Music games are an absolute asset to piano teachers. They can be used in so many different ways, for so many different types of students, and will always result in your students loving their lessons and thinking their piano teacher is really fun. If you've ever thought, “I'd love to use music games in my piano lesson, but I just never know how or when," then read on for five situations that call for games, and first-hand accounts of how game play can be beneficial for both student and teacher.
1. AS MOTIVATION
You know what I mean - when that boxset is more appealing than taking the dog out for a walk, but he's sitting looking at you with those puppy dog eyes and Netflix has just asked you that judgmental question, “Are you still watching?" So, you pull yourself together, knowing that The Office will be there when you get back, and the little pooch will love you when you utter that special word, "walkies." And once you're outside, the fresh air wakes you up, the sun gives you a warm hug, and you swear your fluffy friend just smiled at you, and you're glad you motivated yourself.
Our students are the same - after a long and hard day at school, all they want to do is sit and vegetate while watching YouTube or playing Minecraft (or whatever it is the kids are doing these days) But when they get going and music is flowing from their fingers, they're glad they're doing something more enjoyable with their time, rather than spending yet another hour watching TikTok.
Sometimes, though, they need a little motivation to get them to that point, and a game can be just what you need.
Charles And The Motivational Win
My normally-perky student, Charles, trudged into his lesson at 3:30, straight after walking over from school.
"I've just had the hardest math test ever," he sighed.
I could tell from the look on his face he didn't think he'd get a good mark, and could sense that if he tried to play his piece straightaway that that probably wouldn't go well either, and he'd end up feeling more dejected.
"Well, I'm in the mood for a game, so let's forget about math for a bit and see if you can beat me," I said, putting 4 In A Row (Pirate Edition) down on the table.
After a few turns the math test was a distant memory, as Charles was now determined to stop me getting four tokens in a row. I was using only bass clef note reading cards, as this was his weaker area, and I was holding back on helping him too much.
“Four in a row!” he cheered, placing down his last parrot. I clapped and said, “You know what you just did?" “Yeah, beat you!" "Well yes, but all those notes were in bass clef and I hardly helped you!" "Were they?! Oh, I'm amazing!" “Agreed. Let's hear your amazing piece now!"
Using games as motivation at the beginning of lessons can lead to students performing better in their lessons.
If after Charles had told me about his horrible math test, I'd asked him to play his piece, he would have still have had the bleugh feeling from school, and would have been unenthusiastic to play the piano which would have led to frustration and his musical progression being hindered. By taking him out of things for a few minutes (but while still getting him to practice his note reading) gave him downtime which then led to motivation for the rest of the lesson.
2. As a Game Break
Some days you're so in the zone you can work hard for ages, and you wouldn't even notice if an alien flew past the window.
Other days, everything is a distraction.
Was that a leaf that flew past the window? I wonder which tree it came from. Is that a smudge on my computer screen? I better clean it off. This table would look better if it was by that wall. Let me just move it...
Our students are the same! Some of them are fantastic at focusing for the entire lesson, but others need little breaks to bring their focus back so the lesson can stay productive.
JAKE AND TERRY THE EASILY DISTRACTED TWINS
Jake and Terry are six-year-old twins who share their piano lesson. They're incredibly bubbly and absolutely loving their lessons, but they can be quite easily distracted, so their lessons need to be action-packed to retain their focus.
There was one particular lesson when we'd started a new piece. They took it in turns to play the first line and they did a great job. We were looking through the second line and I was asking them how many beats the C in bar 8 was worth when their focus drifted.
"It's 10 beats! 100 beats! 1000 beats!" "I'll play it! One, two, three, four.... This is gonna take forever! I'll start again!" “But can you play while I'm tickling you?!” “No fair! You play and I'll poke you!" “Let's have a game break!” 1 announced. "Yay!” They chimed. I set out Creepin' and Crawlin', gave them their favourite Lego figures to use, and explained the rules of the game. I showed them the three different cards they could get, and they told me (remembering from a previous game we'd played) than an O note meant four spaces, an O with a stick meant two spaces, and a blob with a stick meant one space.
They raced round the board, seeing who could shout the number of beats the quickest (which turned into a game within the main game - each time I was going to hold up a new card they'd both close their eyes, I'd count down from three and then they'd open their eyes and shout the right answer)
Jake won, and before I could tell Terry that we'd play another game in a minute, Jake was back at the piano. They'd had a game break, so it was piano time again. "Before you play the piece, Jake, how many beats is that C worth?" “Four," Jake said. “Yeah, it's an O note, so it's four," agreed Terry. By incorporating a game break, the students' focus is refreshed, and they're ready to pay attention again. Battling to get a fidgety student to carry out a certain task will only lead to frustration for both the teacher and the student, and will inevitably lead to nothing (or very little) being achieved. Game breaks help create bursts of successful learning, and the games themselves help reaffirm musical knowledge.
3. AS STRUCTURE
Some people take each day as it comes. They're happy to go with the flow and enjoy whatever happens. They may even whisper the phrase YOLO (You Only Live Once) as they eat their dessert before their main course. Other people prefer a more structured day. They'll wake up and write a To Do list for the day, ticking off things as they do them (including the task "Write To Do List") Having a structured day makes them feel secure and settled, as they know what they're wanting to achieve that day. I have several students who love a structured lesson, and can feel slightly off if they don't know what's expected of them in the lesson.
These students perform well if their lessons follow the same structure, which tends to be:
- Theory (in the form of a worksheet or puzzle)
- Playing through their piece and working on something new
- Music game
We've even been known to write a little to do list out on a white board for them to mark off when they've completed a task.
A STRUCTURE FOR ROSA
When my student Rosa first started, it took her a little while to settle in as she always seemed distracted and would keep asking what we were doing next. After a few lessons of her asking, I thought I'd check that she was enjoying herself.
“Are you enjoying your lessons, Rosa?"
“Yeah! I love piano! Why?"
“I was just wondering why you always ask what we're doing next, I was worried you weren't enjoying yourself.”
“I don't want to run out of time. I want to be able to do everything and have time for a game at the end."
"We can play a game at any time in the lesson! We can start with a game if you want!" “No, I work hard and then play."
I understood - for her, ending the lesson with a music game encourages her to do well during the lesson, but she's never sure what she has do before she's "earnt" the music game. The next lesson I told her the plan.
“We're going to do a worksheet, so we can go over notes and rests. Then I want to hear what you've been practicing. Then we're going to work on the next two lines so you can practice those this week. Then when we've played through those lines three times, we'll finish with a game. Sound good to you?" “Yup!"
For some children, a half an hour lesson can seem like an age. Even though they enjoy their piano lessons, it can feel never-ending before they'll get to go home for their tea or to play with their new kitten. If new tasks and activities keep being thrown their way, with no end marker, there's a risk they'll start flagging, their productivity will falter, and they'll leave their lesson feeling groggy.
But if they know that after they've done a certain number of things, or a certain task, they'll be playing a music game, they'll be encouraged to work hard, their lesson will be fruitful, and their parents will be happy seeing their child's smiling face at the end of their lesson.
4. As a Confidence Booster
I'm sure we all have areas in life where we don't feel greatly confident in our abilities, and no matter how many times people tell us we're doing well, we have to see it ourselves to believe it.
Maybe people tell you you're a good driver, but you don't feel it yourself. But then a day comes when you have to drive in a snowstorm, down dark country lanes, and two hours later you arrive home unscathed. Then you believe you're a good driver.
A NEW AND CONFIDENT AMY
My student, Amy, has been having lessons for about a year, and while parts of her musical knowledge have come on leaps and bounds, she lacks confidence with her rhythmic skills.
We'll go over the rhythms together, she'll ask me to clap them so she can clap them back, but when I encourage her to go for it by herself, she's always hesitant. When she does work them out for herself, she always gets them correct, but never quite believes
Last half term we were working our way through the Pirate Puzzle Music Adventure series, completing one puzzle per lesson. One lesson she turned the page to the next puzzle and let out a groan. "Rhythm octopus? Well, I'm going to be awful at this.”
“No, you're not! You've got this!"
"Can you help me?" “For the first one, but then I reckon you can do the rest by yourself!" I talked her through how we were going to pair up the rhythms to the pirate phrases by clapping the rhythms and seeing which words matched. Amy understood, but was still hesitant.
We clapped the first one together, reading through the phrases until we found the matching one. "I'll try the next one by myself then," Amy said. "You've got this" She stared at the rhythm, clapping quietly to herself and mouthing words. “ can't get it! Can you clap it first?" “From what I'm seeing and hearing, you're doing just fine! Don't give up!" She tried again, then pointed at the sheet. "Is it this one?" "It is! See, you can do it!" "Okay, let me do the next one." She worked her way through the phrases and rhythms until she got the final answer. "Is this the answer? Have I got it?" She checked the coordinates on the map and squealed, "It matches! I'm right! I did rhythms!"
"Knew you could! Let's turn to the next page in your book and see if you can clap me the rhythm." "I've done pirate rhythms, so I can probably do normal rhythms!" The next lesson Amy was faced with a different rhythm and straight away asked, "Can you clap it for me first?" I simply answered, "Pirate rhythms." "Pirate rhythms," she repeated, and started working out the rhythm of her new piece.
When a student uses their musical knowledge outside of a piece it enables them to use a particular skill from a different perspective. In a piece, students have a lot of things to think about: the right-hand notes, the left hand notes, the right-hand rhythm, the left-hand rhythm, the right-hand placement on the piano, the left-hand placement on the piano, which notes in the right hand are played with a note in the left hand - it's a lot!
Seeing all these things at once can feel overwhelming, especially for students like Amy who lack confidence in a certain area, and who need to practice a particular element over and over. By using a game or puzzle to focus on one area of musical knowledge, you're providing your student with fun repetition, and they can almost forget they're doing something educational.
But then, when they've mastered something in a game situation (like Amy) it's a confidence boost for when they return to their piece.
5. A Test For Transfer Students
Going somewhere new for the first time can be scary. Some people relish in new experiences, and dive in headfirst. They're excited to meet new people and make new friends.
Other people are more reserved, and are worried about who they may meet and whether or not they'll feel comfortable in a new situation.
This is the case for transfer students. Some transfer students will burst through the door eager to impress their new teacher with pieces they've already learned, and tell you everything about themselves, and show you everything they know. Other students are less forthcoming, and trying to figure out what musical level they're at can be tricky. They may even be too shy to talk at first. This is when I pull out a game, and let the musical question cards do all the hard work for me.
WHEN GINA CAME OUT OF HER SHELL
Eight-year-old Gina walked through the door, looking all around and taking in the new surroundings. Her old piano teacher had retired, and her parents were wanting her to have a fun teacher.
“Do you have anything you'd like to play for me?" I asked, looking at the music book she'd brought with me.
Gina shook her head. "Okay, that's absolutely fine!" She started playing with her hair, looking down at the floor. "You know what I love doing in piano lessons? Playing games!" She looked up. Games?
I gestured for her to sit next to me at the table, in front of the game Going Dotty. I'd laid out a selection of different musical question cards - treble clef notes, bass clef notes, note values, rhythms, and symbols and terminology. “Choose a figure and place it on Start. I'm going to be the cat because I love cats!" "I'll be the dog. I have a dog, his name is Rex." “Great choice! From now on, this dog is called Rex! Now, how we play this game is / show you a musical question, and when you've told me the answer you can move the number of spaces it says on the card. But because we're just getting to know each other, if there's a question you don't know the answer to, just say 'I don't know!' and I'll put that card to the side and give you another one! Don't feel bad about anything you know or don't know, and I won't feel bad when I win!" Gina smiled and said, "But I'm going to win.”
By the end of the game, I had determined that Gina could read treble clef notes but had never really come across bass clef. She recognized some basic symbols but didn't really know what they meant, but could tell me how many beats certain notes were worth.
Gina answered the last question and moved Rex the dog onto the finish space, and announced, “I won!" "Well done! Good game!" "Can I play you a piece now? It's called Hot Cross Buns and it's my favourite." "Of course, I'd love to hear!" By gaining her confidence through the use of a fun and colourful game, I was able to assess her level of musical knowledge and understanding, and we were able to form a bond which meant Gina was comfortable to play her piece in front of me.
Games are an absolute winner with transfer students, as straight away they know their new teacher is friendly and fun, and playing a game is a great way to break the ice and to determine their musical abilities.
As you can see, there are many ways to incorporate music games into your own studio. Not only can you change a students attitude but you can grow your connection with students.
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