The Whack-a-Mole Phenomenon – and a More Effective Way to Learn New Skills

I remember the first time my kids went to Dave & Buster’s, and how their eyes lit up when they saw all the games, flashing lights, and wall of prizes.

For one reason or another, my daughter gravitated towards the whack-a-mole game. She could barely lift the mallet, but laughed maniacally as we worked together to pound the moles back into their holes. Although…and I realize it’s just a game, but I found it a bit aggravating that the little buggers wouldn’t stay down…

Anyhow, my whack-a-mole frustration reminded me of a similar phenomenon that occurs when we’re learning a new skill (or making an adjustment to an established skill). Namely, that we are totally capable of change – but as soon as we take our minds off of the new technique, we inadvertently revert back to our old ways.

For instance, when my kids were taking violin lessons, they had a tendency to flatten their fingers out when holding the bow, rather than keeping them rounded. A gentle reminder was all it took to get them to make an immediate correction, but as soon as their minds went back to the notes or dynamics or bowing or producing a nice sound, their fingers flattened out again. Of course, as soon as we got them to focus on rounded fingers, their bowings or notes would go out the window. Argh! It was just as vexing as whack-a-mole.

It was no different for me too, when learning or refining more advanced skills – like minimizing left-hand tension when playing double/triple/quadruple stops. Sure, I could remember to avoid pressing too hard with my fingers when playing tricky chords in Bach – but only when I was thinking about it. As soon as I started thinking about phrasing or bow distribution, my left hand would start clamping down again.

So how do we avoid the whack-a-mole problem? Is there a more effective way to learn skills so that they stick without our having to constantly keep our attention on them?

Learning how to hit with topspin

A pair of British researchers studied the learning process of 30 participants who had no previous training or formal instruction in table tennis.

Their challenge was to hit a set of balls to a specific location with a forehand stroke. But they couldn’t just hit it any old way; they were specifically instructed to hit with topspin (as opposed to hitting it flat or with backspin).

As table tennis newbies, none of the participants knew how to hit the ball so as to produce topspin, so they were given some instructions, and 300 practice hits, before being tested on their skills.

Everyone started off with the same basic instructions on how to hold the paddle, and were shown a diagram which displayed the direction of spin the ball takes when hit with topspin.


Then, one group was given explicit technical instructions (12 basic techniques for hitting topspin) while another group was simply given an analogy to think of while hitting (i.e. imagine drawing a right-angled triangle with the paddle; hit the ball while moving the paddle up the hypotenuse of the triangle).

Time for a test

After completing their practice session, the participants were given a test to see how much their performance had improved – and how stable their performance would be when given something cognitively demanding to think about. The idea being, how effectively could they perform their new skill when distracted by something else and unable to think about the execution of proper technique?

Specifically, they were asked to hit 50 balls (for accuracy and topspin) while simultaneously counting backwards from 1100 by 3 (i.e. 1100…1097…1094…1091…etc.).

So…what difference did the two modes of instruction make?

How stable was performance when thinking about other things?

During practice, there actually wasn’t much of a difference. Everyone started out at about the same level of performance, and improved at about the same rate.

But when it was time for the performance test, a different picture emerged.


When participants’ thoughts were tied up with the counting backwards task, the explicit learning group’s performance took a significant hit (ha – pun!), while the analogy group’s performance remained pretty solid.

Why does analogy learning help?

So why does analogy learning help us maintain proper technique when our minds are otherwise occupied?

Well, in the early stages of learning a new skill, there’s a lot to think about. If you think back to the first time you drove a car, you might remember how overwhelming it felt to consider all the things you had to pay attention to – until you had practiced enough that everything became automatic.

With regards to learning or refining a motor skill, it seems that the right analogy helps to “chunk” the essential elements of that skill into its simplest form, reducing the number of things you have to think about during execution. In this way, analogies make it easier to perform the skill in a way that comes pretty close to resembling proper technique, without having to get stuck in the minutiae or complexity of the movement’s mechanics while everything is still new and hasn’t yet become automatic.

In essence, you end up building the right habits, without even realizing that you’re building the right habits, freeing you up to think about other things like sound, vibrato, phrasing, or even just playing the right notes.


At some point of course, it’s not enough to perform a skill by analogy, and we need to switch over into explicit learning mode to figure out the underlying rules and mechanics and subtle details which govern effective performance of a skill. However, it seems like analogy learning can be a useful tool in the early stages of learning a skill to ensure that we get off to a good start and develop a sound foundation, after which we can make more fine-tuned adjustments.

Remember my tendency to press too hard in my left hand? An analogy that helped me to play with a lighter touch was to think of tiny helium balloons connected to my fingers and keeping them light on the strings. Another analogy I heard recently was to imagine that there are tiny blueberries under each string, and you want to press lightly on the strings so as not to smush them.

What are your favorite analogies?

Whether it’s breathing correctly, producing sound without forcing or pressing, executing smooth bow changes, or shifting to high positions, what are some favorite analogies that you use in your playing or teaching?

And a random drawing!

screen696x696Everyone who submits a favorite analogy (or two) down below in the comments will be entered in a random drawing for one of ten fully unlocked copies of the popular metronome/tuner/recording app Practice+ (much thanks to the developer, who, incidentally, happens to be a clarinetist; check out a 30-sec demo of the app here ). Deadline for entering is Friday, Nov. 11th at midnight Pacific.

UPDATE: Contest now closed; drawing was held and winners were emailed on Saturday evening – congrats to the winners!

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

For most of my life, I assumed that it was because I wasn’t practicing enough. And that eventually, if I performed enough, the nerves would just go away and everything would take care of itself.

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.

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122 Responses

  1. “Pat the dog” . My daughter was told this to help her keep long bowing happening whilst working out the left hand . She’ll tell me otherwise but if I notice she is shortening up whilst working out a passage I can say “are you patting the dog?” And she responds with a change in bowing without much interference in the left hand .

  2. One analogy I remember learning to hold drumsticks was to imagine you’re holding a small chick or baby bird in your hand. The grip should be firm enough to keep the chick from escaping but loose enough to keep it alive. Keep up the great work!


  3. To keep articulation light and airflow constant, calm, steady and smooth, I try to imagine one grain of sugar on my saxophone reed and I am trying to remove that grain with only one tastebud on my tongue.

  4. Julius Levine talked a lot about use of the body directly or by analogy. One analogy he used often for achieving motion in phrasing and even individual notes was that of peristalsis — the wave-like contraction and release used by the digestive tract to accomplish its work.

  5. I play the guitar, mostly electric. When I find myself tensing up I just think of jazz musicians and how relaxed they are when playing, and of how their notes just flow. I try to imagine that I am as relaxed as they are. That usually helps me to relax my muscles without having to give it much specific thought.

  6. One analogy I love is to think of is tiny little elves sitting on my elbows while playing cello. This helps me imagine the weight in my arms and helps with all sort of balance issues! Another analogy I was given in highschool was to think of a thumbtack that had been taped to your thumb in your left hand, to avoid squeezing the bow to hard with your thumb!

    1. My viola teacher taped a real tack to the neck so I wouldn’t put my palm down. It saved me from having to imagine the tack, but it also soured me on the instrument. He also used a pen and pushed hard when making an x on my hand every time my hand was not in the proper position. I had 3-5 marks on my hand each lesson. Great ways to teach 10 year old to love playing an instrument, right?

  7. My piano teacher used to tell us to imagine thaat oir posture was being held up like a marriotte on strings. We wouldnt hunch over and we would also berelaxed enoughtomove our bodies laterally up and down the keyboard.

  8. I guess “don’t sweat the petty stuff, pet the sweaty stuff” from my days as a Marine is not totally age appropriate, but it is applicable.

  9. Balloons versus textbooks for bringing out the melody and keeping the accompaniment subdued. The melody hand has a large textbook and the accompaniment hand has 4 helium balloons. I use this with my college piano students with great success.

  10. I am a pianist and piano teacher. One analogy that one of my Russian teachers used that I have used with almost all of my students is letting each finger sink to the bottom of the key like an anchor falling to the bottom of the ocean. This helps students (and myself) use good arm weight without keybedding.

  11. I play the flute, and tend to play with too much tension in my fingers. To help loosen the tension, I think about my fingers as levers, and control the levers from where they meet the hand (not by the levers themselves). I like the helium balloon idea, too. I’m going to try that!

  12. When learning how to take a deep but relaxed breath I get my students to imagine they are standing at the edge of a swimming pool, just about to swim a length underwater. They swing their arms up as they take the breath as if just about to dive in.

  13. To help with posture I use sit strong tall and proud. Also if I see a player slouching as we are playing as I walk around the class I just walk over nonchalantly and raise their stand abnormally tall forcing them to sit properly.

    I tell my trumpet and Sax players players to pretend they are holding a panino, a sandwich, so not to have flat fingers.

  14. My cellist son used to imagine helium balloons on strings attached to his left elbow to help him keep from dropping his arm to his side and my violinist daughter imagined them attached to the end of her violin to help her keep from tipping the violin down too far. Their teachers both liked suggesting that image to their students, clearly as it works!

  15. I play the piano and remember analogy with a beetle or other bug. When a butterfly sits on your hand look how gentle its legs stays and support rest of its ‘body’. Legs are slightly curved solid but gentle. Hand and fingers on the piano should act exactly the same 🙂

  16. An analogy I use frequently when teaching light/fast articulation is that your air must be on through the entire phrase just like a water hose maintains (hopefully) the same pressure once turned on. The pressure must not fluctuate; the tongue simply interrupts the air.

  17. Our teacher, Lauren, taught us to imagine our bow hand being lifted by a cloud to help maintain a soft rounded shape.

  18. To achieve refined piano spiccato on the viola in the Mendelssohn scherzo Peter Kenote encouraged me to practice the excerpts slowly while visualizing an enormous pendulum sweeping the ground at its lowest point, then gradually increasing the tempo.

  19. Oh, and the cello teacher also suggested to imagine a small orange or ball in the left hand to help with rounding the hand and fingers on the fingerboard. Another cello teacher uses the image of a clothes hanger for the fingers on the fingerboard; the fingers are not pressing, you are letting the fingers’ weight hang there like a coat hanger.

  20. Articulate on the clarinet as if you were lightly tapping the spout of a hose (the water being your airstream and your hand being the tongue). I use this analogy to help prevent beginner students from cutting their air support off at the throat when they articulate!

  21. I’m a pianist and piano teacher, and one analogy I use for my students’ hand shape when they first begin is that they have a chick under their hands, and they need to keep their hands round to keep from squishing the chick. I also use a bubble. They don’t want to pop the bubble under their hands, so they need to keep their hands round. Also, sometimes young beginner students have trouble keeping their fingers on the keys because they’re having trouble pushing a key down, and so the other fingers come off the keys and sometimes come down on a different key than before. I tell them to pretend their fingers are glued to the keys to help keep them down until their fingers have built enough strength.

  22. For non-legato (not staccato) touch on the piano I tell them to think of having honey on their fingertips & their fingers rise touching the keys, without coming off quickly

  23. Excellent topic.
    We use scads of analogies in teaching. It always make sense to show how something “new” is similar to something the student already knows. We have some standard analogies for use in classes, from “chopping wood,” or “hitching a ride,” to the story of “the three little pigs.” We often liken what we do to playing a musical instrument, magic, dance, horseback riding, and even sex/love.
    But all the same analogies don’t work for all students.
    We find it works best when we get to know the student, and tailor the analogy to the student’s individual knowledge/experience/preferences. The more and the more varied the student’s experience, the easier it is to find and use appropriate analogies. It’s more difficult to find one that will work for a student who doesn’t have very much experience — with children, for example. It can be a real challenge, but it can usually be done.
    One other thing about analogies: you can make them entertaining and, thus, not only more memorable in terms of technical development, but MORE importantly they add to the joy of the learning experience. We STRONGLY believe in teaching from the affective domain as a priority.

  24. I am a bagpiper. One of my mentors told me you should not have “holes” in your fingers, meaning you should hold the chanter lightly so there is no indentation of the hole on your finger. Another said your fingers should dance on the chanter.

  25. When teaching trumpet students to maintain steady air support rather than “huffing” each note, I tell them to imagine that they are ice skating-the support in the diaphragm is the solid ice and the air stream and the notes are dancing on top.

  26. Adult singer songwriter guitar/vocals – performing and taking singing lessons but not classically trained. When I’m singing I imagine that my normal voice is gliding from my chest across the top of the microphone towards the third or fourth row. When I need to go louder on a section I project in an arc three or four feet above the top of the audience to near the back row. And if I need a really loud emotional bit then its a long high arc to someone in the lane outside the theatre beyond the back row! This keeps my head up and relaxed and projecting from my abdo/chest not throat. But all I’m thinking about is the high arc above the audience coming down at different rows. – Its oddly fun too imagining it!

  27. For an extended analogy, check out Zen in the Art of Archery by Herrigel. Fascinating stuff on achieving your ultimate effect without deliberate, and arguably contrived effort. If your energy is nearly entirely focused on the physical aspect of your instrument during performance that’s arguably incredibly short sighted and even down right selfish from a listener’s standpoint. I’m hardly qualified or articulate enough to talk about Zen, though it’d be a great contradiction if I were ;). The book has been referred to as the one of the best succinct summations of Zen (you can probably read it in 30 minutes).

    Another fun one that a teacher once shared: he’d think of improvising as one of those “choose your own adventure” style children’s books. Each little musical decision opens up new avenues, interactions stories etc. Ps: if you’d like to slay the dragon, please turn to page 7

  28. There is an interview of Miles Davis where he says his instructor influenced him because he played trumpet just like he would kiss a woman. This analogy is more about the feeling than the technique though (which is even better !).

  29. Good topic. I play dobro, which is a guitar tuned to open G and laid flat (, with a steel slide in my left hand. Last year at ResoSummit in Nashville, I asked a workshop teacher about loosening my left hand deathgrip on the slide, and his response was that the left hand fingers should be guideposts to guide the bar across the fretboard, which was a helpful analogy for me.

  30. I play cello and still struggle with various aspects of bowing technique. One particular analogy that helps me keep my bowing smooth and connected when crossing strings is to envision my bow moving through the arc of a hula hoop.

  31. I play clarinet. To encourage a smooth legato connection of notes, I have my students imagine that the pads on their fingers are marshmallows. When they play too harshly by slapping their fingers down on the tone holes, I remind them to use their “marshmallow fingers”. This also helps release tension in their hands.

  32. As a violist, one analogy for gaining more direction in down bows is to imagine the bow as a handkerchief and someone is playing tug-o-war with you (they are pulling to your left and you are pulling outward and to the right). This helps with engaging the most efficient muscles to execute the downbow as well as grounding the natural weight of the arm and promoting flexibility in the fingers of the bow hold.

  33. I play the Great Highland Bagpipe. I use the analogy of finding the bite of a car’s clutch when trying to maintain a steady pressure during the transition from arm to diaphragm and vice versa. Also puppet strings when ensuring fingers are lifted or put back down simultaneously to avoid crossing noises.

  34. As a singer, one of the best analogies I’ve heard for breathing low and fully is to imagine you are wearing a “belt made of noses”. Heard this one many times over the years from many sources, and it is still very engaging.

  35. Bowing on the cello is similar to ironing (for those who still do that…). When you iron you think of the focus of the weight of the iron being on the wrinkle in the fabric (like the point of contact of the bow on the string). Ergonomically, you use your right arm and hand in whatever way is most efficient and comfortable without stressing over details. The result is a very natural bow arm!

    1. Martha, as an adult learner of a certain age group, I totally get that analogy! I’m going to try that on my violin bowing issues. From now on, I’m going to iron rather than bow! LOL Thank you for sharing

    2. To have a singing melodic melody at the piano without drowning it out with the LH accompaniment think of petting a large dog (St. Bernard)in the RH and scratching a small kitten’s ears with the left.

  36. I play tenor sax – if I find myself pressing the keys too hard I imagine that they are upward facing drawing pins (ouch) which require a light touch.

  37. When students have trouble catching the tempo after a long rest I remind them that a person trying to hop an empty freight train car would not simply stick out their arm and grap ahold, they would be minus one arm. They have to run beside the train and then hop on. When performing silence (not counting rest) keep the tempo going in your body as it is hard to play an instrument with one good arm and a bloody stump. With middle school kids, works every time 🙂

  38. Posture analogy: like a tree with roots growing in the ground (a downwards vector) and branches growing at the top (an upwards vector), thereby having our pelvis as the center (center of gravity).

  39. ‘imagine you’re holding a can of beer’ was the image my teacher gave me for my left-hand shape when playing double bass.

    ‘every motion flows out like ripples in a pond’ is what I use in dancing, to think of movements starting in my chest and spreading into the rest of my body

  40. My job is to teach basic training in the Air Force, and learning how to call commands is incredibly similar to learning to sing (training your diaphragm, voice projection, etc). One analogy I’ve used for years is to act like you’re trying to yell at someone through a pane of glass. This forces you to open your mouth wide and let the air pass through properly; and saves you a lot of money in throat lozenges!

  41. In voice lessons, I had an instructor once use the analogy of “don’t let the cows out” with legato. Essentially, when I would be stopping the sound, I’d be leaving a “gap in the fence” to the pasture, enough to let cows out. Focusing on a semi-ridiculous analogy (especially because my legato problem was mostly rooted in tension) enabled me to not only relax into the legato sections, but also focus on carrying the sound through smoothly (keeping the cows inside the pasture)

  42. When I teach violin lessons, I often begin the first steps of learning vibrato by having my students use an egg shaker and knocking on a door using just their wrist. Then, by the time we begin vibrato exercises with the violin, they are much more used to the feeling of the wrist movement, and have built a pretty solid foundation for vibrato movement to grow.

  43. Clarinetist….was told to think my clarinet was inside a cardboard tube to keep my fingers from flattening.

  44. As a pianist- to get students who put too much arm weight into the fingertips, I use two analogies: (1) imagine running down the street with someone riding along in your back, and (2) to get the wrists and elbows relaxed and flexible I tell them to imagine the wrists and elbows are bouys floating gently on a lake, in a constant slight motion, never frozen up. This helps develop finger strength and control immensely.

  45. I agree that teaching with analogy is far better than detailed explanations.

    1. To get my jazz piano students to play with arm weight, I ask, “if the piano were to disappear, would your hand fall in your lap?” You can hear and see the difference even in online lessons.

    2. To get a lighter grip, I think of my mandolin pick as a potato chip I’m trying not to break.

  46. (For shy students afraid of making sound on the violin). I ask them to imagine that your bow is a shovel and that you’re digging dirt. Did they get through the surface down underneath yet? I love the visual of the violin sound like rich, dark soil.

  47. As an Orff-certified elementary music teacher, my students naturally want to play the xylophones way too loud. I tell them to imagine that the bars are baby bunnies that enjoy being gently patted. Instant improvement since 1st graders don’t want to smash baby bunnies!
    I’m also a horn player/teacher. Noa, your post reminded me of the great tuba player Arnold Jacobs, who emphasized “wind and song” and the importance of avoiding “paralysis by analysis.”

  48. I have always loved what Ms. Joyce Didonato says about the voice being an arrow. This help us imagine both tha attack and release of a note. Also, to sing lighter, my professor says that we are a balloon going through clouds. It is fun to think like this while performing. I loved the belt of noses 😀

  49. As a singer I was told to imagine the sound coming out of me spinning like a top. Manipulate the spin but never let it stop or the sound goes flat. I think of my teachers hand turning round and moving away from her body especially on long notes. Keep them spinning.

  50. I teach writing and am a beginning violin student, so my analogy is a bit backwards. When I’m trying to explain how most students write really badly (poor sentences, mechanics, etc) when they’re writing about something intellectually new, something they’re trying to learn, I explain that it’s like me learning a new piece on the violin. When I play a scale, I can sound okay, keep a rhythm, and such. But with a new piece, it goes all to heck while I’m learning the basic notes/rhythms. Then once I get those, I can work on sounding okay again. Most of my college students have tried an instrument (or sports) enough to get the analogy, so they realize that their writing is going to come around as they get more comfortable with whatever intellectual challenge they’re learning. (It also works to explain to faculty colleagues why their students can write a perfectly good sentence about something familiar, and then write a non-sentence when trying to explain some chemistry thing.)

  51. Bounce on the trampoline. When trailing the banjo the thumb bounces on the fifth string as if on a trampoline.

  52. To keep from lifting fingertips too high off the keys of the piano, envision little suction cups on your fingertips.

  53. When shifting a large interval to a higher position on the cello, my teacher advises cellists to “hug” the cello, instead of tensing up and essentially pushing the cello away. This actually shortens the distance that the hand has to travel and promotes a much higher chance of success – both hitting the note in tune and achieving good quality sound.

    For a round sound, it can help to think of pulling the string (from above) on the down bow, and pushing the string (from below) on the up bow.

    Although I only have experience with these concepts on the cello, I wouldn’t be surprised if they helped on other stringed instruments – the violin, for example.

  54. When I was first learning to play the piano my teacher would tell me to imagine that I was a violinist! The piano is a percussive instrument, and I had a tendency to play kind of straighof up and down, so she would have me think about the smooth motions of a bow in order to bring a more connected sound to my playing.

  55. I play fiddle. To remember to relax the back of my neck and shoulders, I imagine a waterfall starting at the top of my head and flowing in slow motion down my back.

  56. When I teach violin, I ask students to think of cradling an egg in their left palm to help them develop an open and relaxed left hand. The student needs to keep the hand open with the wrist down to avoiding crushing the egg against the neck of the violin.

  57. My favorite analogy is for drumming. In explaining the Moeller technique I tell my students to imagine themselves as Indiana Jones using a whip. If they don’t know who Indiana Jones is, I use the analogy of throwing a ball.

  58. From an Alexander teacher, for free posture when playing the violin: Imagine the neck and head as a flower that orients itself up towards the sun over head and is continuously opening up further into bloom. Imagine that the arms are like the wings of a bird, floating in space and weightless.

  59. SINGING: to breathe in quickly and deeply, you need to get your rib cage to expand sideways and backwards as well as just forwards, so feel your bra strap tightening around your rib cage instead of just sticking your boobs out (gents, you may – or may not! – have some issues with this…)

    SITTING AT A PIANO: if you are getting tense, you may hollow your back too much. Imagine you’re a monkey with a tail – you need to curl your tail and tuck it under you (this really helps lengthen the lower spine, and works in all sorts of postures, not just sitting at the piano)

    1. I do 🙂 My teacher says your fingers should touch the string like jello clinging to the walls of a bowl. The jello is loose enough to jiggle ( no tension) but firm enough to stick.

    2. Here’s a couple to try that I’ve used with my harp students over the years:

      – “baby wave” for learning how to close fingers flat into palms instead of curving fingers

      – conversely, avoid “claw hands” or “crabby hands” – this is another way to explain what not to do after plucking a note, i.e. don’t curve the fingers/tense up but instead close fingers flat into palms to avoid tension

      – “dog’s ear” for basic hand position with the thumb up and fingers pointed down – the thumb is the “ear” of the dog

      – “don’t break the duck’s neck/dog’s neck” – this one is from one of my teachers and the basic idea is to have a curved wrist while playing, if you snap your wrist upward the “neck” will break (maybe a bit graphic but I find the image works really well!)

      – “Nintendo thumbs” – the idea is to bend the thumbs at the joint/knuckle like you would if you were playing a video game for clearer articulation

      – “imaginary tabletop” – this is from another one of my teachers. You imagine your arm gliding over a steady, even surface like a tabletop as you approach the higher notes (for example, if you’re playing extended scales/arpeggios). Your arm/elbow should stay level and your hand position should not change

      – “Captain Hook” – I use this analogy to explain what not to do when playing larger open intervals such as 5ths/6th with fingers 1 and 3 – you should keep the second finger tucked down into the palm instead of curling the finger up like a pirate hook, again to avoid tension. Same for 2nd and 3rd fingers when playing octaves with fingers 1 and 4

  60. I’ve just started teaching my four year old to play electric bass. He initially wanted to pluck the strings away from the instrument, but the proper finger style approach is to push through the string to the adjacent string. As I was trying to get him to grasp this concept it struck me me that it’s almost like “petting” the string with him first finger, as if it was a puppy dog. That helped him get the motion down and be a little gentler, which is needed to pluck through the string.

  61. I have a love/hate relationship with analogies. When dealing with musical ideas, they work for me, but when dealing with actual mechanics, for some reason they don’t. My biggest hurdle was/is tonguing on the clarinet, and I know that hurdle is based in air support. The analogy that stuck with me was thinking of my air like water coming out of a garden hose – it’s always on and always providing a lot of pressure, and when you put your thumb over the nozzle, the water stops flowing but the pressure doesn’t. But you know, I could imagine that all day until the cows came home, and I still huffed my articulation. I didn’t learn real breath support until I started swimming with a friend and couldn’t make it more than one lap because I really truly didn’t know how to exhale. So for me, tools that can link a physical sensation with the sound I’m trying to produce work.

    But like I mentioned, that’s me, and for me analogies work well for musical concepts. My favorite sound concept is that clarinet tone should be like a bubbling flute of golden champagne. But that’s all just my two cents!

  62. To develop a smooth timpani mallet stroke, I practice bouncing a tennis ball on the head and catching it. Then when playing, I imagine the same feeling, but this time with a mallet in each hand. The stroke is fluid and produces a clear fundamental tone.

  63. I had a director in undergrad who instructed the basses at one point, to avoid straining at a rather low note, to “be a giraffe bending its neck down for a drink of water”.

  64. Playing the harp – keeping elbows up – pretend there is a puppet on a string attached to your arm and this will remind you to keep you elbows up.

  65. For horn players there is a visualization that can also be used as an exercise. Play as if you are holding dimes on the keys with your finger tips. It keeps you from pulling your fingers off the keys.

  66. I like to think of my fingers dancing on the fret board like Gene kelly or someone like that. That “lighter than air” type of approach.

  67. My piano teacher recently told me to think of the keys as Play-Doh to achieve a more flowing legato and to avoid playing incredibly mechanically. It really helps you overcome the percussive nature of the instrument.

  68. A particularly sweet little old dance instructor once told me to imagine a meat hook through my scalp when I pirouetted … as long as I was tall and straight it wouldn’t hurt, but if I wobbled it would. A very strong and frightening visual for an eight year old: it has lasted a lifetime.

  69. So many analogies are gained from clever students.
    -Releases/Relaxing fingers over strings after playing a note: like fairies or hover crafts waiting to land again
    -Pronating fingers on strings: your face is the sun and they’re lying back in lawn chairs to catch some rays
    -Pronating right hand on bow toward tip: turning a doorknob
    -Tugging fingers back (vs. pushing forward): like gently petting a kitty

  70. I play the bayan and my teacher told me to strike the buttons like bouncing a basketball to get good staccato articulation

  71. I play violin, and my teacher says to keep a “feather-touch” with your index knuckle and the neck of the violin. I’ve also heard the bow-hand analogy of keeping the 2 middle fingers low enough so their toes are in the water.

  72. Piano – “You should be able to kill with your 5!” ~ Paul Barnes
    Flute – For the articulation similar to the french “du,” imagine the sound of a golf ball hitting a sheep. ~ Paul Edward Davies
    Theory – In order to speak and write, we need grammar. In order to do science, we need math. In order to play or write music, we need theory. ~ Me.

  73. When working with beginning drum students, some of them are too tight or stiff with their wrists and forearms. I tell them to imagine dribbling a basketball, the same fluid motion of the wrist and arm as the ball is dribbled down and received back up into the hand.

  74. I teach violin and for the children whose left arm drops and touch the body (violin too low), I tell them to imagine they have a really ripe mango between their upper arm and body and they don’t want to squash it!

  75. …and metaphor

    “Along For the Ride”

    She’ll do all of the singing really
    I’m just along for the ride

    I help her as best as I can
    A touch here and a caress
    Knocking on her, gently, tapping I’d say
    That sounds better
    It’s all about the sound

    I brush her hair back
    My fingers just so on her neck
    She doesn’t fret at my touch
    Fretless, effortless

    Harmony, tempo
    Time and illusion
    Said and un-said

    Dancing vibrato
    A heavy handed rhythm

    I try to play the bass
    But I’m just along for the ride
    She does all the singing
    That’s how I get so high

  76. Something that sometimes keeps me from tensing up needlessly when I play high on the trumpet: imagine you’re digging a tunnel straight through a mountain. No matter how high the mountain (note) may be, the tunnel can still go straight through (consistent air stream).

  77. I teach brass players and often, after taking a breath, the wind gets “hung up” at the top of the breath before blowing so that there is no (or little) energy created when blowing. An analogy that seems to help my students is to pretend that they are throwing a ball where the windup for the throw is analogous to the air intake and the “pitch” is analogous to the actual blowing. This seems to work even with those who aren’t that familiar with baseball.

  78. For forward momentum and a light touch while playing dance tunes on the Irish tin whistle, I often remember the feeling of leaning forward onto a shopping cart in a parking lot, holding most of my weight with my upper body, and letting the cart pick up speed while I take long, but very light, strides. Not the easiest analogy to describe. But so fun to practice!

  79. One analogy I use with my band students when talking about finger height is “driving from Ann Arbor to Chicago”. You can get there directly by taking the I-94 expressway OR you can drive down I-75 to Florida and then come back up north through Nashville, TN. We just say “remember to drive to straight to Chicago.”

    When working on slide action with trombone students, we use the analogy of a slide show. Your slide show should have no transitions. We don’t want a fade in or fade out…just an instant change from one image to the next.

  80. My favourite analogy is one I use with all my students of guitar. I tell them to walk from one point in the room, turn around, and then walk back. I then tell them to hop on one foot and then back again. I ask them which was fastest and which gave them the most control. The all said walking. I then tell them that alternating their fingers on their right hand when playing is equivalent to walking, where using the same finger for each note is hopping. I do similar for left hand – if they can use a different finger that is like walking.

  81. Another great analogy I use is from Lord of the Rings. You can see Legolas take a quick shot with his arrow. He loads the bow while bringing it up, takes aim, and then fires. By doing it in this order, he is at maximum time efficiency. The energy is loaded into the bow while he is bringing it up, but the final execution is not until he releases it.
    The same with playing a scale or note on the guitar. By placing the plucking finger on the sting first, this begins to load the energy into the string. At the same time, it keeps that sting silent. You then place your left hand on the appropriate fret – this is akin to aiming the bow. Now playing the right hand through (it has already loaded the energy into the string) is equivalent to releasing the bow.

  82. Another analogy I like to use is the right hand thumb slightly resting on the bass strings while playing a run with the other fingers. I use the analogy of a child walking across a small brick wall while holding their mother’s hand. They can fly across, but let them go by themselves they will be vary wary and slow.

  83. As a guitarist, I encourage students not to initiate the picking stroke from the elbow, but rather to use ulnar displacement and have the motion start at the wrist. In order to acieve this, I get them to mimic the motion of brushing lint off of their pants. Using a quick and light motion akin to flicking something unwanted from our clothing assists students in picking the strings correctly.

  84. I play piano; I sometimes use the visualization that I am a leaf floating on an ocean and each phrase is a wave that I follow up and over, lightly, whole body moving with the flow.

  85. Not really an analogy but it works for reed instruments. To avoid students tonguing too heavily on clarinet or sax I ask them to show me the ‘tippiest’ part of their tongue…i.e. show me the smallest part of the tongue…..And that’s how much of the tongue we want touching the tip of the reed.

  86. My piano teacher always talked about a bird lifting off a branch as an analogy for lifting off the ends of phrases. Birds do not whack branches as they fly away! She would accompany this with touching my should and “lifting” off my shoulder. I recently had two piano teachers do that to me in one day, so this is a pretty common thing to do.

  87. My analogy is to play as happy as I can. Everything is better when you’re free and relaxed.
    Think about a green field in a warm day..or anything that makes you comfortable. Your sound is just flowing in this field like a slow stream. It helps me relax the fingers and the throat, and makes me smile (as a clarinetist, that’s important).

    Sounds silly, but works.

  88. For low brass breathing I use a visualization of Santa or the Jolly Green Giant saying the word “hope.” While emulating the chatacter’s voice, the oral shape created on “ho” is exactly the tensionless shape needed on the inhalation to have a jump start on producing thick, round, warm, and velvety tones.

  89. The first analogy I remember a teacher giving me was the one of kittens kneading their mother for milk; my teacher told me to imitate that “kneading” action (sinking or, a new one I heard in a masterclass two days ago, “skiing” into the keys) on the piano for chords instead of coming straight down on the keys to release my tension and improve the tone quality. I still think of this whenever I have huge chords that I don’t want to sound percussive.

  90. I’ve used 2 analogies with an intermediate violin student:

    1. For left hand lightness, imagine the fingers as “dancing faeries”, rather than “marching soldiers”.

    2. For shoulder relaxation, imagine the upper skeleton as a coat hanger. The shoulder and arm muscles are like the clothing, just hanging from the hanger, effortlessly.

  91. I use a golf swing analogy for all my band students. In order to produce a great tone, I tell them how important the air is to their playing. The students need to use a full back swing on the golf club (deep, full breath) before hitting the ball (playing the long tone or musical phrase). I tell them the follow through is just as important – this is the breath support needed to make the note or phrase sound its best. We talk about how many amateur golfers stop the swing as soon as they hit the ball. This is like articulating the notes in a phrase but their is no breath support to make the phrase last.

  92. My voice technician was the first to tell me to imagine that I had a string coming out of the top of my head suspending my completely relaxed body in a standing position, as a marionette. My head should be steady but able to move freely from side to side. 🙂

  93. I am a violin teacher and find it helpful to talk about marshmallow fingers in the bow hand , we dont want a rock hand.
    Also a good beach analogy. Middle bow fingers do like to dip their toes in the water. The pinkie is scared of water and sits on top of the bow. the index is relaxed and lying on a beach towel.

  94. I don’t know that this qualifies as an analogy but…without any explanation and with the youngest students I can say, “look famous” and the student immediately improves their posture in all ways needed…body posture, violin hold, bow hold, etc.

  95. Hm! Isn’t it better to isolate the new skill and practice it slowly and mindfully until automated?
    Analogy seems to give better results in the beginning but I think it won’t give perfect form.

    1. Hi Milen,

      I think the idea is to accelerate learning at first, to try to facilitate good basic form and skills from an earlier stage, and then work on refining things later once the basic correct movement is more automatic.

    2. I think the fact that you give an easy analogy gives a shortcut to the mind on what is supposed to happen. I give the analogy of hopping to walking, but then show the mathematics why walking is more efficient. This gives student a quick why. Also, I can just say “You are hopping rather than walking” and the student knows straight away. I think you go from the known to the unknown faster this way.

  96. French horn, left hand position (on the valves) should be just like holding a baseball. Keep the fingers arched, not flat. Hat tip to Randy Gardner at CCM for this one.

  97. To help students understand the importance of consistent daily practice, we talk about growing a plant from a seed. You must give it good soil, water, sunlight, and plant food daily. I remind them that the seed will not grow if you give too much of any of these ingredients. I also remind them that the seed is not going to blossom over-night, and probably not in a week. I talk about the investment they are making in the future – having the trust and patience that over time results will happen. Students will learn to be persistent with difficult tasks, problem solve and cultivate “grit.”

  98. Is this in any way a real “analogy” or is it rather a simple way of condensing the essence of the flight path through a very objective and fairly exact visualisation for the basic motion? If we gave them one of the typical vague analogies that are often encountered as a replacement for technical instruction, I doubt we’d have seen anything like the same result. It seems to me that it’s more of a case of needing to translate detailed instructions into some kind of unifying premise- rather than an argument for superiority of analogy over instruction, in general.

    The triangle is an incredibly SPECIFIC summary of how to perform a hit, so I’d be really wary of looking to conclude that flowery metaphors are therefore better than precise instructions. I’m not sure we’re comparing like with like.

    1. Hi Andrew,

      Good points. A couple notes about the studies in this area that speak to your thoughts – indeed, the analogy has to be an effective one, as in, it has to naturally facilitate a reasonably close approximation of what the correct technique for the skill ought to look like so that one executes it correctly and begins to develop sound fundamentals. Also, this particular study was with table tennis novices, with no prior training. Learning by analogy has its limits – at some point one needs a deeper, and more sophisticated understanding of the skill which will require greater detail, analysis, and instruction.

      1. Yes, absolutely. I should stress that I do actually like analogies, but they have to be well crafted as a means to an end- which is best linked back to more objective analysis when choosing analogies (even if we don’t necessarily reveal this aspect to the student). Much of the time I like the idea of giving objective background AND and analogy which makes the concept more memorable and relatable. That way analogies complement awareness of technique, rather than give a hazy replacement for it.

        There’s definitely some interesting stuff to wonder about here, but I’d really like to see data based on a variety of more typical analogies- rather than something that almost certainly succeeded on the grounds of being rather a precise (yet succinct and uncomplicated) method for visualising the stroke.

  99. Flutist analogies!!!

    1) For a focused air stream and firm air support: imagine that your sound/air is a laser beam emitting from your embouchure. Aim the beam as far as you can while you play – even out the window, if you have one.

    2) For increased resonance & space in the inner oral cavity: imagine that there is a grapefruit in the back of your throat while playing (not the most pleasant image, but typically yields surprising results). 😀

  100. I started cello in college, and my teacher’s analogies were so helpful and plentiful that when I used them in a cognitive psych paper, my professor said she sounded amazing! (Which she was. :-))

    Some of the first ones: string changing is like shifting a manual transmission car (four in the floor)– use the big muscles in your arms and commit to the new track right away. Bowing is like stirring molasses, or spreading peanut butter over soft white bread.

    I think the best analogies have surprisingly apt elements– relevant information is not merely on the surface but also conveyed by the other elements. For the peanut butter analogy, you get the obvious point of consistent pressure, but there is also the stickiness, the way it takes a moment to start the peanut butter (string) moving, the way your joints all keep moving to accommodate holding the angle steady as the knife (bow) slides across the bread. If that feels true for other people, then it supports the thesis that analogies work by chunking lots of awkward information into a single, expressive unit.

    Maybe they also work by getting you out of the left-brain checklist litany (“initial pressure, wait for the string to respond, hold the angle steady, maintain an even pressure”) and into the right-brain flow state (a wordless image/feeling of the goal state) which Noa talks about on day 4 of his intro that I just read (Debbie Crews’ golfers). 🙂 Maybe an experiment could use an fMRI to check if that’s happening. Does anyone else feel like that could be part of it? Also, thanks to all– I love your examples!

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