’t take it out to the gig straight away.
Different people find different exercises helpful here – you’ll have to experiment and see what suits you. Here are some that I use with my students:
- Playing over a drone – let go of the idea of “right” or “wrong” notes
- Role playing – imagine matching the physical movements of your favourite musician; ignore the sound you make
- Groove exercise – repeat something really simple until it starts “playing itself”
It takes courage to let go.
And courage is like a muscle – you can train it through deliberately flexing it on a regular basis. But it also shrivels away if you don’t use it…
Training courage is really simple (but not easy). Here’s what you need to do:
Build the foundation by recognising that you already possess and use courage. Write down your top 10 courageous acts from the past and add them to your belief bricks log (I described this back on page 3).
Then deliberately do more.
Put yourself in challenging situations and take a moment to reflect afterwards. Notice that you do ok (or that you can live with the consequences).
This earns you the right to say to yourself “I can do difficult things”.
Start just outside your comfort zone. Then take bigger risks.
If you keep at this it will become a habit. You’ll find you actively seek out challenge. It’s not that everything gets easy and requires no courage. Rather, you’ll naturally look for uncomfortable things to try, and move towards them.
Use Focus To Stay In The Flow State
Letting go allows you to get into Flow in the first place. The right sort of focus allows you to stay there.
You need an appropriate target for your focus. And you need to maintain that focus while you play.
There are three steps to doing this:
Firstly, decide in advance where to put your focus. Only one thing at a time – don’t try and split it. And make sure you direct your focus to something that is task-relevant so that the information you’re taking in can help your playing. Beyond that, you’ll need to experiment and see what works best for you as an individual.
Here are some suggestions to experiment with, but add your own ideas too:
- Listen intently to one specific aspect of the music as a whole. E.g. could be the snare drum, timbre, volume, rhythm, etc
- Really listen to your own playing. No judgement – just notice all the details of your sound
- Focus intently on one non-musical aspect of your playing. E.g. what your hand looks like, or what the physical sensations feel like as it moves.
- Hear what you’re playing slightly before you play it
Secondly, sustaining focus on your desired target is easier when you’re in the “right brain” rather than your “left brain”. Use centering (or another pre performance routine) to make that switch.
Thirdly, strengthen your ability to stay focused. Here are two exercises to help with that:
Exercise 1: Pick a focus strategy to work with (you could use one from the list earlier. Or one of your own) and a piece to play. Start from the beginning but stop playing as soon as you notice your focus has slipped. Note how far you got then repeat.
Exercise 2: same as exercise 1; but when focus slips, move it back to your chosen point and continue playing.
We’ve covered how to get into Flow when everything’s running smoothly. But the real world isn’t like that.
How do you defend against the challenges that life throws at you?
Let’s find out…