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Friday, December 14, 2012

The Chip Game

Long ago, I bought a bag of plastic chip counters from a store that specialized in teacher supplies. The chips are of two colors: red on one side and yellow on the other. I have found so many uses for them over the years. Whenever we encounter a tricky spot in a lesson, we pull out the chips to play "the chip game." The chip game is not one game, but many, and I am sure that we will invent even more ways to use the chips in the future. Here are some of my favorites.

Basic Behavior Rules

When a student first starts lessons, I might use a chip game to help me gain a bit of control over the physical situation with the student. I stack 10 chips in front of the student while I explain the rules of the game. Throughout the lesson, I will remove ("steal") a chip from the student's pile to begin my own chip pile every time the student violates one of the rules. At the end of the lesson, we will see who "wins" the game. We also discuss what it means if we have the same number of chips in the end; in my studio, a tie in the chip game means that no one won. In effect, this means that the student has four chances to stay the winner before the game advantage swings over to my favor. I also permit the parent to remove a chip from the student's pile if the parent thinks the student has violated the rule, because sometimes I get so involved while working with the student that I fail to notice that the student is violating a rule in some way.

Usually I limit myself to three behaviors, and I often use two and leave the third one open for later. For example, the first basic rule is that I want the student to stay in the teaching area. If they are using a Twinkle mat or foot chart, I can easily mark when the student leaves the area. One of the first things a student will do is test the situation. Even though I might have explained the rules thoroughly, I find that a student will almost immediately touch her toe off the mat to see what I will do. I calmly transfer a chip from the student's pile to start my own pile. Exceptions to this rule are if the student asks permission to step off the mat, I ask the student to step off the mat, or the student is very young and needs to touch base with the parent by exchanging a hug. Giving a hug to the parent is always an exception to any chip game rule to stay on the mat!

The second basic rule is for the student to follow instructions. Now this game is a gold mine! At first glance the basic rule to follow instructions seems to be a limited rule; the student just has to follow directions. However, we have expanded this rule to include other things like taking too long to get ready to play, having to ask the teacher to repeat an instruction, and the student's not performing the instruction at the instant the teacher gives the instruction. Just about any behavior that I might address can fit under the follow instructions rule.

The third rule can be more specific to the child. One parent wants her children to answer questions in a particular way, using "ma'am" in the response. If the child forgets, then the parent removes a chip. For another student, we remove a chip if the student begins to lean on the teacher's table. One student lays her violin down every chance she has, so we use the chip game to help her learn how to put her instrument in rest position (and at the ready) when she is not playing. One young boy had a habit of putting his hands in his pockets all the time, and we wanted to help him learn to feel comfortable without using his pockets. Another child interrupted the lesson frequently by chattering about things that were unrelated to the lesson. We used the chip game to help the child gain better control over herself.

Some students forget to get set up to play with the correct form. In these cases, I will wait until the student finishes playing before I remove a chip for forgetting to do the setup steps. A child who "noodles" while in rest or play position will lose a chip. Noodling is when the child fidgets with the instrument: plucking strings, making squeaky noises with the bow, or playing while the teacher or parent is giving instruction. My point is that the third rule, if we have one, will be something more specific and unique to the child. There are so many possibilities.

I do not use the chip game when students are having "one of those days." Sometimes students have trouble focusing because of other things happening at home, such as spotty practice sessions, exciting holiday preparations or birthday parties, or upset daily routines. I know my students and their families well enough to recognize when the student might be having one of those days. It is a balancing act, because sometimes the behavior rules chip game may be just the thing that the student needs to help the student pull himself together and focus. On other days though, the student will easily lose the game, so I avoid going there in the first place and try other things instead.

The prize for "winning" the behavior rules chip game is a tiny lollipop at the end of the lesson. I stock up on Dum Dums
® or miniature Tootsie Roll® pops during Halloween season. When a student ends the lesson with more chips than I have, the student has had a good lesson and is entitled to the lollipop if the parent permits it. There are two more studio rules associated with retrieving the lollipop prize: the student must ask with the word "please," and the student must remember to say "thank you" within an acceptable amount of time after getting the lollipop. I got the idea for these two rules from Ron Clark's The Essential 55, which you can find in my resource store. Students are very careful to remember to say "please" and "thank you," because they understand that we will throw the lollipop away if the student forgets. I have never had to do that, but the possibility is rich for the student. I even had one mother call me on the way home, because the little student was afraid that I had not heard her say "thank you."

Over time, perhaps in just a few weeks, the student and I forget to "play" the chip game. We still do the lollipop thing at the end of the lesson, but I seldom need to pull out the chips for the behavior rules game. If the student's behavior becomes a problem later, the parent and I know that we can always dust off our chips and perform the game again.


I use a variation of my behavior chip game to help students play better in tune. If a student is not carefully placing her fingers on the finger tapes, then I will pick the most offensive finger and turn that into the reason for the special chip game.

For example, let’s say that my student is not placing her left index finger in the correct place on the fingerboard. The student probably has a tape mark on the correct spot but is not paying attention to where her finger lands. I will stack up chips on the table next to the student and explain that one of us will get a chip every time the student plays her first finger. If the finger lands on the correct place on the fingerboard (plays in tune) then the student will get the chip. If the finger does not land on the correct place, then I get the chip. “I wonder who will get the most chips and win the game?” I ask my student.

I help my student to remember by foreshadowing her use of the first finger in the beginning. I might lean forward in anticipation. I might reach for the chip a few seconds before my student is to play the first finger. My actions alert my student that there is something she is supposed to remember to do correctly. As my student gets better at this, I eliminate any foreshadowing.

Parents have reported success using this game at home as well. I have even had students come to their lesson and announce that they won all the chip games at home (“mom didn’t get a single point!”). After the student gets better at placing the index finger correctly, we sometimes add the ring or third finger placement as a chip game objective. Perhaps the student needs reminding about the other fingers, such as the pinkie or the middle finger. The chip game can be used for all of these reasons. I start out small in the beginning with a single finger and then build on the skill by playing the games for other fingers later.


The chip game is a great way to engage the student’s focus and concentration. I lay out 10 chips. I explain to the student what the activity will be. I will perform the skill or activity first while the student holds the instrument. Then the student will imitate what I did without my help. The student then tells me whether the student’s attempt sounded identical to mine. I permit a “do over” if the student asks for it before giving his own evaluation.

Here is a specific use of the chip game. I am working with my student on how to play with a good tone. I set up the chips and announce to my student that we will play the chip game. While my student holds the violin and bow, I make the bow move to create the sound I want. For example, I might play “Mississippi Hot Dog” on the E string. Then the student will play the same thing without my assistance and then tell me whether the student's effort sounded exactly the same as the way my effort did.

In the beginning of the game, I might be a little more lenient about some of the sounds I hear, but as the game progresses and the student gets more chips, I will become more exacting in my standards and will insist that there be no scratches, squeaks, or fuzzy dirt in the sound. This game is also useful to help a student to work back to a good staccato bow stroke if the student has gotten lax in articulation. The game also helps students to make a better legato sound. The chip game can be used in this fashion for just about anything. The beauty of the game is that it helps the student to listen better, to pay attention better, and to stay engaged in the activity. The students also learn how to evaluate their playing.

Habit Building (Pinkie Hunt)

I use the chip game when we are trying to make good habits. For example, I begin teaching my students how to use the pinkie in certain situations beginning with Perpetual Motion. I use a pinkie fingering in measures 2 and 4 to maintain the same string color. I assign the pinkie fingering in Allegretto and Andantino for the same reason — to maintain the same string color. My student learns how to use the pinkie finger on the descending two-octave G major scale, in order to help the student learn how to bring the left elbow under the violin to facilitate playing on the lower string levels.

Over time, students forget the pinkie fingerings, and parents do not always remember to look for the pinkie fingerings when the students play. This is when I use the chip game during a lesson to help the student and parent to remember. I will count out the number of pinkies that will occur in the song, and then I instruct the student to “see how many pinkies you can find.” As the student plays each pinkie, I will award a chip. If there are any chips left at the end of the song, then the student will try again to see if he can find all of the pinkies.

Along with pinkies, this particular use of the chip game could include searching for anything. For example, perhaps the student has trouble remembering the three down bow circles in "The Two Grenadiers" or the seven down bow circles in "Song of the Wind." The chip game could be used to help the student remember.

A container full of plastic counting or poker chips is a valuable tool that every teacher should have in the studio and every parent should have in the home practice area.

What other uses for the chip game do you use or can you think of?


  1. I do a similar games with my students but I find that it only works well with the students that are younger and competitive. They'll do just about anything in order to say they "beat" me =)

    What types of adjustments do you make for those students that just don't seem to care about winning or losing?

    1. I haven't had a student who didn't enjoy playing the chip game, even the older students. Lately I've been having fun with a new timer I found that resets to the time I originally set. I'll set the timer for 15 seconds and ask my student to play a short snippet of the music (something the student struggles with). I'll ask my student to see how many times he can play that snippet in the 15 seconds. Sometimes it's 7, sometimes 2. I write the snippet on a half-index card along with the "record" number of times the student got during his lesson. Then I ask him to see how much he can beat that number at the next lesson. This has been fun!

  2. Thank you so much for this post!! I did a similar thing with my 4 year old student today, but instead I said that each time she played a specific Twinkle variation she could pick a toy animal and set it up on the bench nearby (not to keep, but just to set there). She suddenly turned from antsy and bored to eager to play for me. I love your blog... I pore over it again and again!!

    I am excited to play the different chip game variations with my students!

    1. Thank you, Hannah! I'll remember your idea! My students enjoy having "visitors" come and watch their lessons.