Dr. Christopher Deane said on multiple occasions, “Nothing in music is hard, just time-consuming.” The is a lovely and pointed way of reframing the negative into a positive. Virtually any solo, ensemble part, excerpt, or etude can be mastered as long as you have a plan for the time-consuming work and trust that plan. Young students who learn to take things slowly and break them down will see a challenge as something that simply takes an investment of time.
There are many systems for breaking down musical passages (aka woodshedding), but as old fashioned as it is, the Poker Chip Challenge is a sure-fire process for tackling difficult sections of music. Take a difficult four-measure phrase of music and play the first measure only, very slowly and accurately. Once you have it perfectly and comfortably in your hands, play it five times in a row correctly, moving a poker chip from a stack on one side of the music stand to the other with each successful repetition. If a mistake is made during the process, the stack of chips goes back to the original position and we start again from the beginning. Once you’ve got one measure done, work through the first two measure and perform those together until you’ve moved all your chips over successfully again. Continue the process until the four-measure phrase is learned.
This process can seem slow to most students, but it actually can be accomplished relatively quickly. Playing a single measure only takes a second or two, even when performed very slowly. And the process reinforces good muscle memory in note accuracy and stroke types. The student will not have to go back and relearn any of the material learned using the poker chip process. It’s also a simple game that can be easily replicated and put to use in more challenging musical situations in the future.
Michael Huestis teaches at Prosper High School in the North Dallas area. He serves as the assistant director of the Music for All, Sandy Feldstein National Percussion Festival, is currently serving his first term as the PAS Texas Chapter President, and is the founder of the Percussion Solutions for Band Directors social media group. His ensembles have performed at PASIC, Music for All National Percussion Festival, MENC Biennial Conference, Bands of America Grand National Championships, President Bush’s inaugural parade, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and the Drum Corps International World Championships.