Finding Flow in Practice: Glenn Gould

English: Alberto Guerrero (standing) with Glen...
Alberto Guerrero (standing) with Glenn Gould, circa 1945.

There’s a lot to like about the video of pianist Glenn Gould below. I’ve highlighted three things that happen in the video (see clips below).

As the great Robert Krulwich (of Radiolab and NPR) pointed out in a post, Gould appears to be deep in a Flow state, practicing Bach’s Partita #2.

For me, achieving Flow is one of the biggest motivators to continuing to practice, because it’s a transcendent experience and feels wonderful. Part 2 (of 6) in The Practice of Practice covers helpful aspects of motivation, including Flow, in greater detail. Some players, like drummer Allison Miller, told me that sometimes they’ll go into a practice session with no other goal beyond getting into that Flow state, or a meditative state.

Here’s what Mr. Krulwich said, and as to the last clause, I couldn’t agree more :

How one gets there — that’s still a mystery. Practice is important. Tenacity matters. Talent helps. When you find your “flow,” your brain changes. Dopamine and noradrenaline kick in, GABA neurons get suppressed; sex, hunger, thirst matter less, you are free to play more deeply with stream-of-conscious associations; you are chemically released and can now roam far and wide. Yes, you have no idea where you are or how this is happening; but that it’s happening must be one of the most wonderful experiences ever.

Another gem from this video is at 1:36 (cued up below), when Gould shouts, “Na!” at a mistake. You can see him bear down, sing more precisely, and practice that little flubbed passage again. It’s a golden practice moment, and a bit hard to catch, because it’s an error that only an expert in this music can hear.

Gould was infamous for being difficult to record because he usually vocalized when playing. It’s another trait most master musicians (no matter their instrument) do when playing: Oscar Peterson is another pianist who vocalizes comes immediately to mind.Singing is one of many mental practice strategies that pros in all genres of music use, covered in Part 6 of The Practice of Practice, chapter 31: Going Mental. Check Gould out at 1:59 when he actually gets up from the piano to sing a tricky bit of the Bach.

Finally, there is another important aspect of practice that’s often overlooked: the role of a teacher. Alberto Guerrero was one of Gould’s teachers (picured above), and it was Guerrero who taught Gould a simple practice technique, called “finger tapping,” that another of his students explains below. Learning on your own is great, and everybody does it, but a teacher can shave years of practice off with just a few tips. The different kinds of teachers for different stages of ability are covered in Chapter 14: Hot for Teacher, in The Practice of Practice.



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