Flow and deliberate practice

Have you ever “lost yourself” in a performance, becoming so absorbed in the act of playing that you forgot your self-consciousness and your sense of time? Nearly all musicians report similar experiences. It’s one of the reasons we play. Psychologists refer to this as flow, an intrinsically enjoyable state of seemingly effortless mastery resulting from full engagement in a difficult task (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).

Yet that effortless enjoyment also poses a risk. During practice, we often slip into this flow state unintentionally; worse, we do so before true mastery has been achieved, thoughtlessly coasting through our repertoire. We succumb to the impulse to keep playing in pursuit of this state, even through mistakes. But what, in that case, are we really practicing? Exactly those mistakes.

Flow is not a good way to improve performance over time. Instead, research has shown that effective practice requires mindful engagement and conscious self-observation. Actively, continuously reflecting on and correcting one’s performance is necessary to efficiently improve any skill, especially complex psychomotor skills like musicianship. In the research literature on learning, this is known as deliberate practice.

This is one reason why a teacher is so helpful: they engage fully in the task of listening even when we do not. They hear the mistakes, stop us, and bring our focused attention to the mistakes so that we can correct them. The key skill in the transition to learning without a teacher is the ability to listen to your own practice, so that you still have this feedback cycle that is necessary for improvement.

Conversely, flow is enjoyable but in a sense mindless; while it’s important for keeping up motivation and preventing burnout, its overuse leads to inadvertent practice of undesirable motion and expression. Dr. K. Anders Ericsson, a leading researcher on expertise, explains:

Recent analyses of inherent enjoyment in adults reveal an enjoyable state of “flow,” in which individuals are completely immersed in an activity (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). Similarly, analyses of reported “peak experiences” in sports reveal an enjoyable state of effortless mastery and execution of activity (Ravizza, 1984). This state of diffused attention is almost antithetical to focused attention required by deliberate practice to maximize feedback and information about corrective action.

(from Ericsson et al., 1993; emphasis mine). Dr. Cal Newport phrases this more provocatively: Flow is the Opiate of the Mediocre. Perhaps that’s a little strong, but the accomplished player he quotes gives important advice, in particular to “do what does not come easy.”

Why should we believe that deliberate practice is so important?

The research tells us nearly unanimously that it’s the amount of quality practice, not innate skills or the number of hours mindlessly put in, that matters most in developing expertise. From the same review by Ericsson:

People believe that because expert performance is qualitatively different from normal performance the expert performer must be endowed with characteristics qualitatively different from those of normal adults. This view has discouraged scientists from systematically examining expert performers and accounting for their performance in terms of the laws and principles of general psychology. We agree that expert performance is qualitatively different from normal performance and even that expert performers have characteristics and abilities that are qualitatively different from or at least outside the range of normal adults. However, we deny that these differences are immutable, that is, due to innate talent. Only a few exceptions, most notably height, are genetically prescribed. Instead, we argue that the differences between expert performers and normal adults reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain.

(Emphasis mine.) Again and again, studies of amateur and professional musicians (and athletes, and essentially every domain in which one can gain expertise) have shown how much the quality of practice matters. This should come as no surprise. We all have things we’ve been doing our entire lives but in which we’re not world-class experts: typing at the computer, reading, scrambling eggs, shaving, driving. That’s because the hours we pour into these activities are not deliberately directed toward specific goals of improvement, incorporating a tightly repeating cycle of feedback and correction. We’re not aggressively poking at the boundaries of our ability. We just do these things, and often that’s good enough.

You’ve probably even had plateaus like this in aspects of your own music. You put the hours in, yet week after week it sounds the same. But in this case, we have both the knowledge and motivation to go beyond “good enough” in our practice.

So what are the key components of effective practice? In How Learning Works (2010) the educators and researchers Susan A. Ambrose, Michael W. Bridges, Michele DiPietro, Marsha C. Lovett, and Marie K. Norman summarize the state of scientific knowledge on teaching and learning. This isn’t a book about “cutting-edge” experimental results yet to be truly put to work in classrooms—the authors talk about some of the most robust results in psychology, time-tested and persistent across domains. They devote an entire chapter to the question: What kinds of practice and feedback enhance learning?

The answer, broadly, is that goal-directed practice and targeted, timely feedback are critical. You can read a summary or the book itself for more details on the relevant research, but the essential points relevant to musicians are the following:

1. Use explicit, specific goals. That is, a goal of “practice harder” won’t be very effective. Better to say: “I want to be able to play this passage without stumbling, at any speed,” or even better, “I want to eliminate this particular error.”

2. Progressively refine your goals. As you accomplish goals like the above, focus in greater detail on speed, interpretation, touch, and the connection with the rest of the piece.

3. Practice at an appropriate difficulty. For the most part, you should play at a speed where you’re not making mistakes, but just barely. (It is still important to vary your practice, for example by playing much faster, slower, or with exaggerated expression.) You don’t want to practice wrong notes and bad habits, but you need to find the boundaries of your abilities and push them. “Flow” implies some difficulty: just enough to engage our skills and attention to the point where our mind has no time left for reflection. But there’s no focused improvement there. Deliberate practice, in contrast, is effortful and repetitious.

4. “Scaffold” your practice to encourage deliberate practice. Slow things down or break passages apart to the point where you can focus all of your deliberate attention on what you’re trying to improve. Don’t play the whole piece if you have particular mistakes you want to fix—you’re likely to lose focus by the time you get to the tricky part, when you could have really hammered on it alone for that whole time. Build in cues to make sure you don’t fall into flow states, for example with a recurring timer or by playing passages in a random order.

5. Take frequent opportunities to evaluate your practice and incorporate self-feedback. Don’t play through the whole piece, recall your mistakes, then play through the piece again expecting to correct them. Break your practice into shorter units like passages or even individual figures, where you have the opportunity to directly and immediately correct what you hear. Each mistake is an opportunity to never have to make that mistake again.

These principles of deliberate practice guided the development of Piano Practice Assistant, an app for Android phones and tablets. You can use it to track your progress toward passage-specific, self-determined goals as you practice. Even better, you can divide each piece into sections and subsections, which are then automatically scheduled for a practice session in a random order on short timers, with a preference towards more difficult and longer-forgotten passages. The additional principles of spaced repetition and interleaved practice, as well as the idea of building practice habits through self-directed learning, are also core design principles of the software to improve both your music and your memory.


Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M.C., & Norman, M.K. (2010). How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. (Amazon) (summary)

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper & Row.

Ericsson, K.A., Ralph Th. Krampe, R. Th., & Tesch-Romer, C. (1993). The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance. Psychological Review, 100, 363-406.