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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Teaching and Practicing Tip: The Timer Game

Written by Paula E. Bird ©2013

I have a new game that I play with my students: The Timer Game!

I have a great kitchen timer. When the timer runs out of the time that I have set, the timer immediately reverts back to the original time that I had set. This is very handy when I am in the middle of a batch task, such as peeling tomatoes. I dip each tomato in boiling water for 30 seconds, and after cooling the tomatoes, the peels slip right off. What a hassle this dipping process would be if I had to reset the timer to 30 seconds for each tomato! The timer that I currently have is a real help here.

I have been trying to find another timer like it for some time now to use in my teaching studio. In the old days when I taught in my home, I used my old kitchen timer. I have had a teaching studio out of my home for many years now, and sadly, I had to leave my old kitchen timer at home. Searches on the Internet for a similar timer yielded nothing. Over the holidays, however, I discovered a new timer in a teacher supply store. What fun my students and I have had with the new timer.

For example, I have a few students who are beginning to learn Minuet 1. Minuet 1 is a semi-hard piece to teach. The students have recently come from learning Etude, which is fraught with learning potholes, so they are a little bit tired mentally and also wary of what this new piece will require of them. So here is how I made it a little bit simpler and a whole lot of fun. Parents find it easier to learn the song as well.

I wrote out a small chunk of the song on a half-size index card (2.5" x 3"). For example, I would put the first two measures of Minuet 1 on the card. I write out the card for the benefit of the child's practice partner, not for the child to read, but sometimes a child will look at the card as a reminder of what part of the song to play. I allow the child to play through the little snippet on the card until the child thinks he "has it."

I then set the timer for 15 seconds and ask the student how many times he thinks he can play that little phrase section of the piece in the 15 seconds. Ready? Go! The child plays the little snippet as many times as he can in the 15 seconds. Whatever number of times the student plays, I then note that number on the bottom of the card and in the child's practice handbook (where I put my teacher notes from the lesson about the student's homework practice assignment). I tell the child to see whether he can beat that number this week and that we will check it at his next lesson. Then we add another snippet of the song, maybe the next two measures.

I do not do much more than one or two measures in each snippet at first, and there are some places in Minuet 1 where one measure is tricky enough to deserve its own index card, like measure 5 or measure 6. We progress through parts of the song until we reach the end. After a few lessons, the student has the song. What a simpler process it has been to teach Minuet 1 since I started using the timer game.

I will tell you that the students really like using the timer, and what I have done here is teach them about the value of repetition. I have also used dice and Zuki beads and Ten Times Practice beads and counters and my own Rule of Four, and you name it, I have used it. These tools also work but in a different way. These tools require a set number of repetitions. With the timer, the game is different and the lesson learned is different. Here the student is working himself to better his skill. He does not know how many repetitions he will be able to produce. He is working to increase his personal number, whatever his number is. The student is finding his pace and working to expand it, not just repeating things over and over.

Of course, we need to repeat things over and over in order to over learn something, strengthen our muscle memory, and develop ability, but the mental process is the important thing. From a child's perspective, doing repetitions looks like doing something over and over for the sake of doing something over and over. We adults know why we are doing the repetitions, but it pretty much looks like drudgery to a kid unless we dress it up a little bit with games and counters. With the timer, I changed the mental picture to be one of curiosity and fascination and discovery. That is why this game has been so popular with my students and their parents, and the end result for me is that my students pretty much learn the song rather well in a short amount of time.

I use the timer in a similar way when a student gets stuck on a tricky fingering or bowing passage in other songs. We identify and isolate the trouble spot, the student plays the spot enough times to "get it," and then I set the timer to see how many times the student can do it in the time allotted. Before we know it, the student has mastered the little spot, and we have had fun in the process.

We also use the timer for our two octave G major scale, which we learn right before we tackle √Čtude. In this situation, I set the timer for 30 seconds and ask the student how many times the student can play the scale up and down in that time period. I only count the scale repetitions if the student performs them correctly, which means that the student plays the correct notes (C and G natural on the A and E strings), uses the fingerings I have taught (pinkie on the descent), and does not make a mess of the sound. At first a student may complete one or two scale repetitions in the time allotted, but as the student progresses in ability the student will increase that number. The record for my book 1 students is 5 repetitions. After the student learns how to slur, then the number may increase. Of course, my students ask me how many times I can play the scale, and their eyes pop wide when I blow through 11 or 12 repetitions in 30 seconds. Always fun to watch their faces when I do that, and I only do it if asked. I tell them that my record is not included in the studio record.

Keep in mind that the timer is just another tool. There are plenty of tools out there to play games. I do not permit myself to get stuck in a rut. I try new things all the time. I recycle old things on a regular basis. My students even request old ideas as well. When a child finds something they like to do, they ask to repeat that game as well. The timer has been quite popular in my studio lately.

Happy Practicing!


  1. If your source ever disappears, the Flylady timer works that way as well:

  2. I like that 15 seconds or 30 seconds sounds so short! Repeat something 10 times might sound hard or boring for some students, but to see how many times I can repeat it in 15 seconds? Fun!

    1. Yup! The concept of time always amazes me. The fly lady people often use 15 minute increments to work on decluttering tasks. I think 15 minutes will go very very quickly, and I'm always astonished to find out how long it actually lasts and how much I can get done in that timeframe. 15 seconds? Pfft! Walk in the park!

  3. I have a student right now doing G scale, etude and Minuet I. Perfect timing. There is a stop watch on most phones unless the novelty of the timer is needed.

    The E and A String Concerto and Open String Blues were a great help for my 4 year old student.

  4. I have both a stopwatch and the timer on my phone, but the timer starts at one minute increments. What's missing with the phone stopwatch is that satisfying and rather annoying buzzer of the timer going off when the time is up. They know it's coming, but they don't know when!

  5. I tried it on Twinkle for the 4 year old I'm teaching. She loved it and on her own told us she could play the first section without looking. That was with the stop watch on my phone, but I may still buy a real kitchen timer for the novelty of catching her attention once again.