Paul Thompson – Unlocking Your Flow

Possibly the best presentation I’ve ever seen on the concept of musical concentration and the practice habits to help get you into the zone. A highly recommended watch.

One question this video has made me think about a lot: does it matter whether we keep our eyes open or not when when play, and specifically while we are improvising?

Assuming I don’t have to read music, there are a few things I might be doing with my eyes when I play: looking at my hands, keeping my eyes closed, looking at something else happening in the room, or open but unfocused. I think any of these things are fine to do and over the course of a gig I’ll probably do all of them, but as I’ve considered how each of these situations affect my ability to listen, focus, and to tap into a flow state, I think I’ve come to the conclusion that keeping my eyes open but not focused on anything specific seems to be the best situation for me, especially in terms of deep listening and really getting into the flow.

I have no problem with looking at my fingers if I’m trying to complete a technical passage. The visual support often helps me with movements that require a high degree of accuracy, like a big position shift or a harmonic I want to be sure to nail. But if I’m improvising, I think it might actually limit my imagination. I’m not sure, but I feel like looking at my hands while improvising may actually lock me into playing ideas that I know I can play – or at least ways of moving through changes that are familiar tried-and-true routes around the fingerboard.

Keeping my eyes closed seems like the natural option for going inward and digging deeper into the music, but as Paul notes in his video this may not be the distraction-free environment we think it is. In my case, I’m a really visual person and closing my eyes doesn’t mean turning off visual input. It just means changing the visuals. In fact, my mind’s eye may create an even more powerful visual world if I’m not careful. In some instances, this can really lend itself to the flow of the music, but it can also just create a new set of distractions or even give me the illusion that my music is coming across with more depth and meaning than it really is for the listener. So while closing my eyes occasionally is fine, I have to be careful not to create an alternate reality that is not connected with what I’m delivering musically.

Obviously, looking at something else happening in the room generally takes me out of the flow and sets me on autopilot so I’m not going to spend much time on it here. I do think there is a need for some autopilot on a gig and that you need to be aware of things happening in the environment and respond to them if necessary. Whether it’s thanking someone for dropping a tip in your glass, responding to a staff member asking the band to turn down, or something else, this skill super-important but does not lend itself to focus or flow-state.

Finally, that brings me to eyes open but unfocused, or at least not focused on anything specific which is the big takeaway for me here. Paul mentions focusing on something or someone in the room. So far, I think I’m more successful in bringing my gaze to some non-specific middle distance that isn’t really focused on anything. Whatever gets you there, Paul puts it best that it’s really about making your “eyesight disappear.” This is an interesting place to be in because I can be aware of outward visual cues if need be, but I’m not generally as distracted by them as I might be just looking around the room, nor am I sinking into my own internal world that can happen when keeping my eyes closed. Further, I feel like it really let’s my ears take over and allows my fingers to follow the music in my head rather than me trying to conjure up music by focusing on what I think my fingers can do. As I experiment with this, I find myself reminded of my first dog, Katie. When she caught the scent of something exciting her nose would take over completely and her eyes would get a faraway look in them as she became fully engrossed in processing whatever olfactory information she had discovered. Similarly, I feel like I can more fully engage in listening – whether to internal ideas or external musical conversation – when I disengage from visual cues in this manner.

I’m going to keep trying this approach for a while and see if brings additional insights.

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