Hoffman Academy Blog

Balancing Challenge and Skill


In order to enjoy an activity, you need to have the right level of skill for the challenge. One of the reasons video games are so engaging is because players start on level one, not on level ten. As your skill increases, the game difficulty increases. That keeps it challenging and enjoyable.

Last week I introduced the concept of flow, which is a state in which someone is enjoyably engaged in an activity. Today we’ll continue to explore how to help piano students achieve flow by balancing challenge and skill.

A mismatch of challenge and skill is one of the most common reasons for children to have trouble enjoying piano practice. Learning and mastering a new song is actually quite a huge and complex challenge—and if a child feels inadequate to meet the challenge he or she will become frustrated and want to give up.

One important role for a parent during practice time is to help adjust the challenge of a song to match the ability of the child. Here are ideas for DECREASING the challenge of a song:

  • Work hands alone
  • Work one line (or even one measure) at a time
  • Slow it down
  • Focus just on the notes without worrying about the rhythm
  • Focus just on the rhythm without playing the notes

The point is to adjust the degree of challenge so that the child can succeed. Every child wants to be successful at a good challenge.

Sometimes, however, a child needs more challenge for piano to be exciting. Try these ideas for INCREASING challenge:

  • Play a line or section perfectly 3-times-in-a-row, or 5-times-in-a-row
  • Play the song with eyes closed
  • Use a metronome, start at a comfortable speed, then set it a little faster
  • Play the song with perfect piano posture
  • Play the song in a different hand position (ex: a song learned in C position played in G position)
  • Improvise a new ending to the song

Remember, the point is to engage the interest and excitement of the child, so make sure your challenges aren’t overwhelming. As a child advances in skill, raise the challenge for maximum engagement.

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