The December 2016 issue of Choral Journal ifeatures an article titled “Choral Singers ‘In the Zone’: Toward Flow through Score Study and Analysis” by Christopher Walters. You can read it in its entirety at acda.org/choraljournal. Search the December 2016 archives menu in the sidebar. Following is a portion from the article.
The bell rings abruptly during your Concert Choir rehearsal. One of the basses exclaims: “Class is over already? That was fast!” You suddenly realize that you and your ensemble’s intense concentration has been snapped out of one of your best rehearsals of the year. You immediately register that every chorister appeared particularly engaged and productive, and that the collective music making seemed to achieve an especially high level of artistry, accuracy, and focus. Indeed, an alto adds: “It’s like we were in the zone or something!”
Though perhaps a bit simplified, the above scenario depicts what choral musicians have likely experienced at least once in their musical lives—a type of optimal experience now codified in what is known as the psychological construct flow.(1) Flow has achieved popular familiarity through how athletes commonly describe such moments—namely, as being “in the zone”—and certainly represents the type of experience toward which we all strive as choral conductors. It is the heightened subjective state where we feel at once completely absorbed, highly challenged, and decidedly capable in a given activity; where a distinct period of ostensibly effortless action seems to stretch or even fly by; and upon looking back at such experiencing, we process it as among the best moments in our lives.
A term first coined in 1975 by the noted research psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi,(2) flow(3) has garnered significant scholarly attention over the past forty years, informing multiple areas of inquiry, including psychology, sociology, education, sports and leisure, business, medicine, motivation theory, attention theory, and the visual and performing arts.(4) To be sure, music has been dubbed a “quintessential flow activity,”(5) and flow is now an important and relevant area of serious music education research.(6) For the astute choral conductor, then, this begs the following queries: What, if anything, can the choral conductor do to account for flow in rehearsals or performances? Is it possible to intervene in such a manner as to essentially create flow among our singers? And if so, how might we do it?
The purpose of this article is to assist with answering such questions by outlining one viable way in which to incorporate Csikszentmihalyi’s flow concept into the general perspective of the choral conductor. In light of the current literature, conductors can very likely set the conditions prone to foster flow in choral singers. This can be accomplished by way of applying the high challenge-skill balance “dimension” of flow to the conductor’s essential task of score study, which results in the analytical necessity of identifying “salient potential challenges.” This approach can serve as an example for other conductors to emulate and modify in their particular contexts so that our singers may indeed become so capably immersed in their music making that rehearsals seem to fly by.
1 For the seminal texts, see: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (New York: Harper and Row, 1990); and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life (New York: Basic Books, 1997).
2 Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Beyond Boredom and Anxiety: Experiencing Flow in Work and Play (San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, 1975).
3 Used interchangeably in the literature with the flow experience, flow theory, the flow concept, the flow model, flow state theory, etc.
4 See, for example: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Isabella Selega Csikszentmihalyi, eds., Optimal Experience: Psychological Studies of Flow in Consciousness (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988); and Jeanne Nakamura and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, “The Concept of Flow,” in Handbook of Positive Psychology, ed. C.R. Snyder and Shane J. Lopez (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 89-105.
5 Lori A. Custodero, “Seeking Challenge, Finding Skill: Flow Experience and Music Education,” Arts Education Policy Review 103, no. 3 (January/February 2002): 7.
6 Sarah Sinnamon, Aidan Moran, and Michael O’Connell, “Flow Among Musicians: Measuring Peak Experiences of Student Performers,” Journal of Research in Music Education 60, no. 1 (April 2012): 6-25.