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...
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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!

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