Flow

“It flows on and on, and merely fills up all the places through which it flows, it does not shrink from any dangerous spot nor from any plunge, and nothing can make it lose its own essential nature. It remains true to itself under all conditions.”I Ching text.1  The image of flowing water and the text on this card were inspired by this quote.

Flow in performing classical music can be elusive. So much is dictated to the musician a priori. There are many requirements and standards prescribed not only by the music itself but also by the way in which we play our instruments. Classical “performance practice” goes back at least to the 18th century with legendary composers Johann Quantz and Leopold Mozart who wrote treatises on how music should be played. Even before dealing with the score itself, there is already so much the musician has to master.

I first took on the issue of improvisation in classical music when I was an idealistic senior in college. The title of my senior thesis was The Cadenza. At the time, I thought the cadential dominant cadenza was the only opportunity available for a classical musician to improvise. There are far less improvisation opportunities in classical music compared to for instance, jazz. However, because of the internet and the ease with which one can produce their own recordings, there is now more variety in terms of style and genre that classical musicians can branch out into than in the past.

When there exists no opportunity to create one’s own music, flow is still in the ether. In fact, one could make the argument that with all of the preconceived notions about how a classical piece should be played, the improvisatory nature of flow can invite the energy of music more easily into one’s performance. The constraint of performance practice plays the role in the I Ching of the “dangerous spot” or “plunge” from which your musical inspiration does “not shrink.”

I strongly recommend reading Effortless Mastery by Kenny Werner which includes his meditations. Although written from a jazz pianist’s point of view, it is very much applicable to any genre of music. He writes extensively about what prevents musicians from being “open” in their expression. He also lays out steps to follow to move beyond inhibition, limitation, and self criticism.2 

One may hold the belief that “mastering” a piece of music is requisite for accessing flow and that flow is something that happens at a later stage in learning repertoire. However, I believe that flow can be part of the earliest stage of studying a piece of music. Perhaps this is why Shinichi Suzuki stressed so strongly that students need to listen to recordings of their repertoire on a daily basis, over and over again. From the very beginning, one develops an emotional relationship with the music even before fingers touch notes.

Meditate on flowing water. Remain true to yourself under all conditions.

Inspiration for Violinists card deck This Flow card is part of a 50 card deck. Every card has a unique image and text inspiring musicianship, mindfulness and spirituality. On sale through December 2021, $22 with free shipping in the US. Use offer code holiday2021.

  1. ‘Today: Be like water – from the I Ching.’ harinam.com. (Accessed: December 18, 2021).
  2. Kenny Werner, Effortless Mastery, New Albany, IN, Jamey Aebersold Jazz, 1996.
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