My passion is to help others in the community, young, old, and everyone in between, find relevance and joy in learning, performing or listening to classical music.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Tapping into the video game world when practicing

Seriously?  Video games??

Well, why not?  Gaming is a huge industry these days and even though I'm not a big fan of this fact, I do get the appeal.  Video games can provide a stimulating escape and for those that are good at them, they provide frequent opportunities for success.  I've gone through many periods when I've been hooked on gaming, most recently right after having our daughter when I suddenly found myself with odd amounts of time on my hand that couldn't be taken up with playing the piano or cello - I couldn't possibly risk waking the baby!  

My mind was brought back to gaming after hearing about a discussion my husband had recently with one of his very talented voice students.  Post-recital, they were talking about what might be on her horizon after graduation.  She stated that she really didn't know, which is not such an unusual thing, but then when my husband asked her what was something that really excited her, what was something she would stay up late to do, she said, "Video games." 

Video games.  

At first, I was a bit saddened and I got that whole, "Ugh...the younger generation" attitude going.  But after thinking about it more, I got to wondering, "Well, is it really so surprising?" and that led me to, "Is there any way we could use the concepts behind gaming to help young musicians figure out how to practice? Which finally led me to one of my favorite games of all time, Tetris.

Image from Wikipedia Commons
In case you've never played it, Tetris is a game that involves different shaped pieces that  float down from the top of the screen.  The goal is to fit the pieces together in such a way as to fill an entire row. With a row's completion, it disappears and all the pieces above move down.  Fail to put the pieces together and complete rows and pieces simply pile up until the entire screen fills up - game over!

What does this have to do with practicing?

As with many video games, Tetris starts you off at a nice, slow pace, allowing the player to develop strategies, to get into a groove, to learn patterns, and then as he/she improves, the "tempo" of the game slowly accelerates.  If the game didn't work this way, I'm not so sure how many players would actually stick with it because it would be difficult to have much success, especially at first.  It's the same way when I practice.  If I can slow myself down enough from the beginning, success is pretty much assured.  Once I get going and I can work at with a sane state of mind, then and only then do I increase the tempo.

Part of the key to being successful in Tetris is learning how to spot patterns quickly and knowing what to do with them.  If I don't try to learn about the patterns while playing, and figure out how to quickly deal with how the different patterns interact with one another, I don't really have a strategy.  It's more like I am just randomly trying to deal with each individual piece which doesn't usually work very well and tends to tire me out very quickly.   In music, if I persistently approach each individual note as an individual note, learning a piece of music is like climbing Mt. Everest.  Each individual step is painful and taxing both mentally and physically.  

When I am truly playing the game, I succeed, and that, my friends, is addictive.  I've talked in another post about making practicing addictive but I don't think I can say it too many times.  There is something crazy but exhilarating about being addicted to practicing.  I'm sure there is something chemical involved just as there is when someone gets addicted to anything, bad or good, but I figure this particular addiction is a pretty safe one.  And it certainly makes practicing much more enjoyable and rewarding.  As I said in that other post, if I don't find practicing ego-boosting I need to change the way I'm practicing.  I think most video gamers would say the same thing.  Gamers would not keep banging their head up against a wall.  If they don't experience success, they either change what their strategies are, get advice from other gamers, or give up on the game altogether.  I'm not proposing anyone try the latter, but I'm all for the first two.  

So yes, video games.  As much as I have to suck up my increasing skepticism towards gaming technology, perhaps there is something to learn from this industry that seems to be transforming much of our society.  

What do we have to lose?

(I selected this post to be featured on Best Music Blogs. Please visit the site and vote for my blog!)


  1. Piano Wizard and Soft Mozart are two programs with this philosophy, that have actually created "video games" to play with a midi keyboard. I don't know how you would do it with a string instrument, but if you figure it out, you could make a lot of money!

  2. You're definitely onto something here! Video games hold some real advantages over traditional practice. Musicians can only benefit by exploring what aspects of gaming make it so addictive. I think the main advantage of video games is theimmediate feedback they provide. The goal is clear and the player knows, in real time, how well they're doing. Thanks for bring up this interesting application of ideas.

  3. Nice to find out about you, Bob. I look forward to checking out your blog more - looks really interesting and right down my alley! And thank you for your comments. And yes, I think the immediate feedback in video games is important and a draw to video games but it makes me think that practicing can be like that too, if done in a "clean" way, without a lot of randomness. I am most successful when I play video games and when I practice when I get into a even flow state, if you know what I mean. What I mean is that my brain is not in a state of panic, my brain and hands are completely coordinated and in sync...that is when I can excel in both. The minute I start flailing, that's usually a sign that my mind is disengaged and I am out of that state of flow.

    Anyway, you've given me a lot to think about so thank you!

    All the best and thank you again for reading!