Games

Or Practice Techniques if you're feeling serious...

Perfecting a small passage

M&M Game


Pick a number from 3-7. That many items go on your music stand. Play the passage - if correct, one item moves to the other side of the stand. Play it again - if correct, move another. If incorrect, ALL of the items move back to 'start'. When they've all moved to the other side of the stand, you win. This should NOT be used with any passage more than a few measures long, or you will get very frustrated! Variation: If you're feeling wimpy, when you have an incorrect playthrough you could just move one item back instead of all of them, but I think you can handle the real version of the game! This one got its name because when I started using it with students I always used M&Ms, and of course the winner ate them at the end! You can use any reasonable items, but certain choices should of course not be eaten.




Tic Tac Toe


Find a partner (you can play without one, but it's more fun with them). Draw a tic tac toe board and play your passage. Perfect playthrough? Your turn for the tic tac toe board! Made a single, teeny mistake? Your partner's turn! If you win the game, you're done practicing for the day. If you lose, take a few minutes to work on problem spots and try again until you can beat them.




30-point game


Choose an opponent - it could be anyone! (Seriously. I once had a student make their opponent be "God") Your name goes on one side, theirs on the other. Roll an imaginary die in your head. The number you roll is the number of points you're playing for. Play the passage. Perfect playthrough? You get the points. One tiny mistake? Your opponent gets the points. First person to 30 points wins! Variations: -Use a real die, or two dice if you're in a hurry -Change the point value you're playing to - maybe 20 points if you're in a hurry? Never go below 15, though!




Chunking


I've also heard this called "lightning practice", and I'm sure it has other names as well! Set your music to your target tempo and play through it in 1-inch overlapping chunks with a gap between each one. An inch is often around a measure, so here's how you might play this: Play the first measure plus the next note with the metronome going, then breathe calmly while the metronome ticks out another measure, then play measure two plus the first note of measure three, then a measure break, then measure three plus the first note of measure four and so on, without stopping the session. During the measure breaks your eyes should be moving ahead (it's a good habit to always have your eyes a bit ahead of where you are playing anyway!). If you mess up (but you will be surprised how little you do), quickly run that passage through the M&M game or something similar.

If you make it through the entire passage with no mistakes with this method, go back and double the length of your chunks. Then double again, and so forth, until you can do the entire thing.

Chunking is beautiful - it gets your fingers playing in tempo right away instead of starting slow and speeding up, so they learn what you actually want them to do and you can spot problem spots early on. A finger that worked well at 60bpm might completely fall apart as you approach a performance tempo of 140bpm. Patricia George has a lot to say about chunking and the science behind it - feel free to look her up!




Rhythmic variations


Change the rhythms in the passage, always pairing a new rhythm with its opposite. I've included an example here. You would take the even rhythm and practice it with an uneven one (long-short) and then its opposite (short-long). Use a metronome for this whenever possible. The rhythmic variation possibilities are far too many to list here! I have a set of rhythms for 8 notes and a set of rhythms for 6 notes on flashcards that I cycle through when I use this technique.




Strange accents


Mess with what's on the page. If it's legato, play it staccato. If the accent is on the beat, change it to between the beat. Slur in varying groups - by two notes, then three, four, etc. - and be sure to do each one starting on different notes.




Mental practice


Close your eyes and imagine performing this passage in great detail. You should be able to see every finger move, hear every note played perfectly, even imagine the feel of your instrument in your hands. If it's not memorized, you can do this while reading the music.




Hangman


Very like tic-tac-toe! Have a partner do a regular hangman game with you, but in order to guess a letter you must play your passage perfectly first. Or, you guess a letter and they put it on, but then you play your passage. Any mistakes? You get a body part anyway.




Card games


The possibilities are endless - use your imagination! Any deck of cards will work here. Here's a favorite - a variation on War: Draw two cards (or whatever number you choose depending how ambitious you are) and set them in the 'target' pile. Total the amount. If you have a 10 and a 5, the total target points are 15. Draw another card (let's say it's a 7) and play the passage. Perfect? Put it in your pile. You now have 7 points. Made one teeny mistake? Put it in the target pile. Your target is now 22 (15+7). The game is over (and you can stop practicing the passage) when your points are higher than the target pile's.




RELAX


Turn the lights down. Take a deep breath (or several). Maybe lay on the ground and feel yourself sinking in, or consciously release the tension out your fingertips and toes. When you are certain you are relaxed, look at the tricky spot in your music and convince yourself that you need to be relaxed when you get there. Maybe mark it in your music. Start a little before the passage, and feel yourself relaxing the closer you get to the passage.

If you practice this way regularly, you will be teaching your body to relax in the difficult spots, when your brain wants your body to tense up instead. A more relaxed body means your muscles can better navigate those fiddly bits.




Find the culprit


What is the REAL problem with that tricky bit? Sometimes we get so focused on drilling it that we don't stop to analyze what is holding us back. Maybe there is just one note in that run that is the true stumbling block. Identify the culprit, and then aim for just that note during the run. Be thinking about going to that note and then coming away from it.




Make a circuit


This is really more about structuring your session but deserves a mention here. Don't let yourself get comfortable! Instead of working on one passage for 10 minutes straight, work on a tricky passage from it for two minutes, move to something else for a bit, come back to that tricky passage for another minute, do a couple of other things, come back to it again, etc. Your brain will thank you by storing that passage in long-term memory much faster!




Work backwards


Play the last two notes, then the last three notes, until you can do the entire thing without a mistake. Or just play it literally backward - last note, second to last, etc.





Bulletproofing an entire piece

Countdown


Choose a number of allowed mistakes (a quota). Play through your piece - did you play that number or fewer mistakes? Yes? Great! Take the passages you messed up on and run them through a game for perfecting a small passage. Then play again, BUT subtract one from your previous quota. (If you allowed 5 mistakes the first time, you only get 4 this time!) See how low you can get that number today before you make more mistakes than your quota, then tomorrow start at the lowest number you got to today. No? Good news - you just identified some problem spots that need work! Put the passages you messed up on through a game for perfecting a small passage. Then try again. Repeat until you get the same or fewer mistakes than your quota, and tomorrow start over with the same quota.




Work backwards


Play the last measure, then the last two, then the last three, etc. Of course stop to work on any problem spots along the way!




Mental Practice


Close your eyes and imagine performing this piece in great detail. You should be able to see every finger move, hear every note played perfectly, even imagine the feel of your instrument in your hands. If it's not memorized, you can do this while reading the music.





Understanding the notation

Look it up


Weird term or marking? The internet is awesome - go use it! Chances are you'll be able to find out what it means.




Mark it up


If the road map is confusing or if you are always forgetting that important marking, don't be afraid to mark your music. If it's something you'll need to return, be careful to only use pencil and not to write too darkly. If you can keep it forever, the sky's the limit. You may even want to make a copy that you can highlight until it looks like modern art to use for practice, and switch to a cleaner copy once you have all the problem directions down.




Sing and point


Hard to find your place and where the crazy repeats and endings go? Sing your part while pointing to where you are in the music. This is especially effective if you can do it to a recording of the piece.




Rewrite it


(last resort) Yup. Sit down and write the whole thing out. You can either rewrite it note for note, or you can write the structure down. This is especially effective for pop songs, which repeat huge sections regularly but might have three D.S.s and two repeat signs with first and second endings. Once you identify the sections you could write it out like this:
Intro
Verse Verse Chorus Bridge Chorus Verse Chorus
Chorus again
And you could probably play the whole thing just from looking at your condensed road map, because chances are each of those sections is very easy to remember. You could use any labels that work for you.





Tricky rhythms

Listen


Recordings are great! Listen and tap along, sing along, play along, you name it!




Analyze


Using whatever counting system you know, sit down and figure out how to count the rhythm. This might take some time if it's new to you. Mark the beats (sometimes it's hard when there are ties everywhere). Write the counting below.
If you are lost, go with what you know is true and work from there. The first note has to be on beat 1. How far does that note last? Or find the last beat of the measure and work backwards.




Use your body


Dance, drum, march I don't care - if you can't feel the beat of the song with your whole body, you will not be able to play it. Establish the steady beat somewhere, maybe by stepping in time to it, then create the rhythm you are playing somewhere else on your body. Go as slowly as you need to. If all you can do right now is keep a steady dance beat to the recording, do it!




Silly syllables





Metronome





Subdivide





Macrobeats






Pain

Understand your body


There are many, many people who have studied musicians and how they use their bodies. Approaches such as body mapping and the Alexander Technique are designed to help musicians use their bodies in healthy ways so they can play longer without causing damage. Translated, that means that the more you understand what makes your body happy, the more music you will be able to play. Tension is not your friend. Crazy contortions to reach that difficult barre chord will lead to problems later on. So, strive to always let your body move naturally. If something feels uncomfortable, check and see if your body is in as natural a position as possible before continuing. Ask for advice from others. Leave joints in as neutral a position as you can - not bent to far one way or another. And above all, if your body is telling you something (usually in the form of pain) listen and take action - don't ignore it and move on!




Breaks


Your body and your brain both need rests. If you can break your practice session into smaller sessions spread throughout the day, that would be best. If not, give yourself little breaks in between sections of your practice.




Expert help


Sometimes things go too far and damage is already done. Never hesitate to reach out to an expert. Your regular doctor may be able to help some, but most are not trained to work with musicians with repetitive strain injuries (that's what you likely have if you've reached this point). You may need to go to a specialist - either a doctor or an expert in some kind of body mapping technique mentioned above, or better yet both if it's bad! There are books you can buy (although those are more helpful on the preventative end) and online consultations you can do if there is no one close to you who can help. The best way to deal with this is to prevent it. Don't pursue a perfect performance to the point of harm to yourself.




Microathlete


I like to call musicians "microathletes" because we are demanding the same amount of rigor in small muscle groups as sports athletes demand of large muscle groups. (Okay, both musicians and athletes use both types of muscle groups, but we're usually making small motions while they make big ones). So treat yourself like an athlete, because you are. You should NOT be feeling pain when you play. If you are, there is something wrong and you need to address it or it will likely get worse - possibly to the point where you can't play any more. Warm up and stretch before practice sessions. Pay attention to what your body is telling you and react accordingly.





Performance Anxiety

Relaxation strategies





Visualization strategies





Practice performing





Mental Practice


Close your eyes and imagine performing this piece in great detail. You should be able to see every finger move, hear every note played perfectly, even imagine the feel of your instrument in your hands. If it's not memorized, you can do this while reading the music.





Understanding the music

Analysis





Listening & Immersion





Breaking it down





Record yourself





Sing it





Identify high points





Story or picture






Practice Session Structure

Make a circuit





Goals





Divide the pie