Cognitive Flow: From Music to the English Classroom

Music flows like water. As listeners, the sounds enter our ears and the vibrating frequencies in rhythmic patterns make us relax and feel comforted. We become hypnotized. The flow of music is contagious. Likewise, when our minds are in a state of flow, it is as pleasing as playing music or listening to it. As both an English teacher and a musician, I'm interested using my knowledge of music to promote cognitive flow in my classroom.   

After quitting my piano performance degree at age 20, and playing only intermittently in between, I recently bought a piano at age 35 to get back into music.

Cognitive flow is an idea coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to describe a state of beneficial engagement in a task. It has become a popular teaching concept, as it can improve the level of engagement in classrooms. The characteristics of flow suggest a state of immersive, productive bliss: 

  1. Deep concentration

  2. An immediate feedback loop of clear challenges, results, and rewards

  3. Losing one's sense of time

  4. Intrinsic fulfillment

  5. Effortlessness

  6. Skills are in sync with challenges

  7. Fusion of action and awareness that leads to loss of self-consciousness

  8. A sense of control or mastery (Positive Psychology)

From this list of characteristics, a zen-like state of mind is defined. However, this can only be induced when one hovers at the threshold of their skill level with a push that nudges them just beyond it. Defining appropriate objectives for students is where the art of teaching can transform flow into a powerful teaching tool. Elena Aguilar notes in "Beyond Student Engagement: Achieving a State of Flow" that lessons require "laser-focused objectives" to help students hone in on the skill they are developing. For this reason, a teacher's role as observer is key to determining which objectives are most suited for flow-activities. 

While playing music has objectives that are embedded, like playing the notes correctly or playing without stopping, academic objectives are often less obviously defined. One way to draw a parallel between writing and music is to assign a free-writing session. When the students' objective is merely to write without stopping, much like performing a piece of music, they can learn to silence their inner critics and become more comfortable with producing written work automatically. This is just one example of many of how music and writing can intersect. 

Music and Flow

For me, the concept of flow is married with music. At age eight, I decided to mimic my sister, who was learning to play the piano. I would sit at the piano and attempt to create the sounds I had heard her make. This curiosity soon became an obsession. I spent years studying and competing as a classical and jazz pianist. As a musician, flow is familiar to me because it happens on stage. It is the gust of wind that lifts every mediocre performance to greater heights. Performers deliberately induce flow on stage to cope with the pressure of an audience or the distracting sounds in a room.

I experience cognitive flow while playing the piano.

However, flow must be cultivated during practice to soften the intensity of the adrenaline that comes with the fight or flight syndrome on stage. One piano teacher I knew would help his students practice flow by deliberately distracting them during their lessons. He would stand behind them and throw pencils over their shoulders, onto their laps as they played a memorized piece of music. These days, distraction is the norm. Mobile phones hold us in thrall with their beeps, vibrations, and colorful notifications. Phones, in a sense, compete with flow, reducing our chance of achieving an immersive current of deep thought. Much like the music teacher throwing pencils, our phones now beg for our attention, and we need to strengthen our depth of concentration to avoid its debilitating effects. 

When I focus on memorizing a piece, I use my reading skills to isolate parts where my hands do not feel comfortable and I repeat these parts over and over again. Depending on the complexity of the piece, I memorize from as little as a measure or two to a line or a phrase of music at a time. If I have already memorized a piano piece, I focus on the voicing and emotive expression it can deliver as I play. I'm also relying on my memory to recall particular benchmarks to lead me forward. My goal with memorizing pieces is to gain confidence in playing, improve my focus and concentration, and enable a state of flow to occur more frequently. 

I love to play around with different pieces of music to test their expressive possibilities. Here I show this part of the process, as I work on learning a piece of music.

When I was younger, I also improvised on the piano quite often and played in ensembles or music groups. Research shows that flow is even more enjoyable when it is experienced in groups, and I agree (Positive Psychology). I knew the scales, chords, and progressions well enough to focus my creative energy on poetically capturing a mood or spirit that gave my improvisations meaning. I didn't have to worry about the direction the piece was going, because I had already factored in the many possible scales and progressions I could overlay onto the music. It was up to me to reference certain styles, licks, or fingerings to create my personal imprint of sound. During these improvisations, I would think of the chords and melodies I played as if they were voices in conversation with each other and with the other instruments. While writing this piece, I discovered a study that confirmed that jazz improvisers use the linguistic part of their brains while improvising (Lopez-Gonzalez). My observations paired with the findings of researchers inspire me to draw more connections between writing, music, and flow. 

I recently returned to the piano after a years' long break and have started memorizing classical pieces again. Now that I can connect the dots between the euphoric feeling I felt while playing the piano and the similar characteristics of cognitive flow, I believe that flow, itself, lured me back. I have difficulty achieving such deep concentration and relaxation in any other activity apart from running. In time, I also hope to return to jazz improvisation as well. Unfortunately, my "chops" (my muscles and reflexes) are a bit out of shape, as is my mental concentration. Nevertheless, I'm happy to have a catalyst to enter flow when I play music and even happier that an awareness of this state will improve my teaching.

Writing and Flow

As I prepare to teach English, I hope to translate the lessons I've learned from studying music to writing. Though it is not as physical as, say, dance, the creative act of writing is much like a performance. When we write, the words, phrases, and rhythms of speech fall to the page like notes of music. Our rhetorical word choices, sentence structures, and punctuated breaks all conform to anticipated genres of writing, not unlike genres of music. As we write, we are ideating in the moment and translating the felt and known into the scripted and said. Just as we can memorize music, we can read and rehearse the possible styles and structures composed by the masters for writing, as well. We can also free write, which, like improvisation, helps us to link our existing palette of verbal expression to a theme in order to find our personal voice. 

Students may practice writing more at home in journals if they are faced with the challenge of a culminating event in which they must perform their mastery of their skills, much like a musical recital or competition. These could include readings of their work. This way, students can achieve flow as they prepare for scheduled performances in front of an audience. Likening students practice of writing to the practice of a musical instrument also helps them to conceive of it as a gradually strengthening skill that develops over time.

A Classroom Atmosphere Designed for Flow

In addition to encouraging my students to practice flow at home, it is also important to create an environment conducive to flow. As I discussed this issue with my colleagues, we all agreed that a comfortable, inspiring classroom aesthetic is key for preparing students to reach a state of cognitive flow. This can occur by improving the classroom space with welcoming fragrances, background music, lighting, decorations, and colorful decor. As one colleague noted, an environment of "joy and respect" promotes flow. Environments with space to move, like a yoga area, as another colleague pointed out help students feel free to ground themselves physically. 

In English classes, I would aspire to make the space more of a "Parisian cafe" where Sartre is sitting next to Simone de Beauvoir rather than Student A next to Student B. I think a lot of this has to do with setting a tone of the materials, manners, and expectations of the class. Students should be surrounded by books, and places to comfortably read and write. I imagine having a podium available for students to prepare for weekly readings of their work at different times of class. I would love to display portraits of great writers, lineages of schools of poets, and have students write quotes on a wall devoted to writerly inspiration. As another one of my colleagues pointed out, lively student "energy" helps students turn to deeper level thinking.  

A clean, visibly organized space is similarly important to providing a welcoming space. Studies have shown that the brain expends less energy than when we grapple with a problem (Coleman, 2012). Removing barriers in a classroom space can model this "less-is-more" aesthetic so that students can focus only on what is most essential for their state of flow.

Works Cited

Aguilar, E. (2012, March 12). "Beyond Student Engagement: Achieving a State of Flow". Edutopia. Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/blog/student-engagement-elena-aguilar

Casino, K. (2018, Aug. 27). Re: Flow in the Classroom [Online discussion group]. Retrieved from https://teachnowprogram.com/activityNew#project/1157/6146/2001

Coleman, D., Kaufman, P., and Ray, M. (1992). The Creative Spirit. New York: Dutton. p. 46-56

Lawler, C. (2018, Aug. 27). Re: Flow in the Classroom [Online discussion group]. Retrieved from https://teachnowprogram.com/activityNew#project/1157/6146/2001

Lopez-Gonzalez, M. (2012, Oct. 12). "Musical Creativity and the Brain." The Creativity Post. Retrieved from http://www.creativitypost.com/arts/musical_creativity_and_the_brain

Manzano, O, et al. (2010). "The Psychophysiology of Flow during Piano Playing." Emotion, 10(3). pp. 301-311. Retrieved from https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/7f9d/03faffbc0156c10ac11fd0edc5f04cbe695c.pdf 

Positive Psychology Program. (2016, Dec. 16). "Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: All About Flow & Positive Psychology" [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://positivepsychologyprogram.com/mihaly-csikszentmihalyi-father-of-flow/#flow-types-characteristics

https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/7f9d/03faffbc0156c10ac11fd0edc5f04cbe695c.pdf

Wagner, J.  (2018, Aug. 27). Re: Flow in the Classroom [Online discussion group]. Retrieved from https://teachnowprogram.com/activityNew#project/1157/6146/2001

Erica Eller