What Can Playing Volleyball Teach Us About Playing the Piano?

Volleyball and Piano. Not related, surely? Well... I think there are some interesting and important parallels between sport and music. Both require skill and practice to develop competence, both can be enjoyed by the player as well as by an audience or spectators. What I think is particularly useful is where differences start to emerge: In my experience (very much anecdotal and not scientific at all!) people are more ready to commit to drills and practice in volleyball than they are with piano; whilst anxiety about performing in front of others often seems to be less of an issue in volleyball than with piano. Starting from these observations, what can playing volleyball teach us about playing the piano?

Beach Volleyball   by   Tim Geers   under licence   CC 2.0

Beach Volleyball by Tim Geers under licence CC 2.0


Improving Drills

Why are people happier to do drills when playing volleyball than when they are playing the piano? I think it is a direct function of enjoyment and perceived benefit. When playing volleyball the drills themselves are fun. You are clearly doing some volleyball, often with an element of competition thrown in too. Further, if I have been set a digging drill in volleyball (digging is the basic move when receiving a ball) I can usually see improvement over the course of the drill and I can completely understand how this will help me in a full game scenario. Therefore the digging drill seems completely worthwhile.

Now, reflect on piano drills... Think about piano scales and arpeggios, about other technical exercises such as thumb exercises or staccato exercises. Very few students perceive these as fun and many students struggle to understand the benefit, feeling that these are abstract and cruel activities dictated by teachers and exam boards. Piano drills are however, just as necessary as volleyball drills. You need to repeat tricky passages, you need to build up finger strength and stamina, you need to learn control and ensure even playing. Even "just" basic piano scales are incredibly useful - so many pieces of music include scalic passages. By learning your scales (both by rote and from notation) this means, amongst other benefits, that you will be able to sightread music more easily and be able to play the music with better control, accuracy and more evenly. So our challenge is - How do we make piano drills fun and relevant?

Here are a few ideas for you to use in your teaching or your own piano practice:

  • Set a speed challenge - playing against marginally faster metronome speeds each day to help your students feel the progress.
  • Play scales against backing tracks to make these exercises feel like more of a musical experience - EVEN BETTER: get students to record their own improvised backing tracks!
  • Always draw attention to scalic passages or arpeggios in students' music to help them see the relevance of their exercises. Ask students to circle all such passages whenever they start a new piece. This can also help them to feel that the new piece is not overwhelming.
  • Mix up the practice sessions for scales:
    • Play all scales and arpeggios for one note (including major and minor) 
    • Play all major (or minor) scales and arpeggios, working through in the order of the circle of fifths
    • Play scales moving up the keyboard chromatically, playing first major, on C, then melodic minor, on C sharp, then harmonic minor, on D, etc.
  • Play scales with different articulations, sometimes both hands legato, both hands staccato and sometimes one hand legato, one hand staccato.
  • Play scales with different rhythms, for example dotted or swing rhythms.
  • Set a scale challenge for your studio: students to practise set scales each week and on accurate performance at their next lesson to achieve the set goal and move onto the next goal. This allows you to include some competition into technical exercise practice.

When using motivational techniques you really need to understand what drives your student. Not all of these ideas will work with all students and you may find your own strategies by thinking about what your students' interests are. If so, I would love to hear about them. Please share in the comments below.

Managing Performance Anxiety

The second area I mentioned at the beginning where differences can emerge between playing volleyball and playing the piano is that of performance anxiety. Now this is a serious, much researched and important psychological area. But I think there are three simple points that I can make that will be valid:

(1) When playing volleyball you typically play with at least three other people on court. You often play at a centre with other courts, meaning more people around you. Quite often there may be other members of the public watching, whether in adjoining children's play areas or in cafes. All of which means, when you play volleyball you are used to being watched right from the start. Playing the piano is a fairly solitary activity and aside from playing for your teacher once a week you often spend most time playing to yourself. Which makes performing in front of others a different and possibly stressful experience.

(2) When playing volleyball there is no set script that you have to follow; there is no one precise point you should be in at any one time; there is no one option for what move you can make next.  When playing piano you are often performing another composer's work. There IS one right note played in one correct way at any one time. It is much easier to feel you have played incorrectly when playing the piano than when playing volleyball.

(3) If you watch professional sports people you will observe them making mistakes. Even at the highest levels. Mistakes in sport are normalised. When you watch professional concert pianists you rarely observe them making mistakes - any mistakes they do make will be expertly disguised. So mistakes made when playing the piano feel disastrous.

Looking at these differences suggests some simple strategies that we can employ to help students (and ourselves!) feel less anxious about playing in public.

  • Play in front of other people as much as possible. It is advisable to encourage students to play in front of family and friends during the week and to take up any opportunities they may have at work or school, for example accompanying choirs or assemblies. But the best idea is to create performance opportunities for your students:
    • Have monthly piano parties - not as formal as recitals and without the expectation of a perfect polished performance. Keep these only open to students so there is a limited audience. These could even be structured as advice and feedback parties so students really understand that they are going to be making mistakes!
    • Have termly or at least yearly recitals as well, so students do have a focus to prepare a polished performance.
    • Run a duet (or trio or more!)  club so that students get even more practice at playing in front of other people.
  • Teach students how to cope with mistakes when playing. How can they keep going? How can they recover from a slip?
    • Teach students to find safe starting points after tricky passages so that they can pick up from their next safe point.
    • Get students to sometimes practise through their pieces without stopping. This is not to be the only strategy they employ whist practicing as they could then learn their mistakes as the way to play the piece. But if students practise in this way once a day or once a week then they will become more confident with the idea of continuing despite slips.
    • Explain to students the importance of interpretation and the overall message of the piece - a performance need not be ruined by a wrong note. The holistic picture that the composer wanted to create is likely to still be communicated even with the odd mistake!
    • Play the students' pieces with some deliberate mistakes! Can the students spot your errors? How did it affect the overall performance? Hopefully this strategy will help to normalise mistakes at the piano and to make them seem less catastrophic.

I hope these suggestions will help you to grow your students' confidence - I firmly believe that just doing it lots is one of the best ways to help overcome performance anxiety. I am however, sure there will be other opinions and ideas and I would love to hear what approaches you use. Please share in the comments below.

Finally focus!

Focus is another crucial feature of both volleyball and piano playing. When you concentrate on a volleyball game, when you think about where you want the ball to go, when you observe and understand what your team mates or opponents are doing, then you play well. Sometimes when I am playing volleyball I have to consciously tell myself to Focus! I have to forget about distracting thoughts and ignore what else is happening around the outsides of the court. Seagull! Nice clouds! NO! Keep my eyes and thoughts on the ball. That level of focus - and sometimes conscious direction to focus - is important for playing the piano well too. It is all too easy to mechanically play through music, accurately reproducing the composer's ideas in rhythm and note pitches but the result will be wooden and unmusical. To play well you should concentrate completely on your playing, listening to and thinking about your interpretation - maybe adding some dynamic nuances that are not marked on the score, perhaps adding some rubato. Think about what you are to play, think about how you are going to play it, listen carefully to how you are playing it. Not only will you play better but you should also enjoy your playing more by truly engaging with it.

Students can struggle with their concentration abilities to begin with. By giving your students ever increasing lengths of music to concentrate on they will improve! Practice really does make perfect in this case.

I hope you find these suggestions helpful for your own teaching and playing. If you have thought of any more parallels between volleyball and piano, or any other sport and an instrument, please do share your thoughts in the comments below.