Excerpts from The Mastery of Music

by Barry Green

Chapter 7: The Spirit of the Zone

There is a state in which musicians, artists, writers, doctors, philosophers, scientists, inventors, and atheletes sometimes find themselves in which they move through their tasks with an assurance and presence, a sensitivity and precision, beyond normalcy. Something changes dramatically when a young musician or a great artist moves into this highly creative space; the focus shifts from questions of identity and performance into a fluid awareness which seems to be able to tap effortlessly into the highest levels of artistry. The brain is the key to this state of peak performance, in music and in life.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls this state of optimal functioning “flow,” and notes that we enter it when we feel neither challenged beyond our means (overloaded, paralyzed) nor lacking all sense of challenge (uninterested, bored); essentially it is the state that occurs when risk and skill are in appropriate balance. Others such as Abraham Maslow speak of this state as “peak performance” and yet others simply know it as “the zone.”


Scientists have proven that accessing this state of peak performance is associated with brain function. Brian Hatfield of the University of Maryland has published research that during peak performance, the mind relaxes its more analytical left side and lets the right side direct the body. Anxious thought has allowed relaxed muscular memory to take control.

When in the zone, one pays complete attention to the task at hand. The performer is almost entirely focused on relevant cues, and disruptive internal thoughts are essentially blanked out.


“I knew that some of my good friends were in the audience. I just remember feeling at a certain point in the piece as though everything dissapeared–myself included. There was no audience, there was no me–everything was gone except for the music.” –Joshua Bell


Music making is at its best when the performer is completely absorbed in the act of making music. This has always been the premise of the Inner Game; when the internal voice and obstacles are removed, what remains is pure music.

When our attention is held by technical or other nonmusical concerns, less awareness is available for the music.


When people try and do two tasks at the same time (like concentrating on music and attending to other concerns simultaneously), brain activity does not double, it decreases. The result is the two tasks are performed simultaneously less well than the task alone. The brain becomes less efficient when it performs more than one complex task at a time.


When they studied two goups of parachute jumpers, scientists found that inexperienced jumpers had greatly elevated heart rates just before they left the plane, but the heart rates of experienced jumpers actually decreased before they jumped. This suggest to me that the prepared performer has the ability to “surrender” into the state of relaxed concentration.

The Zone Is a Fearless State

When you are in the zone, it seems you are in a world of your own, a world which you have an inseperable connection to your music. It appears to simultaneously exclude your adience and include them. They are drawn to your experience by the intensity of your absorption in your art. And the intensity of this absorbtion is nothing less than fearless. It’s as though one has been possessed by another character–the character of the music, or that spirit of the composer.


“For me that fearless state is defined by a sense that there is not even the slightest possibility of failure, as if slipping or missing isn’t part of my reality. When I don’t get into the zone, it’s usually because I haven’t prepared my body properly. In my experience, the whole process of acheiving that perfect flow starts with the basics: rest, right food, and exercise. My mind needs to feel sharp and flexible since playing [music] requires keeping track of many elements at once.

The optimal state is one in which I can switch comfortably between an automatic, or muscle memory mode and very focused, concious mode. I need to be at this master panel and flip the switch back and forth as need dictates.  When technicalities don’t require my direct awareness, I prefer to lose myself in the music; that’s when it’s good to get into the automatic mode. Muscle memory can be a powerful tool as loing as it’s backed up by a strong concious awareness in preparation. That’s why a controlled blend of concious and automatic is so important” –Yolanda Kondonassis


The Audience Connection

When performers are in the zone, it may seem that they are in a world of their own which excludes the audience. Musicians who seemingly escape in their own worlds to capture the beauty of Brahms may forget that it is possible for them to include the audience in their inner voyage to this zone.


“I can feel the audience, I can sense their commitment and spirit. Definitely, the audience’s participation is crucial to the music I make. […] There is a definite sense you get when the audience is hanging on to what you are doing. I don’t know how, but I can feel it. I can feel the audience, or even one person in an audience, that is really with me. And this inspires me to want to take that person or that audience with me.” –Joshua Bell


The Imaginary Fishnet

“I will cast this spell: I know I can open this door and show you something unforgettable and transforming, and I’m determined to to take myself there and to take you with me. I invite you to step out of the world with me and come beyond everyday reality–not to escape the world, but to transend it.” –Jeffrey Kahane


Most artist welcome a transforming feeling of this kind, but it may not be something we can attain every time we take the stage. It seems to me more like a delicate gift that comes to us on the breeze.

I could go on for days because this book is incredible. I have only ommited parts because of it’s sheer density. I hope you enjoyed this little excerpt and perhaps it will prompt you to seek out this wonderful book.