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.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Finding a reason to practice instead of playing a video game

I have a bit of a problem and I'm a little embarrassed to admit it.

I am very addicted to playing the video game, "Diamond Mine" that is part of the Bejeweled suite of games.  

For those of you who have the great fortune to have not encountered this little gem (pun completely intended), here is a little video clip of how the game works.  And caution - watching this may lead to an instant visit to the iTunes store.

It might be kind of difficult to follow but basically the goal is to clear as many lines of gems as possible, thereby digging you deeper into the diamond mine.  The deeper you go, the more treasure you uncover, and the more points you get.  You do this by lining up as many matching gems as possible so that they will explode, disappear, and clear a row.  You have to match at least 3 for anything significant to happen and the more you can line up, the bigger the explosion.  Sometimes a single move will take out a single row or column, sometimes it will take out several and if you're really lucky (more about the luck part later) the entire screen will be cleared.  That's very exciting when it happens!  This particular version of the game only gives you 1 minute and 30 seconds to start with.  Upon completion of a level you are given bonus seconds which is a woefully small amount of time.

Anyway, so what does this have to do with anything?

The other night, after playing for way too long, I started to ask myself why this game was driving me so crazy, making it virtually impossible for me to put it down.  What I discovered was that this game, as with so many others, requires many of the same skills needed while practicing and reading music.  No wonder I was getting obsessed!  

Here's are the similarities - 

Looking for patterns: In Bejeweled, as soon as I realized I needed to look for patterns, my game improved.  The more I played, the more I realized which patterns could lead to creating a row of the same colored jewels.  Especially since this version is timed, speed also comes into play.  When I can recognize the patterns quickly, I'm more likely to succeed.  In music, it's the same thing.  When I actively search for patterns rather than seeing each note individually, it takes less time to learn notes, makes memorization is easier, faster passages easier to play, and musicality practically inevitable.

Looking for strategies: When I first started playing this game I was completely bewildered and as is often the case when starting out, my games were very short.  I would try, fail, get frustrated, and then quit.  Sound familiar?  When I'm not practicing well the same sequence of events often occurs.  In both scenarios the missing key is strategy.  Without it, these activities essentially end up being random sequences of events that most likely will not lead to consistent improvement.  So how does one come up with strategies?  I turn it into a bit of a scientific process - analyze, come up with a hypothesis, test it out, and evaluate.  This works in both the gaming and music world and the beauty of it is that even if my hypothesis doesn't yield improvement, it is running away from randomness and moving me in a more productive direction.  What happens when a hypothesis turns out to be correct?  Well, that's simply the best and it's those successes, large or small, that keep me in the practice room (or unfortunately attached to my iPad.)

Getting in the zone: Because Diamond Mine has a time limit, it can be very difficult to remain calm.   But of course the more tense I get, the harder it is to play well - my muscles tighten, I no longer can see patterns, and I find myself paying way too much  attention to the countdown going on at the top of the screen.  But when I fool myself into thinking I don't really care, that I'm just doing this for fun, or when I purposefully try to get into a meditative-like zone, my vision clears and something else takes over - it doesn't even feel like my mind is really involved, at least not in a visceral way.  The same thing happens when I'm sight-reading music or performing.  Frequently when I'm reading something for the first time,  even under pressure, I have this weird out-of-body experience.    I don't feel like I'm actively looking at the music, I don't see notes on the page, yet somehow my hands know what to do and where to go.  It is the most bizarre experience but is one that I'd love to tap into more since it is much less stressful and much more successful.

In spite of all these charming little connections between Diamond Mine and my musical life, there is one thing that separates the two worlds that just may be my key to breaking my addiction.  I feel like no matter how many strategies I have figured out or how relaxed I am, I am not getting any better.  At first I thought, "What is going on with me?  Am I missing something?  Am I stupid?"   Well, I know I'm not stupid, but I was definitely missing something.

In this particular video game, getting a high score is largely dependent on sheer luck - I don't get to choose the gems that they throw down onto the screen and I don't get to choose how they are arranged.  I have to do my best with what is given to me .  Thankfully, music is not like that.  Those little tiny notes are where they are on the page - forever.  As long as I seek out the patterns, come up with strategies, and build on success after success, I've got it made, especially if I can throw the zone aspect into it.  

So let's activity that doesn't give me much control over whether or not I succeed or one that does?  Hmmm...

I think I'll go practice now...piano, not Diamond Mine! 


  1. Don't feel bad. Both casino gaming and video game industries throw huge piles of money at hard core research (both psychological and ergonomic/physiological) designed to get and keep people engaged and playing. The fact that people get addicted to games and spend hours/days/weeks playing them is not remotely accidental. Too bad music method publishers don't tap into what has been learned about engagement/reward/payoff cycles.

    1. Liz,
      You're onto something. A while back I wrote another post about practicing and video games and there were several comments back then about something similar - coming up with, perhaps, a method for the computer that uses all that great research that's been done in the casinos. Just think - we would have practicing addicts rather than gambling addicts. Wouldn't that be grand?

      Many thanks for reading and for taking the time to comment!


  2. Love how you have the kind of mind that can see the connections between what you are doing in the video game and what you are doing with music. A long time ago, when he was small and first taking piano lessons, I tried to explain to my son what practicing the piano was going to do for him. We were sitting at the piano and I asked him to pretend he was holding a game controller. Then I said, "Where's the B button? Where's the A button, etc..." His hands knew exactly where everything was. "Make Link jump. Make him do the spin attack." His hands were able to perform the actions automatically, even though he was far from the controller and the game, and he saw how all those hours playing Zelda had trained his hands and coordinated his intentions!

    1. Avocational Singer,
      What a fabulous example of speaking someone else's language and speaking to their interests in order for them to connect to the playing the piano. I had never thought of taking the video game analogy that far but it sounds like it works. I will have to keep that in mind!

      So thank you for sharing!

      All the best, and happy video-game playing...whoops, I mean music-making.