In this piece Jazz saxophonist Mike Casey explain the concept of mental flow in his music, and how getting into a deep zone of focus can positively impact both compositional and performative aspects of music.
Guest post by Anthony Bartlett from the Evernote blog
The night in early 2016 was cold and clear, but inside the small jazz club in Old Lyme, Connecticut, the atmosphere was warm and inviting. Standing on the low stage at one end of the room, saxophonist Mike Casey was deep in concentration. His eyes shut tight, the young musician was focused on the creative interplay between himself, bassist Matt Dwonszyk, and drummer Corey Garcia.
It was the biggest night of Mike’s musical career, and the evening was being recorded for posterity. But despite the audience’s enthusiastic support, Mike felt uneasy. “I was sick, I was exhausted, and I thought I was playing horribly,” he says. “I remember finishing the first set thinking ‘I am really not feeling this.’ So I was bummed. I was like, ‘Man, I’ve got to get it together for the second set.’” After the show, however, he was stunned. “I got the recording back from the show and thought ‘Oh, wow… I think this is going to be my first album.’”
Mike was right. One year later, “The Sound of Surprise” was released to rave reviews, passing 500,000 streams worldwide in its first year—a remarkable number for an unsigned jazz artist.
Of that night, Mike says, “I realized that I’d been in a mental flow state, completely unaware of how I was actually playing.” What he’d thought was a bad night turned out to be one of the high points of his career.
The concept of mental flow is sometimes called ‘deep work,’ or being ‘in the zone.’ Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of “Flow,” describes it as “Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”
The one tool that Mike credits with helping him find flow and achieve his musical goals? Evernote.
Composition and performance: two sides of the same coin
In addition to his career as a performer, Mike is also an accomplished composer. Of the seven tracks on “The Sound of Surprise,” three are his original compositions. It’s an unavoidable part of having a restless, creative mind, he says. “I’m always questioning things. I’m always searching for something. That’s part of who I am.”
When the inspiration for a new song strikes, Mike has an unusual method for capturing it. “If I have an idea, and it comes to me while I’m practicing, I’ll record it in Evernote,” he says. “It’s great because it’s quick.”
That speed is crucial to his creative process. Jazz is an artform that thrives on immediacy and instantaneous creation. Each solo can become its own melody—indeed, legendary jazz artists such as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were renowned for using their improvisations as the seed for entirely new songs.
Mike’s philosophy is that the quicker he can capture an idea, the more emotional weight it carries. “The moment it happens is when it comes with the most creative force behind it.”
That’s not to say that the composer’s work is done once a tune has been saved. Mike says that being able to let an idea sit, and revisit it later to see if it still resonates, is crucial. “I separate my composition process into two sides. I let the creative moment happen, and then later I’ll go and edit it.”
It’s here that Evernote has added the most value to Mike’s creative workflow. “The tool is a big part of the process,” he says. “I’d rather document something the moment it happens and be able to listen back. That process lets me delve deeper and simplify, and weed out things from the composition.” He may let an idea sit for months, or even years, before completing it. But he knows that, with it saved forever in Evernote, it’ll be there when the time is right.
Keep it all in Evernote
Although Mike credits Evernote with helping him capture his musical inspiration, he uses it for much more than that. “It’s like a huge filing cabinet for me. If I find an article online that I want to get back to later, I’ll save it in Evernote.”
In particular, the ability to search inside of clipped articles, documents, and PDFs is a game changer, Mike says. “It just blew my mind when I saw what it can do. It’ll even search the text of the article, which is a huge help with the way my brain works.”
A bright future ahead
Mike’s experience with flow has turned out to be a remarkably fruitful one. On that night back in February 2016 when he recorded “The Sound of Surprise,” a further seven tracks were recorded but not included on the album. Now Mike is releasing them as “Stay Surprising,” his second album, which is on track to pass one million streams in its first year.
Mike Casey’s success is the result of years of practice, developing the musical language and organizational systems to allow him to access the creative part of his mind. “The mental flow state ties into that, and Evernote helps me capture things while I’m in that state,” he says. “I’m learning more and more that the most important thing is documenting things and keeping yourself in that flow.”
And how does he get there? “For me, everything starts in Evernote.”
His latest track, “The House of Mirrors” (written in Evernote) was released on July 12, 2018. Listen to a sample now: