Towards the Limit-Experience in Music Performance: A critical survey of popular literature and methods designed to facilitate optimal music performance

Submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Music Performance in the School of Music, Victorian College of the Arts (The University of Melbourne)


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Optimal music performance, for most musicians, seems to involve reaching a state of consciousness outside of, and different from, that of the performer’s ordinary experience. Although this state of consciousness often corresponds with the highest levels of execution, it is important to note that optimal music performance is not necessarily dependent on a particular type of music or the quality of its execution; it is not the optimal performance of music. Rather, the term refers to an unusually intense, heightened awareness, which for ease of identification, I refer to as the ‘limit-experience.’

The prominent twentieth century scholar, Michel Foucault, described the limit-experience as one that contests or transcends the boundaries and limitations that characterise our everyday lives, leaving us with a reconfigured understanding of the world, one that “tears the subject from itself”(1991:31). When I reflect on this description I immediately think of the most sublime moments I have had in the course of my career as a musician; of those moments when I was completely absorbed in what I was playing, when my sense of the presence of the audience, of the room in which I was performing and even my sense of individuation receded momentarily. When I was ‘torn from myself.’ This is a state of consciousness quite different from that of my ordinary experience. It is the state from which inspiration seems to flow, and it is the experience of this state that can inspire the self-discipline and dedication that musical endeavour requires. Psychologist and author, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, describes it as “flow”(1990:xi). Importantly, he is not referring specifically to musicians in performance. According to Csikszentmihalyi, human beings seek the limit-experience or ‘flow state,’ in as many different activities as one cares to name: sports, arts, sex, meditation, drugs, religion, and music, and these experiences have been examined from myriad perspectives. Indeed, the quantity of written material attests to the fact that it is very difficult to pinpoint and precisely describe the phenomenon to which I am referring, as it pertains to lived experience rather than to something we can measure, reduce or quantify. Most musicians will however report having at least some insight into flow states of consciousness even though they will describe their experience in many different ways.

“Your gaze narrows, your sense of time stops. You feel alert and alive; effort becomes effortless” reports musician and author, Stephen Nachmanovitch (1990:52). In moments of complete absorption, making music can seem easy; it can take us out of the parameters of our ordinary lives and allow us to contact a pure expressive aspect of ourselves. In these moments, performance can be a joyous, uplifting experience. At other times, it can be a torment. Many musicians experience degrees of stress associated with performing that not only inhibit the potential for their enjoyment of the experience, but which can also be hazardous to their emotional and physical health (Fishbein and Middlestadt et al 1988; James 1998 cited by Burzik 2002). It is a fascinating paradox that musical endeavour, which holds the promise of wonderful epiphanies, can also deliver performers into inner turmoil and angst. In recent years there has been a proliferation of material written for musicians designed to help them deal with this turmoil and to facilitate optimal music performance.