Updated: Oct 2, 2019
About a month ago, I was working with a student who was struggling with focusing on smaller sections of his music with practice. His mom filled me in that he was going from beginning to the end, and not breaking down the difficult parts. I remembered the times I've told him to slow it down, and knew that it was on me that he wasn't getting it. Verbal instructions weren't getting through to this creative kid, so I was going to have to create a new type of experience for him.
ENTER SUN TZU
Sun Tzu, wrote a famous book on tactics called The Art of War. It was written in 5th century BC, and has all kinds of advice on being a master general--including how to make a successful retreat to better terrain. "It will be advisable not to stir forth, but rather to retreat, thus enticing the enemy in his turn; then, when part of his army has come out, we may deliver our attack with advantage. With regard to NARROW PASSES, if you can occupy them first, let them be strongly garrisoned and await the advent of the enemy. "
When I read that, I appreciated how he took an idea that doesn't sound all that glamorous (retreat) and turns it into something that gets the job done. How does a young string player deal with making a retreat when needed?
We took a minute to talk about that book, and a light bulb went off in his head. Something about getting your cavalry and archers in the right position really appealed to him, and we explored what that would look like in practice when you really want to conquer a spot in the music. I got a message from his mom that he shared with the rest of the family what he learned about The Art of War at dinner.
How wild is that? This kid went from practicing straight through his pieces to embracing the strategy of regrouping to a smarter position. I feed off of that kind of energy, and the next day thought about how to take it to the next level. I have a Chinese Chess set (not Chinese Checkers!) with some really cool pieces from the legendary Chinese novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, so I removed some of the pieces and set it up as a one player game where the player commands an outnumbered army against the game master. I wasn't going to make this too easy.
Here's the original video we made for our Facebook page with the original rules (and name)
The video explains it all, but basically a successful repetition of a small section of music removes an enemy piece, where an unsuccessful one causes the player to lose a piece. Players have the option to retreat to the mountain, where the enemy troops follow the into the narrow pass and the player now performs an even smaller section of their music. Going to the mountain can be activated any time, it's up to the player to evaluate how their pieces are doing on the battlefield and if they would benefit from taking the high ground. And if there's one thing I learned from Star Wars Episode III, it's over when you have the high ground.
Let's take a moment to break down some of the biggest things we've learned from crafting and playing this game with students in lessons.
NOW, THERE'S A VISUAL GOAL
How many enemy pieces are there? We would look and count them out, 10. From the start, we set the scene that we're outnumbered and have to get a smart practice strategy. Sometimes I would remove pieces as needed, and sometimes I would ask what they thought about their most recent attempt. Students did a great job of listening to themselves, and judging their own sound. We emphasized that making mistakes is ok, and we'll find a smart way to minimize them from now on. Moving to the mountain and seeing the enemy forces go through the narrow pass changed the game, and gave them a visual of finding a better position to attack their challenges.
THEY'RE IN CONTROL
Some of our students are old enough to practice independently of the parent. The game served as a reminder that they're the commander, and need to make the right choices to keep their army alive. I also enjoyed watching the parents while we played, and they were interested in seeing their child fired up about practicing in small sections.
PLAYING TO WIN
Winning isn't everything, but most kids don't start a game thinking "Hey I really hope I lose this one!" Sometimes I'd fill them in on a bug that I've caught in beta testing--that there are no rules about tempo. Most kids were excited to take advantage of that 'cheat code' to win. They could go whatever speed they want. You can bet on what happened--at that point, repetitions went more slowly and players were knocking down the enemy pieces.
IT DIDN'T WORK FOR EVERYONE
This actually was one of the coolest parts of the String Commander experience. One 10 year old was not interested at all. He was more excited doing repetitions without a board. This immediately showed me that 1) he didn't respond as strongly to these visual cues and 2) he got a lot more from the physical feeling of getting it done, and feeling challenged through that outlet Even though he definitely has a competitive spirit, going against the board didn't do much. Since then, we've had more success on focusing on how things should feel and sound rather than adding visual aids to his practice...and that's helped us hone in on his learning style.
Students had ideas on how to tweak the game a little. One 6 year old suggested playing the other side, where he had the bigger force against a smaller enemy army. My initial response was "Tough luck, kid," but I didn't really say it like that...it was more along the lines of that the game would be over so fast. But when I thought about it later, he's a boy with sensory issues who could benefit from some variation. He really likes to feel involved with what we're doing, and lately we've had great results by following his attention throughout the lesson rather than having a super set structure. It makes sense that he wanted to be a co-creator of the game rules with me.
A 12 year old cellist (who was an inspiration for a previous post on gamifying practice) suggested letting the player have cards that they can activate giving special abilities. Now you're talking! After that, I added a feature with another student where he could call for reinforcements once per game--if he calls them in, 5 successful repetitions IN A ROW would bring back a piece. Cool, let's extend our drills.
One 14 year old finished the game looking a little unsatisfied, and said he thought it would be the kind of game where he got to move pieces around and have a more chesslike strategy. We're not there yet, so hang in there!
I'm fired up to make our lesson space a special place where students can explore the feeling of winning at their instrument in different ways. For our players, they realized that mistakes weren't the end of the world--having it all on a board made it less of a reflection of themselves as a musician and more of....well, a game.
This is just our latest practice game idea--if you have any winning formulas for making practice fun, I invite you to throw your hat in the ring, share your thoughts, and help make our musical community better with more ideas!
Here's wishing all of our readers the mindset to conquer their biggest musical challenges.
Neil Fong Gilfillan is a Suzuki cello teacher in Frisco Texas. He and his wife Rachel Samson on viola and violin run Chili Dog Strings, the only string studio in Frisco named after a dog.
To see more of his teaching techniques and performances, check their studio Facebook page, YouTube channel and Instagram!