2 Things Musicians Can Learn from the Marshmallow Challenge

We have a pretty powerful obsession with being “right.”

Getting the “right” answer in math class.

Having the “right” parenting philosophy.

Knowing the “right” way to play a phrase.

For instance, if you’ve ever been in a small ensemble, you can undoubtedly recall times when you’ve gotten into a heated argument about whether to play a note upbow or downbow, or how mezzo the mezzo forte should be (or, you may not even remember what the argument was about – but do remember how fired up you were).

News shows have turned these “I’m right and you’re wrong” debates into entertainment, which they certainly can be from afar – but what is the cost we pay for our need to be right?

And how might this be holding us back in our development as artists?

The marshmallow challenge

I recently watched a classroom of graduate students participate in an activity called the Marshmallow Challenge (not to be confused with the milk challenge).

The Marshmallow Challenge involves splitting off into small groups, each of which receives 20 sticks of spaghetti, a yard of string, a yard of tape, and a marshmallow. The objective is to build the tallest freestanding structure using only these materials, with the marshmallow at the very top.

Whichever group creates the tallest structure after 18 minutes wins.

Sounds like a simple enough task, right?

Well, it’s a little trickier than it sounds – and what’s interesting, is that Kindergarten students generally outperform MBA students.


Check out the 7-minute TED talk to see.

Or if you’re in a rush, the short answer is that Kindergarteners embrace trial and error, play, and experimentation (which means lots of little failures, but better real-world results), while MBA students spend the majority of their time in the planning stage, and wait so long to do any real-world testing of their design, that by the time they do, it’s too late.

In the classroom I observed, all the ingenious plans, the precise measuring, cutting, and construction were totally for naught, because when the 18 minutes was nearly up, they frantically put the marshmallow on top of their structure, only to see their engineering masterpiece collapse.

It was a really entertaining exercise, with lots of laughs when everyone saw each others’ structures crumble under the weight of the marshmallow, but there were two important takeaways that rose to the surface in the discussion that followed.

Takeaway #1: The value of practice room experiments

We tend to spend most of our time in the practice room practicing. As in, identifying tiny flaws and trying to correct them.

And because we feel that there is always so much practicing that needs to be done, we don’t do very much experimenting – and keep putting it off until we feel we’ve gotten the technical elements nailed down (and really, when do we ever really get there?).

Then we walk out on stage, and have no choice but to give a pretty generic, unoriginal performance, because we never gave ourselves a chance to brainstorm or experiment with any cool ideas.

As pianist Leon Fleisher suggests in this short video, consider trying more “outrageous” things in the practice room. As it often is in any brainstorming exercise, it might be that the most ridiculous, silly, or backwards-seeming ideas lead to remarkable new creative insights about how to shape a phrase, and connect more with the spirit of what was intended by the notation on the page, rather than being resigned to simply reproducing the notes on the page as they were written.

Action step

Even if it’s just a couple minutes, try devoting a certain amount of time per day to experimenting. Try something way faster and way slower. Try a crescendo to the high note, or back away from the high note. Go to extremes. Do what seems totally wrong.

Prioritize experimentation, trial and error, and exercising your creative muscle above getting it “right,” and you might just find that you end up getting it more right in the end.

Takeaway #2: Performance testing (or beta testing)

Have you ever noticed how unexpected things always go wrong in performances? How it’s not always the things we expect that cause us problems, but sections we never imagined being an issue that bite us in the butt on stage?

We all know how important it is to do run-throughs of our pieces, but it’s so easy to get stuck in the little details that we often wait until way too late to start doing run-throughs in performance mode.

Of course, by the time we do finally get to running our repertoire, it’s usually too late to do any real substantive work on the areas that need retooling. And it means we wasted a lot of time working on things that weren’t maybe the most impactful use of our time.

Action step

One of the unique components of Toby and Itzhak Perlman’s Perlman Music Program, is their Work-in-Progress concert (or “WIP” concerts, for short), where students perform repertoire that is admittedly still in the working stage, and not quite ready for more typical public performances.

I think this is a helpful exercise on multiple levels – from learning how to perform less apologetically and more convincingly even when a piece isn’t fully baked, to understanding which areas wil tend to suffer a bit when nervous, to getting a clearer picture of what sections work musically, and which fall flat.

But above all, like releasing a product into the wild in “beta testing” (e.g. Gmail was in beta for years), performance testing highlights in the most realistic way possible, what the key areas to focus on in the practice room should be, so we don’t spend too much time trying to perfect things that aren’t actually going to make that much of a difference in a real performance.

How could you arrange to do more “beta” performances?

Bonus videos (the larger context)

Honestly, this (cultural? human?) obsession with being right goes beyond artistic development and impacts us on many other levels as well. This goes beyond the scope of this post a bit, but here are some other videos that get at how our need to be “right” could impact other parts of our lives.


How often do we argue with loved ones about trivialities like who said what, in our desire to be right? Essentially prioritizing being “right” over happiness or strengthening/deepening our relationship?

Co-founder of Harvard’s Program on Negotiation, William Ury talks about ways to resolve conflicts by identifying a shared level of agreement – even in the Middle East.

William Ury @TED


Are online personalization algorithms which automatically curate content for us on Facebook, Google, Flipboard, and more ultimately doing us – both on a personal and societal level – a disservice?

Tech executive Eli Pariser @TED

Developing innovative products and solutions

Economics writer Tim Harford shares an example of how possibilities you never would have dreamed up can come about when you embrace trial and error.

Tim Harford @TED

photo credit: partymonstrrrr via photopin cc

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

For most of my life, I assumed that I wasn’t practicing enough. And that eventually, with time and performance experience, the nerves would just go away.

But in the same way that “practice, practice, practice” wasn’t the answer, “perform, perform, perform” wasn’t the answer either. In fact, simply performing more, without the tools to facilitate more positive performance experiences, just led to more negative performance experiences!

Eventually, I discovered that elite athletes are successful in shrinking this gap between practice and performance, because their training looks fundamentally different. In that it includes specialized mental and physical practice strategies that are oriented around the retrieval of skills under pressure.

It was a very different approach to practice, that not only made performing a more positive experience, but practicing a more enjoyable experience too (which I certainly didn’t expect!).

If you’ve been wanting to perform more consistently and get more out of your daily practice, I’d love to share these research-based skills and strategies that can help you beat nerves and play more like yourself when it counts.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing, and start enjoying more satisfying practice days that also transfer to the stage.


13 Responses

  1. Love this post!! Just a heads up, however, one of the videos is showing an error– the second one in fact.

  2. i really, really wanted this to be about chubby bunny when i first clicked it.

    i guess advice on how to practice performing is helpful too grumble grumble.

  3. I really appreciate this piece of writing, as it also pinpoints what goes wrong and why for those of us also engaged in drawing and painting, and in my case, calligraphy. It is so very easy to get bogged down in the “right” way to do a painting or a piece of calligraphy, and forget all about the joy that should be involved. This “right versus wrong” thing has caused some people to leave music altogether, and that’s a shame. Actually, this “right versus wrong” kind of thinking gets in the way of a life well-lived, and I think that’s an even worse tragedy. Thanks for giving me lots to think about!!

  4. 2 Things Musicians Can Learn from the Marshmallow Challenge – I enjoyed this and have forwarded it to my colleague to see if we can work it into a break-out session at our next staff meeting. The videos hit home with me!
    Thank you.

  5. I really enjoy the philosophical approach to your posts, your writing also shows that you are highly motivated and I think that is what makes reading these posts so inspiring. Thank you for all the great advice.

  6. Great analogy! Adults tend to lose the creative freedom that comes so naturally to children. “Beta-testing” performances sounds like a great way to gain some freedom back.

  7. This post is appropriate for writers, too. Thank you!

    Trying to get a piece of writing to conform to traditional forms (Aristotle’s incline; sestina; sonnet; novel; etc.) can = endless practice without going down that interesting-looking-but CRAZY rabbit hole of character, scene, etcetera. A well-facilitated, constructive critique group can be a writer’s “beta concert.” And allotting ourselves time every day to free write (experiment) is key, IMO, to exploring and staying in touch with the possibilities in ongoing pieces of writing; and generating ideas/images/forms for new ones.

  8. Yes, I want often to be right instead of wanting to strenghten my relationship 🙂

    yes, I am often reluctant to try things by fear of doing an error. 🙂

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