2 Things Musicians Can Learn from the Marshmallow Challenge
By Noa Kageyama, Ph.D.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Performance psychologist and Juilliard alumnus & faculty member Noa Kageyama teaches musicians how to beat performance anxiety and play their best under pressure through live classes, coachings, and an online home-study course. Based in NYC, he is married to a terrific pianist, has two hilarious kids, and is a wee bit obsessed with technology and all things Apple.
After Countless Hours of Practice, Why Are Performances Still so Hit or Miss?
It’s not a talent issue. And that rush of adrenaline and emotional roller coaster you experience before performances is totally normal too.
Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill – one that requires specific mental skills and a few tweaks in your approach to practicing. Elite athletes have been learning these techniques for decades; if nerves and self-doubt have been recurring obstacles in your performances, I’d like to help you do the same.
Click below to discover the 7 skills that are characteristic of top performers. Learn how you can develop these into strengths of your own. And begin to see tangible improvements in your playing that transfer to the stage.