Musical Charades: Should This Be Part of Your Regular Practice Routine?


I’m not sure why it began appearing in their YouTube feeds, but in the last few weeks, my kids have become mildly obsessed with a channel called TwoSet Violin, run by Australian violinists Brett Yang and Eddy Chen.

Partly educational, partly comedy, and seemingly full of inside jokes (like recurring references to the mythical Ling Ling, who practices 40 hours a day…), videos range from blind listening tests of violins and bows at various price ranges, to sight reading challenges, and tag-teaming Paganini’s 24th Caprice…with Hilary Hahn…while hula hooping (for an illustration of how humor is infused into everything they do, go to their website, and when it asks you if you’ve practiced today, say “no”).

Aaanyhow, one of the videos that my kids enjoyed was a game of “guess the violinist charades.” Which basically involves playing in the style of various different performers, and seeing if the others can guess who they’re impersonating. (The full video is linked below so you don’t have to search for it, but I’d suggest reading the post before watching, lest you get sucked down some YouTube rabbit hole and totally forget how you ended up there…)

It’s clearly lots of fun – but could this actually be good for more than fun and laughs? Like, could there potentially be some playing-related benefits to a few rounds of musical charades?

Creativity is malleable?

Whether it’s music, architecture, or theoretical physics, we generally think of creativity and originality as highly desirable skills.

Yet historically, there has been a tendency to assume that creativity is a fixed trait. Something that you have to be born with.

In recent years, however, researchers are finding that creativity may actually be much more fluid and malleable than previously thought. And that we’re capable of being much more creative than we often give ourselves credit for.

But how exactly? How do we unlock our creative abilities?

Self-imposed constraints on creativity?

A pair of researchers at the University of Maryland (Dumas & Dunbar, 2016) conducted two studies which explored the idea that some contraints on creativity are self-imposed.

They recruited 96 undergraduate students in biology, physics, art, and theater1, and had them complete the Uses of Objects Task. This is a standard test often given to measure a certain aspect of creativity, in which participants are given a list of objects (like book, fork, trumpet, carrot, sandals), and asked to generate as many uses for each of these objects as possible in two minutes.

Librarians vs. poets

Before beginning the task, however, a third of the participants were asked to imagine that they were “an eccentric poet” as they completed the task.

Another third were asked to imagine that they were “a rigid librarian.”*

And the last third were simply given the task instructions with no role to imagine.

*Obviously, these are stereotypes, so it’s not like librarians are actually rigid and uncreative in real life, but in their pilot testing, the researchers found that undergrads thought of poets as “creative, uninhibited, and eccentric” and librarians as “uncreative, rigid, or inflexible.” Hence the choice of these two particular stereotype roles.

How was creativity measured?

Creativity was measured in two different ways.

One measure, was the number of uses generated for each object (i.e. fluency). The other involved determining how similar/dissimilar the uses were to each other (i.e. originality). Like, saying you could use a fork to (1) eat chicken and (2) eat steak would not represent as much originality as saying you could use a fork to (1) eat chicken and then (2) fling peas across the cafeteria like a catapult.

So was there any difference in creativity measures between the groups?

Any differences in creativity?

The short answer is yes!

On average, the “rigid librarians” generated 60.34 total uses for the 10 objects, while the control group generated 77.88 uses, and the “eccentric poets” generated 92.16 uses.

Likewise, when it came to originality of ideas, the “rigid librarians” had the lowest originality score, while the control group was in the middle, and the “eccentric poets” had the highest originality score.

And were there any differences in creativity scores between the different majors? Ha, yeah, I couldn’t help but wonder this myself, and totally snuck a peak at the breakdown in scores by major. And there were some differences in the majors’ average scores, but the researchers didn’t say anything about the differences being statistically significant. So presumably, there wasn’t any sort of systematic difference in creativity between the different majors. 

Although – and take this with a grain of salt since it may be nothing – I did find it interesting that the theater majors scored the highest on average. This kind of made sense to me, because I imagine that having to do improv, and interact with props and such, would make this particular creativity task feel a lot more familiar than it might to the others. But again, just some conjecture on my part…

A second study

Anyhow, the researchers then repeated the study with a whole different set of participants, where this time, each participant completed the first half of the creativity task as a poet and the second half as a librarian, or vice versa.

And did this result in any differences in creative output?

Flipping the creativity switch

Once again, the answer was yes!

While imagining themselves to be librarians, participants generated 27.52 uses. While poets, they generated 34.90 uses.

And as in the first study, the originality scores of their responses were significantly higher when imagining themselves to be poets too.

So what are we to take away from all of this?

Takeaways

I was pretty fascinated by how quickly the individuals in this study were able to get into a more creative headspace, once some of the self-imposed constraints had been removed with the “imagine you are” instructions.

This technique has been referred to as “psychological halloweenism.” And it seems to me that this is essentially what the game of musical charades is all about.

So whether it’s looking for a new way to approach a piece that’s feeling stale, or searching for a different way to phrase a passage that never felt right, maybe what you need is not more slow practice, deliberate practice, or score study, but a quick game of musical charades with some buddies to help you get unstuck, and discover new creative elements to add to your playing.*

*I do think there’s a balance of course. Meaning, there should probably be some attempt to play somewhat reasonably well – i.e. where you try to play your best within the parameters of the musician’s approach, so it’s not just about copying the mannerisms of an artist, with no regard to the quality of your playing.

And finally, the charades video!

Ok! Now you can watch the video and get lost on YouTube for longer than you planned. =)


References

Dumas, D., & Dunbar, K. N. (2016). The Creative Stereotype Effect. PLOS ONE, 11(2), e0142567.

Footnotes

  1. An equal number of students per major (24).

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