Here’s a game you can play with a student (if you’re a teacher), or even with yourself (if you want to play both parts). I’ve named this game Got It.
The rules are pretty simple. You take any piece of music, and you work through it one beat at a time, completely out of tempo. For each beat, you go back and forth between the student and teacher, like this:
- Look at each beat of music.
- Decide what to play for that beat.
- Once you have a clear idea of what to play, say “got it”.
- Say “OK”.
Continue like this for every beat of music.
What’s the point?
Do one thing at a time: This trains the student to play one beat at a time. There is no anticipation of the next beat.
Focus on what you are doing: “Playing a beat” is a complex action, with many different parts (decide what to play, wait until it feels right to play it, play it, etc). This game puts some space between those parts so the student can learn to navigate them smoothly.
Develop awareness around impulses: If we want to change habits, we have to first become aware of those habits. Students can find it quite interesting to observe their previously unseen urges.
Eliminate self-consciousness of playing incorrectly: The student has no responsibility for playing the whole piece all at once, or for making music, or for playing in tempo.
Practice sight-reading: For students who get overwhelmed by sight-reading, this can be a fun and flow-inducing way of breaking things down into simpler steps.
The student makes a wrong move if any of the following happen:
Student plays without saying “got it”: Once the student decides what to play, they must acknowledge this before going on. This is the whole point of the game. We must put space between the mental concept of the action and the action itself.
Student hesitates after teacher says “OK”: Once the teacher says “OK”, presumably the student has already decided what to play. There cannot be any hesitation at this point! The student should just go for it.
Student doesn’t wait for teacher to say “OK” before playing: The student should not give in to their initial urge to play. They must wait, and then act.
The student can be required to put their hands in their lap when that particular hand is not playing on a beat. Putting the hands in the lap can be considered a separate beat, even. This will put even more space in between actions.
It is also a good idea to insist on separation of beats. The student should lift their hands off of the keyboard after a beat is played.
This is not a way of “playing the piano.” It is only a game. The purpose is not to make music. It is intended to serve a certain end, and should be combined with other ways of practicing.
A student said to me, “why do you call this a game, and not an exercise?”
Normally, I use the word “exercise”, but to me, this is a “game.” Exercises are simple. They should be easy to remember and perform correctly. A game, however, can be difficult. I expect that the student will fail at this, until the rules are learned and mastered. A game needs to be practiced.
Given how much I have written about how you should learn to trust your impulses and not think before acting, the spirit of this game may seem to contradict that. That is not true. When it’s time to think, you must think, and when it’s time to act, you must act. We always work on both of these, calibrating the balance based on the results we are getting.