How Playing an Instrument is Like Clash Royale

I like to check out what students are doing on their phones, and a couple months ago I decided to try out Clash Royale for myself. For those unfamiliar with the game, I'll mention that Clash Royale is "a fast paced, card based PvP brawler." Players construct a deck of cards and then fight in real time, using the units created by the cards to attack the opposing player's towers and defend their own. So what is so similar about band and this mobile game?

Competition (often) fosters a desire to get better

Some people don't care about winning games, but I do. It doesn't even matter what the game is--silly lawn games, Settlers of Catan, Dominion--if I am playing, I want to be better than the competition. Part of the appeal of Clash Royale is that your progress is measured by the number of points (trophies) you have, and the more you have, the better you feel. In band, when you can play higher, faster, or louder than everyone else, you feel confident. When you can't, you want to improve--or give up, which brings us to the next comparison.

People keep on playing as long as they make progress

Many people have tried playing--instruments and games--and have already quit, and one of the big reasons is they feel they can't make progress. The people you are playing with seem too good; you lose as much or more often than you win; and no matter what you try, there's no hope for improvement. Students (and gamers) who don't see a path forward will quit. If, however, students keep making progress and always see the next milestone ahead of them, they will keep playing.

Clash Royale does a terrific job of this at the start of the game. It seems like all of your first activities lead to accumulating treasure chests, acquiring new cards, increasing your gold, and advancing your rank. Perhaps this is how students feel when they open up their case on the first days of playing.

Still, it doesn't take long for the feeling of grinding away to set in, and that's why it's important to remember that...

Progress is mostly incremental and certain to have setbacks

While there are times that I have advanced several hundred trophies in a day in Clash Royale or memorized a whole sonata in a couple weeks, most progress is imperceptible on a day to day basis. I can look back on weeks, months, or years at a time and recognize the improvement in my double-tonguing or ear training.

We improve by watching others

Music teachers say this all the time, but I think a lot of us have trouble living it out. We want students to listen to the best players, but how much time do we devote to listening in rehearsal? I watched some replays in Clash Royale early on and realized some ways to improve my game just by how I place units. The same thing happens (though perhaps at a slower pace) when we listen to great musicians; we hear how they shape a phrase or the way they handle a tempo change. Another benefit of listening/watching is getting inspired to be like the best!

Strategy is key

Most growth in music is the result of applying the same strategies with patience. Slow down. Practice small parts. Repeat. These practice strategies never go out of style, yet some new music, demands a fresh approach. Remember the first time a teacher had you practice fingering and blowing without playing and the freedom you felt in your sound after that? Or how about the first time you were told the story behind the music and felt your emotions fuel your playing in a way you had never experienced? I've watched others (and myself!) make some of the same mistakes over and over again, and whether the failures come with my trumpet or a game, there are times I have to develop a new way to look at the problems I face.

One important difference

It may be years from now, but eventually, everyone who now plays Clash Royale will move on to something else. New games come out, old games get old--and our fickle, thrill-seeking brains are drawn to a new diversion. I suspect, however, that many people will still be playing instruments--including a great number who have already played for years. A video game does not provide the same sort of life-long satisfaction that is so obvious in older musicians--with music, there's always room to improve and grow. Jimmy Heath still sounds great at 89, and I hope to keep playing that long.