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Turn Practice Into Play

Elly Ball | July August 2011

   The days of getting students to do what we want simply by saying “Because I said so.” are over. Teachers try to find ways to make lessons relevant to the lives of students. With all the demands of school work, sports, and leisure activities, practicing often is not part of their daily schedules.

“Practice is boring.”
   Practicing is an unpleasant, difficult, awkward, repetitive, or unenjoyable task for many students. When asked to practice, children often do not know how or understand why practicing for a prescribed amount of time will benefit them. There is also no immediate measurement of progress.
   There is a segment of the population that understands practicing: children who play video games. They do not call it practicing, however, they say that they are beating levels of difficulty. In practicing the flute, that is exactly what we are trying to accomplish as well. These games utilize the same type of focus and sequencing employed when learning a passage in music. If students expected to make progress in their instrumental practice the same way that they expect to win video games, we would have a generation of excellently prepared students.
   If beating a level of difficulty in flute playing was rewarding, maybe it would be done more accurately and more frequently. With a little ingenuity, I think we can make practicing a more accountable and rewarding activity.

   Assignments to play something a certain number of times or for so many minutes often lead to repetitions that are not played accurately. A student often makes a mistake and corrects it in the midst of a repetition. What he does not realize is that he is learning a pattern that includes the correction. After all, unlike video games, in practicing you do not lose a “life” if you make a mistake.
   When you lose all your lives in a video game, you must go back to the previous level or the beginning of the game. The game-player quickly learns to do it right or you lose; this raises the intensity, attention, and excitement of playing the game. If teachers can create that type of expectation of accuracy and consequence to practicing, they will get better results quicker. An important feature of the game is to portion out the information that the player controls so he can accurately measure his success. In video games intense focus is required, the repetitions are numerous, and for all except the final round, the reward is yet another level of more difficult tasks to be mastered. It is just like practicing.

   Using a short-cut or trick fingering to perform a passage has been frowned upon by music teachers in the past. It was as if a short-cut was an inferior way to do something. Previously flute teachers thought using the thumb-Bb key was such a short-cut and would not teach it. Yet now we teach all the three Bbs as early as possible along with tutorials on how to make the appropriate choice between each fingering. A short-cut is a way of saving time. Nothing is more valuable to the music student than making the best use of his time. Students should have a process that ensures that the time spent practicing improves their playing and is not just spent making and fixing errors. The best short-cut is to play it right the first time. Setting up a flute practice video-game is constructing a short-cut to mastery. The student learns a passage correctly each and every time. Saving time and growing the student’s confidence are added bonuses.

Student Commitment
   In video games, the player is never plunked down in an advanced level. He begins on level one and learns movements or actions and ways of thinking to advance to higher levels. To apply this concept to learning a piece of music, the student and the teacher should collaborate on creating the rules of the game. Student input is invaluable; the more the student contributes, the more committed he will be to playing the practice game. The student decides how many measures should be practiced in level 1 or how many octaves to play a scale. He determines how many lives he has at each level of play. If he makes a mistake and uses all his lives, then he returns to level 1.
   Kids become surprisingly competent in determining if the effort they just practiced was acceptable for the game or if they should be booted back to the beginning. In fact, the notion that game criteria is the judge seems to give students a better perspective on their performance. They become more honestly critical of themselves.
   Because students are familiar with  video game rules, they understand the consequence of returning to earlier levels of play when all the lives have been used. While this may make early levels seem like a punishment, this frustration (shared, understood, and expected by video-gamers) is exactly what creates the intensity and perseverance the flute student requires to excel. The desire to avoid the punishment will make the student more determined to get it right the first time, every time. He saves time by not creating that first wrinkle, which takes more time to iron out.

Success as a Rainbow
   To mark the achievement of playing each repetition correctly at lessons, I award a single success with a colored post-it. Students enjoy earning a complete rainbow on their music or music stand as they achieve more and more correct repetitions. If a mistake is made, the post-its are removed and the game begins again. Success is clearly and colorfully announced by a completed rainbow. A set of rainbow post-its may be reused from one composition to another. Each composition can have its own set of rainbow fringes to make practicing the game easy and fun.

Creativity and Variables
   The early levels of play are excellent for the beginning student who has difficulty remembering fingerings and reading notes at the same time. It is also useful for the intermediate student who is incorporating a new fingering (Bb shake) or perfecting a difficult rhythmic pattern. More advanced students may start at Level 4 to learn scales. An advanced student who encounters a tricky rhythm pattern may benefit from practicing all the levels. Each level may be designed for a specific portion of practice or for any part of a practice session. Each step may be used by groups as well. Isolating rhythm from fingering and articulation is an excellent way to prepare band sections and flute ensembles. 

The Rewards of Hard Work
   While you can tell your student that “Hard work is its own reward,” a star sticker or post-it goes a long way as a pat on the back. As each level is passed, some recognition is in order, appropriate to the age of the student.
One of my favorite rewards is the “Easy” button from Staples. Students will work very hard for the honor of pushing that button and hearing the electronic voice say “Easy.” As students get older, the sticker or button may turn into a different kind of reward, such as an opportunity to audition or perform. The true game-player learns that the greatest reward is reaching the next level of difficulty. With creativity this type of exercise can be adapted for students at many different levels and ages.
   When getting started, I set up the goals of each level at a lesson. After an initial tutorial in which we agree on how much to include in a specific game and what would constitute success, the student makes the decisions as to whether or not they will award themselves a piece of the rainbow or if they should return to the beginning (Amazingly, they are tougher judges than I would be which is the value of the game in the first place). I will award the “Easy” button when they prove the mastery of what they practiced at home.  After the initial set-up at lessons I may encourage a student to use the game to practice certain challenges they are facing in their music, but it is basically an at-home tool.

The following is an example of a practicing video game. You can cut it out to use with students or develop your own version.

Steps to Create a
Flute Practice Video Game

Preparation: Pencil Only
    Research the title and composer of the work.
    Look up unfamiliar words in the dictionary and write definitions in the music.
    Write out any articulations that are indicated by the word simile – because out of sight     is out of mind.
    Write in accidentals in long measures.
    If necessary, write the beats or subdivisions for the notes and rests.

Level 1: Rhythm
    Clap. Even if you are confident you can read the music, clap the notes in rhythm while counting aloud. Use dynamics.

Level 2: Articulation and Breath Control
    Clap and articulate in time. Use “Ta” on a tongued note and “oo” on a slurred note.
    Observe performance marks by exaggerating the “Ta” or “oo” appropriately.
    Breathe where indicated in the music.

Level 3: Note Reading
    Clap and say the note names in time. Observe the articulation, performance marks, and dynamics.

Level 4: Enter the Flute
    Hold the flute with the headjoint on the left shoulder. Finger the notes in rhythm while saying the notes aloud. Observe the articulation, performance marks, and dynamics.

Level 5: Say and Play
    Say the note name aloud before playing each note.

Level 6: Mastery
    Play the passage. Choose a tempo that is easy to play, remembering to incorporate the musical directions from above.

Level 7: Repetition
    Recent studies show it requires seven exact repetitions to create a new pathway in the brain. If each step has been practiced so far, then in some parts of the brain and body, the passage has already been correctly played seven times. So, the odds of playing future repetitions with accuracy have been greatly enhanced.

    Each repetition should include all the correct notes, rhythms, articulations, performance marks, and dynamics. There should be no aspect of performance to be tacked on later. Remind the student that, like a video game, each skill builds from the prior level and that speed, precision, and confidence are the products of succeeding at early levels. Use the metronome increasing the speed with repetitions. Memorization may be an extra level of achievement. Each correct repetition is awarded a colored post-it, each level achieved, a tap on the Easy button.