Learning new pieces

Learning new pieces can be a very frustration process for younger students... and older students as well! These games are to help that process of learning new pieces become more positive and even a little fun as well! Most of these practice games work best is there is somebody playing against the person practicing. Although those that can be played against the clock can be timed by the person playing, it is far more encouraging if somebody else is doing the timing and sharing in the tension and success!

Cheating Chess
(or any other game!)

I like to play chess (and Cheating Chess is good alliteration) but you can adapt most two player games. Noughts and crosses (X-O) is probably the simplest game to use with young children, although you may have to get used to losing a lot of games!

The rules are simple.

  • Divide the new piece or section to be learned into smaller sections (the teacher may do this during the lesson)
  • The student makes their first move
  • The student then plays one of the phrases. If the notes are 100% correct, they get another move. Note that if they are just learning this piece it is the notes that need to be 100% correct. They may hesitate or stop and work notes out while playing.
  • The student then plays the same phrase again. If the notes are 100% correct, they move again.
  • Each section is played five times. If the student gets 100% correct notes all five times... a bonus move is awarded!

This game is great for making sure students are playing with 100% correct notes right from the start when learning new pieces. It also gently gives them some early experience of playing under pressure. Each time they play correctly they are one step nearer to the bonus move so the pressure they are playing under is gradually, but subtly increased. As they progress through the week extra restrictions may be added such as 100% notes and correct timing at a certain metronome speeds, inclusion of dynamics etc.

One parent who has twins, told me they used to play this with each other. They were both at roughly the same level so often ended up trading move for move and when one managed to achieve an extra move it could really change the balance of the game. She even had to get up at 6 a.m. one morning and tell them to go back to bed because they were up at the piano with the chess board out! Not only did they learn new pieces very quickly - they both became excellent chess players as well!

Some parents have also asked me about playing the learning new pieces games for money with the students. They earn money for each time they get it 100% correct. I'm not a great fan of using money to encourage practice, because the money becomes the reason for practice, not the progress in playing. Having said that, if you were to do this I would advise making it count towards something musical such as an upgrade to their instrument, new music, CDs, an iPod or similar. The student doesn't actually get the money - it is put into the instrument upgrade fund. Additionally, to preserve the gradually increasing pressure the amount needs to go up slightly for each time the section is played correctly.

Just a minute game

The aim of this game is very simple: to see how many times can you play a section with 100% correct notes in a minute when learning new pieces. This can be played with somebody timing you or on your own if you have a countdown timer on your watch or mobile

  • Divide the piece or section into smaller sections
  • Either set a countdown timer for a minute or, if possible, have somebody with a stopwatch to time you
  • Play through a section as many times as you can with 100% correct notes in a minute. You can stop to work notes out if you are not sure - in fact, this is encouraged as you would lose 2 points for getting a note wrong!
  • Score 1 point for each time you play correctly and minus 2 points for each time you make a mistake (that is getting even a single note wrong by-the-way!)
  • Check your score on all sections you are learning.

There are various options for winning this game. You or a teacher can set a target score to achieve for each section, you can play against one or more friends to see who gets the highest score or you can find which section has the highest score and have a target of getting all sections to that score.

Collect the animals game for learning new pieces

For this game you need some pictures of animals printed. Eight should usually be enough. Try to pick animals your child/student likes. Use pictures - not just the word written on a piece of paper. One enterprising parent said she played this with silhouettes and the student got extra points for recognising the shapes! You could also play this game with cards using a single suit or the picture cards. Anything collectable.
The aim of the game is to collect all the animals. The rules of the game are

  • Divide the piece to be learned into small sections (2 - 4 bars each depending on the length of the piece)
  • Label each section as one of the animals (cards, etc.) you have
  • The student chooses which animal they will attempt. Once this decision is made they cannot go back and change until that animal is achieved.
  • To win the animal they must play the section five times in a row 100% correctly.
  • One an animal is achieved they have to play the section 3 times in a row correctly to keep it on subsequent days. If they make a mistake during those three times the animal goes back and they have to win it again.
  • Organise some kind of prize or treat (it could be animal related!) if they have all the animals at the end of the week. If they have them all in the middle but lose them by the end there is no prize
  • Optional: They can lose an animal for each day they don't practice during the week. This is a great way to keep them working if they manage to collect them all early in the week! One of the keys to success when learning new pieces is constant review.

Playing practice games when learning new pieces helps the time go quicker and makes practice a positive experience. Having early positive experiences when practicing is essential as students progress much further and faster if they have a positive attitude to practice.

Expert Practice Secrets

practice makes perfect by simon horsey

Frustrated with your practice? Read Practice Makes Perfect and hack the 10,000 hour rule. Cut your practice time by up to 25%! Make faster progress, learn pieces and scales faster, memorize more easily, and much more. "If you play an instrument you need this book!"

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