Tetris and Extended Practice Breaks: Are they even Related?

Considering my last post was over four years ago, I hesitate to call this a blog. But this is definitely a bloggish-style post, because it’s gonna be a haphazard collection of my thoughts lately in relationship to practicing violin. How did I get the inspiration to dust the virtual cobwebs off my website and plop on the sofa to write? I was talking to one of my best friends today about writing, about writing ABOUT music, and lots of ideas suddenly jumped into my head. After all, I’ve been alive for 28 years and have been playing the violin for 25 of those, so I guess I have some things to say. And if this lonely website gets one visitor who finds even ONE sentence here helpful, well, that would just be fabulous.

 

So, here’s the deal: the past week and a half, I was on vacation with my husband in California. I did bring my violin, but to be totally honest, we filled our days with so many lovely activities (like wine tastings) that I practiced a grand total of…30 minutes. I’m not entirely surprised, because this was meant to be a true VACATION, but I then faced the arduous task of taking out the violin after an extended practice break once we arrived home.

 

Why am I relating this to Tetris? Here goes: while my husband and I were driving around California, we turned on one of our favorite podcasts, which is called “Ologies.” It is hosted by Ali Ward, and each episode explores a different –ology (maybe this was self-explanatory)…and we were listening to a great episode on Ludology, aka the study of video games. The interviewee, Dr. Jane McGonigal, discussed how Tetris can help people with anxiety because of the intense visual attention it demands. It took me all of two seconds to download Tetris on my phone, since I struggle with anxiety—though I think anxiety sorta comes with the territory of being a classical musician, considering we spend 473658739456 hours neurotically practicing throughout our lives.

 

I’d never really played Tetris. I of course knew what it was, I’d seen other people play it, but video games were never really a thing for me (besides Roller Coaster Tycoon which still holds UP today!). So, when you’re getting ready to start your game, you get the option to choose your level of difficulty from numbers 1-16. I selected “5”, thinking to myself “I know how Tetris works, how hard can it be?”. The iconic music started, I braced myself, and the tiles began to fall REALLY FAST. I watched my screen become clogged with colorful shapes, and in about 45 seconds, my game was over. Dejected, I closed the app.

 

A few minutes later, I decided to try again. This time, I set the difficulty level all the way down to “1”. My little Tetris ego was bruised and my irritability with being mediocre at something (this also seems common among classical musicians) was heightened. But the tiles began to fall, this time at a manageable slow pace, and I found I had time to even glance over to the side where they tell you which shapes are coming next. This second go-around was SO MUCH BETTER than the first time I cannot even believe it. Consequently, I also felt so much better about my performance.

 

So what does me over-analyzing my first game of Tetris have to do with extended practice breaks? Yesterday was my first day practicing violin in basically a week and a half, and that’s always a weird scene. I think breaks are important, and I think it’s important to come back from your break not feeling guilty for taking it. Honestly, it’s already happened, so just concentrate on moving forward. I was thinking about my epic Tetris journey when I opened the case, and the success I found from starting SLOWLY: where you could clearly see exactly what was going on, feeling on the verge of being too easy. Yes, I could have started with the laundry list of symphonic music I need to prepare for next month, and Bach, and Tchaikovsky, and Paganini, yadda yadda. But since I wanted the practice session to be a positive experience, and stabilizing rather than overwhelming, I made the conscious decision to start slow. And not just START slow, but take the entire first day slow. I pulled out my trusty decade-old Schradieck left-hand-dexterity book, opened to the first exercise, and where I usually put my metronome on 120, I put it on 60. It was a wonderful slow-motion-almost-feeling-like-you’re-walking-underwater experience, and I felt like I was even flossing out some bad habits. I could watch exactly how my left hand fingers were going down, correct finger angles and eliminate joint tension, all from the comfort of an excruciatingly slow tempo. After taking extended practice breaks, I like to look at those beginning practice sessions as opportunities to observe your playing through refreshed lenses, rather than shaming yourself or thinking “well this is gonna suck.” And if you want to set yourself up for success, perhaps you can have a Tetris practice journey of your own and take the time and space to practice slowly, allowing your body to wake up after much-needed rest. Allow yourself to experiment, allow yourself to sound rough for a few days with a trajectory of improvement in mind over a reasonable amount of time. Trust that everything will fall into place, and be kind to yourself in the process. Classical musicians, myself included, are so hard on ourselves and I believe it’s vital to preserve our mental health if we are expecting to have a lifelong career with our instruments. If you’ve taken an extended practice break lately and are just getting back into it, I hope you’ll consider meeting yourself where you are and taking it slow.

 

Whew! End rant. And maybe another post will appear before another four years go by.

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