Getting into the "Zone": The Benefits and Unintended Consequences of the Flow State

In psychology, the "flow state", also commonly known as "being in the zone", is the mental state in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process. In essence, flow is characterized by the complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting transformation in one's sense of time. (Wikipedia)

The positive mental health effects of the flow state are well documented and, in a time where our collective mental health is suffering at the hands of a global pandemic, we, as musicians, should seek it out as much as possible.

The flow state can help us block out the outside world and exist solely in (and for) the moment. When the flow state is achieved, things become easier and you begin to relax and enjoy an activity more fully. As drummers, everything becomes easier; hands and arms are free from tension, we're more comfortable taking risks and we can do things we couldn't do before. The flow state brings positive feelings to the surface: happiness, optimism, satisfaction, a sense of accomplishment as well as a reduction in self-conscious thinking and insecurity.

Anyone who has ever achieved the flow state knows that it feels great! I personally have achieved the flow state many times during practice sessions, jamming with a band, writing a blog post, writing drum scores or recording music. It is not always easy to predict when or where you may enter the flow state but there are several steps you can take to help you achieve it.

The first step is to pick an activity where intense concentration is required. I have never achieved the flow state by playing through already familiar music. I need to find a challenging activity that uses my brain like score writing, practicing drag paradiddles, voicing tenor notes or recording music. I tend to get "lost" in these activities and lose track of time. This "loss of time" is a clear indication the flow state has been achieved.

Second, you must be prepared to persist with the activity you choose for a good chunk of time. Be sure to set aside a couple of hours for whatever you're planning.

Next, be patient. It takes some time to get into the "flow". For me, usually about a half an hour. After that, time starts to slip away.

Finally, once you are "in the zone", don't forget to appreciate it and enjoy it. Take advantage of the positive energy you feel and get some good work done. When you've finished the activity you've chosen, or when you realize it's 9:00 pm and you forgot to eat supper, notice the positive feelings you experience. Just as negativity breeds more negativity, acknowledging and appreciating positive feelings leads to more positive feelings!

Late in 2020 my regular work on ground to a halt. I found myself struggling with motivation to write blogs, post new videos and come up with new material to add to the site. To compound matters my pipe band had not practiced together since March of 2020 and it was affecting me in a noticeable and negative way. I found myself concentrating more on avoiding burnout than improving my quality of life as the days blurred together in a seemingly endless cycle of eat, work, sleep, TV.

I still held practices with my drum corps over Zoom and even, when the regulations permitted, in person with masks and social distancing. However, my creative drive continued to decline. About a month ago, my downturn came to a head when I experienced several days of acute, paralyzing anxiety. I didn't want to get out of bed. I took a couple of days off work. I sat in a chair staring at the wall between naps. I knew I had to do something or my downward spiral would continue.

That's when I decided to ignore and start working on recording a song I'd written several years before. The song used the Robbie Burns poem Culloden for the lyrics. I hadn't worked on arranging a song in quite a while and I figured I'd try to embrace the arranging/recording process and complete the project on my own.

First I had to settle on an arrangement. I recorded some rough tracks and listened to them over and over. One idea led to another and eventually the song began to take shape. The flow state I experienced as I jammed along with my rough tracks began to make me feel better--excited even--as the parts started to come together. Small victories started to mount as new ideas materialized. The more I worked on the song, the more work I wanted to do the work. Every few nights I would sit and play along with the song, listen to it, mess with the mixing and tinker with the arrangement. I started to look forward to these nights! The entire process took a little more than a month to complete but I was very happy with the results. I had never before released a song where I bore the sole responsibility for writing, arranging, performing and recording. When I finally finished I felt pretty good about it. Here's the song if you're interested...



Then, I experienced some unintended consequences...

New blog post ideas for started popping into my head. So did ideas for new videos. I started practicing for and releasing some Instagram posts. After having had absolutely zero motivation for months I felt much better returning to the thing that had been the source of my evaporating motivation. And now this--the first blog post since Oct. 29, 2020.

I have learned a very valuable lesson over these last few months: The benefits of the flow state are many! Simply by engaging in another activity unrelated to pipe band, and finding the flow state within that activity, I began the process of improving my overall attitude, mental health and general well-being.

I hope that you, too, can reap the benefits of finding your "zone" as pipe band drummers. Find yourself an activity, even one that's unrelated to pipe band drumming and dive in. Pick up your guitar, make something with your hands, write a drum score, a letter to your mother or a song. Do something hard that you love and get into the zone!

I hope all of you are getting through this pandemic as best you can. Wishing all of you good health as we (hopefully) begin to come out of this difficult time. Stay safe and stay well.