This is an excerpt of the book Processing Creativity: The Tools, Practices And Habits Used To Make Music You’re Happy With. If you would like to download an excerpt or buy a copy you can do so here.
An idea can be perspired once it has been inspired and incubated, and the most effective way to perspire is to enter a flow state. Ever since Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote the book Flow, we've begun to understand this part of the creative process that's crucial to our own enjoyment as well as crafting great work. Flow is the state we get into where time seems to pass us by, as suddenly our inspiration seamlessly turns to perspiration and by the time we realize what's going on, we have a portion of our work completed. It can often be known by other names like “in the zone,” “losing yourself” or “in another world.”
When we talk about playing music as an escape, flow is the ultimate escape. There's a hidden gem in one of the most overly quoted parts of Steve Jobs’ thought on creativity where he says, "they feel a little guilty because they didn't really do it." One of the strangest parts of flow is it runs right through us and we often can't figure out the details of how it happened. We lose track of time once we're in this state. We get inspired and take action, losing self-consciousness. Any concern for aches in our bodies, identity, problems, bills or conflict in our life disappears as we create with minimal friction.
This is also what's so addicting about flow since it can make us leave all our troubles behind as we evoke something new. What makes flow so special is we get our mind out of its own way and push out amazing ideas or performances. Without these mental blocks, we can perspire and have epiphanies that help us hit creative heights. We're at our happiest in a flow state; neurologists have seen it's a happier place than playing with kids or on vacation. They see it as a "theta state" that's akin to monks meditating.
Flow is a naturally occurring state for musicians during the creative process. The experience of flow comes in many forms. It can be writing lyrics onto a page where they seem to pour out or jamming with your band to realize it's been twenty minutes when it felt like two. Sitting in front of your computer experimenting with how to best tweak a song. Improvising lyrics for a song while on loop. If you've ever fallen in love, you've probably experienced a flow state. It's that special feeling where all of a sudden perspiration pours out of you where you can't stop expelling brilliant ideas, thoughts or a great performance that you've never said before. You don't think about your next move, it simply comes out of you in a burst of perspiration.
While flow isn’t necessary to create, it allows us to do our best work. Sadly, in this day of flipping from app to app, where attention deficit disorder is seen as a given by many, flow isn’t as easy to achieve when you're constantly distracted or never able to sustain a thought for more than a few minutes. Even stranger is some musicians can easily achieve flow on stage but can rarely achieve it in the studio or vice versa. Understanding what goes into flow can help us get to these states of higher creativity.
The Ingredients To Achieving Flow
While flow is a natural occurring state for our minds, you'll need to have a few boxes checked to achieve it. The more you're able to increase the amount of these elements at your disposal, the more flow will help you to create:
Inspiration - Just as we've discussed before, perspiration cannot happen without inspiration. Flow isn’t a hack that gets you around this rule. Flow allows inspiration to perspire from you effectively and without resistance.
Proficiency - To be able to get into a flow state, you can't get obstructed by your inability to carry out what your mind is trying to perspire. If you lack proficiency on the instrument or tool you're using to create with, flow will cease as you struggle and become self-conscious. The struggle to get out what you're trying to do can halt flow as you try to figure out what you're trying to communicate. This is why flow comes easier with the more proficiency you gain on an instrument or tool. With that said scientists have found flow often when works best when you are taking slight risks to exceed your abilities by challenging yourself to perform at a slightly higher level than normal.
Limitation - While flow can go far beyond what we were initially inspired by, it can help to have focus. In music, having key and tempo restrictions along with making the choice of which instrument you’ll be using allows flow to be more effective.
Lack Of Distraction - When trying to get into these states, it's important to get in a distraction-free environment. The greatest killer to a flow state is a text message, knock on the door from a housemate or social media notification. Designating a time where you won't be taken out of these states is imperative for getting to this state and can help sustain creative bursts. While distractions and breaks have their purpose in creativity, you should be as free of interruption as possible when trying to perspire.
Flow can also be collaborative. If you've ever had a conversation where ideas perspire from you that you've never put into words but you all of a sudden become funny or insightful, that's collaborative flow. Jam sessions regularly give us our best flow states. We're inspired by others to get into a flow state where we're able to feed off one another to create a new expression. In music, this collaborative flow is often in the form of improvisation. What we hear others doing is an immediate inspiration that can put us into a flow state.
One of the biggest misconceptions of improvisation is the belief that it’s solely made from new thoughts that come from flow and not rehearsed parts that are up our sleeve that we can deviate from and revisit. This also illustrates one of the most important aspects of flow. Usually flow takes a bit of incubation and rehearsal beforehand, just like any other part of good music improvisation needs to achieve an intent. By picturing how your intent would sound and elaborating on past ideas that apply to this emotion, improvisation reaches its greatest heights. It’s usually helpful to prepare for flow by doing some rehearsal as well as pre-meditating on your intent.
These pre-rehearsed ideas you’ve already thought of, but are now being expressed in a flow state of improvisation often takes them to greater heights. When a rapper freestyles, they’re drawing from rhymes in their rhyme book while improvising a few aspects about the present location or foe they’re up against, fitting these variables into some fixed tropes they’ve already rehearsed. When a jazz musician does this, they know modes, scales and keys they must stay within, as well as a melodic line that’s already been established that they can vary. These ideas are contemplated and practiced for years at a time. Notorious B.I.G. didn't show up to that bodega in Bed-Stuy and freestyle without first becoming proficient in tons of rhymes as well as practicing improvisation before the camera was rolling.
Flow Usually Needs Refinement And Editing
“Dance first. Think later. It's the natural order.” ― Samuel Beckett
There’s a great myth in music about how magical the first take in the studio can be. The idea is that a musician sat down and played an amazing song on the first try. Yes, to a fan of the Grateful Dead, the idea of a first take jam sounds great, but there's also a reason their fanbase is known for being stoned out of their minds. All joking aside, even the Grateful Dead would do countless takes of their songs and later edit together the best bits of their recorded material. While flow can give us some of our best ideas, they usually need to be refined once the flow state has ceased. The key is to allow flow to occur for as long as possible and then edit it after it has ended.
Since flow allows us to ignore self-doubt and criticism, it commonly needs further consideration after the state has left us. There were countless failed takes of Kind Of Blue before Miles Davis got the right ones to put on the album. Contrary to the belief that editing takes in Pro Tools is cheating, The Beatles were doing the very same technique on their records along with nearly every other group since recording switched from vinyl discs to tape. Harnessing flow and collecting the best bits has been the way to great music for half a century, yet somehow some musicians frown on this as if first takes and a lack of editing are akin to winning some video game instead of viewing it as a tool to get the most emotional resonance.
Making Flow Work Optimally
There are a few best practices for flow that can help you more optimally achieve this state:
Notifications Are Distractions - The iPhone has a Do Not Disturb mode where all notifications cease, allowing only those you put on a list to call you in case of emergency. For those who aren’t concerned about contact from the outside world at all, airplane mode or turning your phone off works even better. Turning off wifi on your computer can also keep you from bad habits of switching away from your DAW.
A Cleared Mind - Flow only happens when you can focus and have passion, so it's less likely to occur unless the stress in your life has been dealt with. If you have trouble getting into flow, try clearing your mind by writing down your thoughts to retain whatever keeps popping up.
Guard Your Space - Put a “do not disturb” sign on your door as well as let housemates know you’re not to be disturbed until you come out. Too often flow is disturbed since others don’t realize it’s your priority.
Isolation - Author Jonathan Franzen locks himself in a room with nothing on the walls and noise-blocking headphones. The less distractions you have, the better.
Always Be Recording - If you think you may enter a flow state, be sure to have a way to retain it. Too many musicians forget they should always be recording rehearsals and noting time stamps of parts to revisit.
Meditate - Many people find meditation - more specifically, transcendental meditation - to be helpful in getting deeper and more sustained flow states.