By: Konner Scott
I’ve always been a tremendously competitive person by nature. In particular, from a young age, I’ve been drawn to time-based sports, games, and activities. I have a strong competitive swimming background, and also spent large swaths of my youth trying to whittle down my mile run time, rollerblade as fast as I could around the parking lot at the end of our street, and set new unbreakable Mario Kart records on my Nintendo DS.
You might ask, “what does this have to do with practicing music?” …and that’s a great question. Not everybody is competitively-minded, but for those who are, harnessing the power of that impulse can greatly improve the efficacy of their practice time. Here, I’ll use piano as an example, as that’s my primary outlet for applying these concepts.
Learning new piano chords can be tricky! Sometimes it’s difficult to visualize and replicate them in realtime, and that difficulty level is only compounded by the fact that to be truly internalized and ingrained, each chord must be learned in all twelve keys. I used to dread the process of playing a chord again and again, tirelessly and robotically, until I was comfortable enough with it to apply it in the appropriate contexts.
When I started teaching music, I began to reflect back on my swimming days, and how a coach pulling out a stopwatch had been one of my primary motivators. As an experiment, I pulled out the stopwatch app on my phone and timed myself playing a chord I was working on around the circle of fourths. I jotted the time down in a notebook, and then gave it another shot. I wrote down every single trial run, and drew stars next to any run that beat my former fastest time.
Now, if I’m working on something new and having some difficulty getting it under my fingers, my first impulse is to run to the stopwatch. I’ve found, with practice, that using a stopwatch to drive my progress typically gets me to my goal in about half the time I would spend without one.
If I’m working on something that requires rhythmic accuracy (i.e. playing a four-bar passage of a complex classical piece, or learning a new rhythm that my fingers won’t adjust to), I turn to the old trusty metronome instead. I’ve learned, in my adult life, that the metronome isn’t something to be feared; rather, it can be looked at as a musical video game. How fast can I play this passage with full accuracy? Do I have to slow down the tempo if I add dynamics? Can I string these two sections together without needing to lower my speed?
For all my students that respond well to competitive stimuli, I encourage them to make the most of these techniques. I’ve found that with many of them, it becomes much easier to practice, because practice is now a game where they can beat their previous high score… and the side effect of that just happens to be learning the instrument!