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, June 18, 2015

Getting students hooked on practicing - game on, video game world!

As music educators and parents of musical students we probably all have in our repertoire of questions, “Have you practiced yet today?” or “How many hours did you practice this week?”  They are the questions we often feel we have to ask but also dread because of the answers, emotions and facial expressions they tend to evoke – I think you know what I’m talking about.

Just for fun, what if we followed the words “practiced” and “practice” with “video games”?

“Have you practiced your video games yet today?”
“How many hours did you practice video games this week?”

I have a feeling we’d get quite a different reaction, wouldn’t we?

There is no question that a high percentage of the population, regardless of age, love playing video games.  For some it is even an addiction.  Personally, I understand why.  Ever since I was young playing games has been a way for me to relax.  As a parent of a young child, it has been a way for me to spend time with my daughter, and as a teacher in a university, it assisted me in teaching students the importance of pulse and rhythm.  (Check out Symphonica if you want to experience a great music game app!) I love video games and often have to check myself to make sure that I’m not spending too much time playing around on my iPad instead of on the piano. 

With that said, I want to say right here and right now that I am also addicted to practicing music.  Unlike video games, however, the appeal definitely did not start until I was much older, when I finally started figuring out how to make practicing interesting, full of accomplished goals, and musical high scores.  As a practice coach, someone who steps into musicians’ practice rooms with them and helps them tweak what they’re doing physically and mentally, I’ve become more and more curious about finding ways to carry what we do when we’re gaming into our practice sessions with the hope that there’s a way to make practicing just as addictive and desirable as spending time in front of a screen.  In this article I want to explore what it is that makes video games the activity of choice for so many and to see if we, as music educators, can learn a thing or two from gaming that can help us make practicing a little less torturous in the minds of our students.

Video games are designed to get us hooked.  I know there’s a number out there for how much money is spent by the gaming industry on research but I’d rather just keep it simple and say, “A LOT!”  It seems they’ve whittled down the list of ways to get gamers coming back to the following must-haves.  Let’s take a look at some of them and evaluate how well practicing music provides these same hooks to keep kids going back to the practice room.

 Getting the High Score
I don’t know if there is a video game out there that doesn’t have a way of scoring throughout the game.  It doesn’t matter if the player is trying to beat his own score or someone else’s, that number at the top of the screen, or wherever it happens to be displayed, is always very obvious and well in the player’s line of sight.  For most people it is the pursuit of improving his or her own score or beating someone else’s that keeps them coming back for more.  And when the player achieves that goal?  Watch out!  The level of excitement and pride is usually palpable and the reward tends to be intrinsic rather than extrinsic, unless you happen to be at the arcades that hand out tickets that can be exchanged for less-than-high-quality-junk. 

Getting students to practice for intrinsic rather than extrinsic rewards is immensely beneficial and sets them up beautifully for a lifetime of learning – it also happens to be cheaper and easier for the teacher!   Before students can start sensing these internally motivated rewards, however, we need to teach them how to discover what their current high score is and to be able to know where they are at any given time in that pursuit.  There are apps and programs out there right now that actually are doing this.  The student can play through the piece of music and the program tells them how many notes were correct and which ones were missed.  Personally I’m not crazy about this approach because it runs the risk of teaching the students that absolute perfection is the goal – I’m not so sure that should be a goal in music-making, largely because I think it’s virtually unattainable.  And think about this – at least as far as I know, most games don’t seem to have one highest score.  It always appears that there is no end to the potential for improvement.  Perhaps even video games there is no perfection. 

What I do like about the programs, however, is that they are giving instant, specific feedback to the students and that is something they themselves tend to have a difficult time doing.  I think it would be ideal if we can find a way to get students to be self-evaluating their practice in an objective way, free from the negativity and self-defeating attitude that tends to seep into one’s feedback, so that students can give themselves their own scores throughout their practice and can keep pushing themselves to getting their new highest score before quitting for the day.

Exploration and Discovery of the Unknown
There are many games out there that are all about exploration and discovery.  Some, when you open them for the first time, tell you absolutely nothing about what you’re supposed to be doing or even what the final goal is.  It’s up to you to just start observing and trying things until a storyline and a purpose begins to emerge.  It is the norm with this type of game to find oneself in the same place for an extended period of time, doing practically nothing but thinking.  An outsider might question the appeal of such a game yet obviously they strike a chord in many people, myself included, because when you finally do figure out what you’re supposed to be doing you know that you’ve figure it out not necessarily by pure luck, but through using your brain.  When that happens to me it’s enough to make me feel temporarily brilliant.  Who couldn’t use a little ego boost now and then?

Two of the biggest problems I see with practicing these days are frustration and boredom.  When people think of practicing, they tend to only think of repeating things over and over and over and over again.  Throw in the metronome and then play it over and over and over and over again until it’s “perfect.”  Is it any wonder the student would rather play video games than practice?  What if we help our students see that learning music can also be full of discovery?  I spend a lot of time teaching musicians how to read patterns in the music rather than reading note by note so that they can start to make connections between different pieces, styles, and composers and so they can become more literate in reading music, just as they read books word by word, phrase by phrase rather than letter by letter.  This also enables them to simplify the music for themselves so that tricky passages become easier to understand and to solve.  It can reduce the need for repetitions and can give the students something to put their mind to when they do have to do them.  It’s about inspiring students to always be using their brains rather than simply shutting them off and waiting for progress to happen on its own.  As we all know, successful performances rarely happen randomly.   But when it happens as the result of a student’s problem-solving skills, creativity, and discovery, he or she will realize what they are fully capable of and that is usually enough to keep them coming back for more: more practice, more guidance from their teacher, and more performing!

Video games often put the players into someone else’s shoes; often times it’s someone completely unlike who they themselves are.  Whether it’s a sweet little magical boy in LostWinds, a hero in a role-playing game, or a detective in a mystery, those moments in front of the screen offer the gamer the opportunity to slip out of his own shell and to try on something new.  As with the last hook discussed, it allows the player to tap into his creative side and to express emotions and characters that he or she may not feel comfortable expressing on a day-to-day basis. 

Music offers the same role-playing activity if we choose to tap into that side of expression.  I love to ask students of any age and ability what character or characters they are trying to portray through the way they are playing the music.  More often than not they look at me like I am completely crazy.   If we can encourage young musicians to feel comfortable trying on different characters while they play, just as they do in video games, I think we’d find that it’s easier for them to get personally involved in what they are doing.  They will once again be using their brains, but in concert with their emotions and their untapped expression.   Just think of the high-scores that can come from that!

Feeling needed by others
I have yet to try online role-playing games like World of Warcraft because of how powerful these games can be.  In many cases players become so involved they can end up neglecting work and family, choosing instead to focus on their virtual community.  That concerns me.  But I think it’s important to figure out what the hook is in these games that make them so powerful.  I think it all comes down to gamers feeling like others need them. 
Even though there are far more negative effects this hook has on gamers, I think educators can and already do use the “all for one and one for all” mentality when it comes to playing in a band or other ensemble.  How often have we said to students, “Come on!  You are letting the group down.  Tonight you have to practice that hard part or else the concert is going to be a disaster!”  I’m not personally a big fan of this exact approach, but I do think it can be good for students to realize that they are part of a team when they are working musically with others, whether it’s a small or a large ensemble.  For students playing an instrument that doesn’t typically have a role in a team experience, I encourage teachers to find or make opportunities for them no matter how hard that might be.  For duos, trios…anything that takes them out of their little world and helps them to realize that they have something to offer others musically too.

Call me crazy, but I truly believe that as music educators, we are in the position to help young people discover within themselves the power of their mind and their ability to create magic through the medium of the arts.  We live in a time where their intelligence tends to be measured by tests that ask them to fill in bubbles on a page.  We live in a time where young people don’t know how to answer open-ended questions because they are so accustomed to having to give the only right answer.  It’s no wonder to me that they often don’t know what to do with themselves in the practice room.  They fear making a mistake, which of course is inevitable.  They get bored playing note after note after note without understanding how those notes can actually create a story.  And they are more often than not isolated and not understanding how this practice time can benefit them.  But how do those same children feel when plopped in front of a video game?  Do they fear making a mistake? Do they bottle their feelings up?  Do they require physical rewards to keep playing?  No, they don’t.  Because gaming helps them connect with their talents, their creativity, and their persistence.  It makes them feel good!  Wouldn’t it benefit us to try using those same hooks?

(As an interesting side note, I regularly took breaks while writing this article and guess what I did?  Yep, play a game on my iPad. )

Game on!!