Accessing a ‘flow state’

Achieving a ‘flow state’

The focus for today’s workshop was finding ways to move away from playing tunes as a series of notes, and find ways to access our subconscious fiddle player. There is a big difference to hearing someone play when they are mentally trying to stay in control of their physical actions, and listening to player who is in the zone, and accessing a ‘flow state’ while playing.

Whenever we’ve mastered a skill, it’s possible for us to let our body take over executing that skill, so the brain isn’t consciously thinking about the detail of what we are doing physically. The action then becomes more fluid, and automatic. When you first learn to drive, there’s a lot of concentration required to keep the car on the road, keep within the speed limit, change gears smoothly, and so on. As these skills become subconscious, you no longer need to think about how to physically apply the brakes when you see a red light ahead. There’s no pause as you wonder which foot to put down – the lights change to red, and your foot responds. It’s an example of how we trust our subconscious to deal with day to day actions – we’ve done them so often that we no longer need to think through the process each time.

This is what we’re aiming to achieve when we’re playing – we hear a tune, and the tune comes out of our own fiddle, because we have developed a connection between hearing a certain note, and the correct finger falling onto the fingerboard, in just the right place for that note to sound in tune. This frees us up to be much more involved in focusing on the music we’re playing – how we want it to sound, how we’re expressing ourselves through playing, and interacting with other players around us. Playing in this way can be referred to as being in a flow state. If you’ve ever enjoyed an activity so much that you’ve been utterly absorbed in that enjoyment, and not noticed the time passing, it’s likely you were experiencing that flow state.

We started off the day by looking at what happens when we’re playing, particularly when other people are around, and why reaching that flow state can seem elusive. It’s very common to find that you have a wee judgmental inner voice that’s regularly carping on the sidelines as you play: “oh no, here comes that tricky bit I always mess up” … “yukkk…that last phrase was horribly out of tune” … “I’ll never be able to play as well as she does” … on and on it goes, undermining your confidence as you play. So how can you stop this happening? How can you find your own flow state, and sustain it while you play?

Building confidence

Feeling confident that when you play it will sound the way you want, makes a big difference. When you’re first learning to play the fiddle, as with any instrument, there are all manner of things to try to learn. Memorising tunes, reading music, where the notes are, understanding the rhythms…it’s a long list! But unlike many other instruments, the fiddle has extra complications, in that you are unlikely to find that the first notes you play are in tune. Creating a pleasing tone can also be a big challenge. In the rush to learn to play some tunes with other people, learning the skills of tune and tone can often be forgotten, resulting in us lacking confidence that we can rely on our playing sounding good.


We looked at how to control the bow to create a good tone. It’s important to keep the bow perpendicular to the strings throughout the length of the bow stroke. Having some flexibility in the wrist is essential to this – without any flexion of the wrist the bow will move in an arc rather than a straight line, creating a thin and scrapy sound.

Play around with where your bow is placed on the fiddle strings – there’s a spot around 1/3rd of the way from the bridge to the end of the fingerboard, where you will hear a pleasing full sound from your fiddle.

We can physically push the bow down into the strings when we want to play louder, but this tends to create a harsh sound from the instrument. If you want to learn how to make a more mellow sound when you’re playing loudly, learning to transferring the weight of the arm into the fiddle bow is helpful. We split into pairs: one took the role of helper, and the other the player.  The helper took the weight of the player’s bowing arm in a cupped hand supporting the player’s bowing arm at the elbow. The player then focused on relaxing to allow more weight to transfer into their elbow. Then the helper moved their supporting hand to under the wrist. The player focused on relaxing again, and transferring the weight of the arm down to the wrist. Finally, the helper moved their support to the fingers of the bowing arm. We did some stretches, then repeated this exercise, and noted that it helped us with transferring weight down the bowing arm more readily. When you’re ding this exercise you may become aware of particular areas in the arm, shoulder or neck where you tend to have tension when you’re playing.

Here’s a link to more information on working on your fiddle tone.


In general fiddles have a tendency to go flat as the temperature goes up. There is also a tendency for players to play flat rather than sharp, particularly in the early stages of learning. It’s possible this is partly related to feeling tense – any tension in the hand on the fingerboard will result in the fingers  not stretching as far down the fingerboard, making notes flatter than expected.

We worked on how to get your left hand fingers not just on the right notes, but in tune as well. We played different long notes from the G arpeggio (G, B and D) together, listening to the harmonies we were creating, and adjusting our tuning as we played.

If you’re struggling with playing in tune, playing with someone who is playing a fixed pitch instrument can be really helpful. A concertina is ideal, as it will still be easy to hear your fiddle, and adjust your tuning to the concertina’s notes. If you are new to music, you will almost certainly also need to train your ear to be able to hear what ‘in tune’ sounds like.

If you’re playing in sessions regularly, it’s also useful to be aware that flutes have a tendency to get sharper as the temperature goes up. As this is the opposite to a fiddle, it creates an interesting challenge to be able play in tune with a flute player!

Knowing you can deal with inevitable mistakes

It’s also helpful to build your confidence that if something does go wrong while you’re playing, you have the skills to keep hold of the tune, and get past the mistake. We learnt a French mazurka called Capitaine. We tried playing round the first phrase of the tune, substituting a different ‘bum note’ at the end of the phrase each time, so we were having to recover and find our way back into the tune. I loved the fact that the person who wandered through the door just after we’d done this exercise complemented us on the sound of the music. That was a perfect example of the fact that many people will be oblivious to many mistakes, even if they sound glaringly obvious to us!

One thing that is important, though, is to keep playing in the rhythm – if you stumble over a tune, and come back into it out of time, it’s one thing that is likely to be very noticeable to a listener. If you are in the habit of hearing the tune in your head as you play, it makes it quite possible to get back into the tune and keep your timing on track. To practise the skill of hearing the tune playing in our head, we played the phrase round a few times, then, while keeping the timing going, we stopped playing for once through the phrase. We came back playing in on the next repetition of the phrase. We carried on playing alternate times through the phrase, and hearing it played through in  our heads for the times in between.

Staying within your comfort zone

If you’re working on playing in the zone, it’s easier to find that state if you are playing material you are very comfortable with. We talked about the difficulties of sustaining a flow state when you’re playing in new and perhaps somewhat stressful situations. It might be easy to feel relaxed when practicing at home alone, but if you try to start a tune on your own in a session, it’s can feel like a much bigger challenge to access a flow state, or stay in the zone. We talked abut some strategies that can help in pacing the level of new challenges you set yourself – you might choose to go to a new session and just listen the first week, then go along with a friend who you know shares a common repertoire with you.Playing in the zone

How to access a flow state

Play something very easy

We learnt a very straightforward riff to accompany the first phrase of the mazurka. We split into two groups, and one group played the accompaniment while the other played the tune. Playing something very simple allows us to move away from concentrating on the mechanics of what we are doing and let the subconscious mind take over that function.

Focus on interacting with other players

We continued playing the accompaniment while focusing on the sound we were making together as a group. We then played Margaret’s Waltz, and while we played we aimed to make a musical connection with the person opposite us in the circle. We noticed that there was a real difference in the quality of the sound we made as a group when we did this.


One thing that is fundamental to being able to get into and sustain a flow state, is feeling relaxed while you play. Staying relaxed while we play will also have a big impact on our tone. We revisited our fiddle bow hold. We tensed each of the fingers in the bowing hand, one by one, to see and feel the effect this had on the muscles up the forearm. It made it clear that any tension in the hand will bring tension right up the bowing arm. Here’s some more information on keeping a relaxed bowing hand. Regular stretching before playing can be really helpful in staying relaxed.


Moving into a flow state will free us up to make our playing more expressive. We played the mazurka and began thinking about the dynamics in the tune, and how we might chose to play it more expressively.

How to play at speed

How to play at speed

Tonight we worked on techniques to help us learn how to play at speed, and also looked at gaining more control over playing chords where we want them in tunes.

Double stopping

We played through Miss Miffy Finlay, working on gaining more control over playing chords just when we choose to in the tune. It can be difficult to be confident that you will play a chord exactly when you want to. We tried playing a run of notes on the E string (E, F#, G, A, A, G, F#, E), while keeping the bow very close to the A string, but without playing any chords on the A string. Then we did the same thing with our eyes closed, so we weren’t getting any visual feedback about our bow position. Once we’d done this, we worked on playing a chord with an open A, just on alternate notes in the run. We started the run in a down bow, and played all the notes on single bows, which meant all the chords fell on down bows.

Once the bow is in this position, the chord can be controlled simply by applying a little pressure to the stick of the bow with the index finger at the start of the note, ‘digging’ the bow into the string. As the bow compresses down onto the E string, it will also come in contact with the A string (f it’s positioned close enough to the A string), creating the chord. As soon as the pressure is released, the bow comes clear of the A string. So the control over whether we are playing a chord or not is coming purely from the index finger, and not by using the  the bowing arm to change the angle of the bow. As it’s much easier to control a small movement of the index finger than a movement in the bowing arm, this gives a very fine control over whether or not we play a chord at any given point.

Then we tried playing the same run of notes, and only playing the chord on each up bow – this was quite a lot harder to do!

Playing reels at speed

Then we moved on to the reel we learnt a couple of weeks ago (In and Out the Harbour), and worked on techniques we can use for playing reels up to speed. We’ll come back to this tune a few times during this term.

Learning to play reels faster requires moving away from thinking too much about the specifics of how we are playing, and ‘getting into the zone’ – allowing our subconscious to take over. We also need to have control over the tempo of the tune we’re playing.  One of the difficulties with trying to increase the speed of a tune is loosing control of the timing. This might happen because there’s a part of the tune we stumble over, or because we panic at trying to fit all the notes in – tension creeps in, and before we know it, the tune has sped up and spiraled out of control. If there’s a part of a tune you’re struggling to play, it’s worth spending time working out what is happening with your bowing, and, at least initially, finding a consistent bowing pattern that allows you to play any tricky phrases as easily as possible.

Playing at speed
Photo ©Ros Gasson

Foot tapping

To keep control of tempo, it’s really helpful to tap into your own inner sense of timing. In folk music, there’s no conductor taking control of timing, so we need to do this ourselves. Tapping a foot, or moving in some other way in time with the music, is likely to help us keep playing to a consistent beat. The advantage of foot tapping is that as the foot hits the floor it gives us a distinct reference point as to where the beat is. Getting into the habit of tapping on  each on-beat in reels (two taps in each bar) also gives a distinction between the on-beat and the off-beat. When we start to play around with the rhythms in the tune, this creates a distinct advantage over  tapping the foot on every beat in the bar (ie 4 taps per bar).

Some people tap all 4 beats in the bar, but alternate between tapping the heel and toe, or the left and right foot. This has the same effect as tapping only the on-beats, in terms of providing a distinction between on-beat and off-beat. Try out different variations, and see which feels most comfortable when you’re playing.

Foot tapping can also drive the tune, or follow it. If your playing tempo follows the tempo of your foot tapping, it becomes easy to control the tempo of the tune by keeping control of the speed the foot is tapping. If the foot is following the tempo of the tune, it doesn’t allow the same level of ‘external’ control over the playing tempo. You can find out which you are doing by playing along in time with a metronome. Try doing this first by playing the notes in time with the metronome, then try it again while keeping your foot taping in time with the metronome. Which did you find easiest?

 Playing ‘in the zone’

Playing from the subconscious allows us to fully relax into the music, creating fluidity in our playing. It’s an essential skill for being able to play at speed with confidence. When we’re learning to play the fiddle, there’s a lot to think about. It’s easy to get into the habit of playing in a very ‘conscious’ way, as we struggle to learn how to control the bow, learn tunes, play with good tone and tuning, and understand the rhythms and the music. It’s a lot to take in, and it can feel as if it’s impossible to switch the thinking part of our brain off while we’re playing! In the class, we worked on finding distractions, so our subconscious was pushed into to taking over the playing, helping us to develop a sense of how it feels to play in this way. We worked on the reel In and Out the Harbour. To start with we payed the exercise for practicing triplets, slurring the 2 quavers in between the triplets on an up bow. Triplet exercise for fiddle players While we were doing this, we wandered around the room and chatted to other folk (while still playing!).  Another thing you can try at home is to watch what’s happening out of the window while you’re playing, or put the TV on with the sound down, and watch that while playing. All these things have the same effect of making if impossible for us to think too much about what we’re playing, encouraging the subconscious to take over.

Keeping the tune going

Playing from the subconscious has one other important benefit. It free us up to hear the tune in our head as we play (this is different from listening to what you’re actually playing). If we have a ‘soundtrack’ in our head, of the tune we are playing, it has some interesting effects. One of the main benefits is that if we do stumble over playing a part of the tune, we will still be able to come back into it in time, if we continue hearing the tune even when we’re not playing it. Being able to do this helps reduce the fear of ‘falling off’ a tune in the middle, and grinding to a halt. As time goes on, you’ll find that you can generally pick up a tune within a note or two if you make a mistake, and many people listening will barely be aware there was a problem.

We experimented with doing this by splitting the class in two. One half of the class played the first ‘question’ phrase of the tune, and the other half played back the response. We switched back and forth, so that between us we were paying the whole tune, in time. While we were doing this, we tried  to hear the entire tune in our heads, continuing on while we  weren’t playing, so we knew exactly when to come back in. Then we tried all playing the ‘question’ phrases in the tune, with no-one playing the answer. This meant we really had to keep the tune running in our head to know where to come back in. The next step was to all play the response phrases only – that was much harder, partly because of the structure of this particular tune, which doesn’t always repeat exactly the same in those response sections.

Playing in the zone

Playing in the zone

Tonight we spent some time working on playing ‘in the zone’ – letting our subconscious take over from our conscious thinking brain.

We played the run D, E, F#, G, F#, E, D on an open D string. Then we played the same run with an open A making a chord with each D, E, and F#, and a B (first finger on the a string) making a chord along with the G. We tried out alternating the run on the open d string followed by the run with the chords. We were working on keeping our bow very close to the A string, even when we weren’t playing on it, so that it only took a small movement to change from not playing a chord to playing a chord. After that we tried playing the run on the open string, and added just  the G/B chord in. When we repeated it, we played all the chords with the open A, and played the G without a chord. Then we tried playing the chords on the way up the run, and the single open string on the way back down.

It was pretty loud with so many folk playing chords at the same time!

We learnt the strathspey Cameron’s Got His Wife Again. The tune is in D. It’s got a number of unusual jumps in it, and plenty of snaps that kept us on our toes. We’ll spend some more time working on the tune next week.

Getting into the zone

After the break we played around with the notes in the D scale. To get a sense of how it feels to play without using your conscious brain, it can be helpful to find something very simple and repetitive to play. Once you’ve got the pattern under your fingers, it’s easy to let go, and get into the zone. We are aiming to be hearing the music as we want it to sound when we’re doing this.

We started off by playing up and down a D scale several times together. Then alternate people in the circle played a chord with the bottom A (first finger on the G string) and an open D. They played this in reel time, and emphasised the beat. Everyone else joined in with playing the D scale, also emphasising the notes that fell on each beat. After this, we tried every third person in the circle playing a harmony to the D scale – they did this by playing a D scale as well, starting on the D when the ‘tune’ players reached the F#, so it was a third below the original D scale. The harmony players were emphasising the offbeat. Once we’d done that, we had one more go, where anyone could wander from their original part, and find harmonies or rhythms to play along with what was happening.

At the end of the evening we played through the strathspey again. Sometimes with fast runs of notes in a tune, playing in time can be tricky. It’s helpful to be really precise and definite with where each note starts, to help keep the timing under control. We worked on the phrase at the end of the B part, and tried out using the bounce in the bow to make the notes stacatto and crisp.

Playing in the zone
Photo ©Ros Gasson