Brainjo Bite: How To Use The “Tetris Technique”


All right. Welcome to another episode of Brainjo Bites. In today’s episode, I’m going to share with you something I refer to as the Tetris technique. It’s a technique that every musician should be using, but it’s one that I realized that is something that’s probably used by every expert musician, but it’s something that’s rarely discussed.

So as you may know, I am a big fan of visualization as a means of practicing. So visualization is a powerful tool, not only for enhancing the speed and effectiveness of practice, but also for helping to build those all-important sound to motor connections that are crucial for doing things like playing by ear and improvising. So connections between mental sounds, sounds in our mind and the movements of our hands that are needed to make those sounds come out of our instrument. But in today’s episode, I’m going to be talking about a different kind of visualization and it’s named after the game Tetris, because it involves a technique that’s commonly used in that game, especially by expert players.

And because Tetris has one of the most well-known video games around the world, but as a refresher for those who are unfamiliar or don’t recall it that well the game Tetris essentially involves rotating these geometric shapes that are dropping from the top of the screen so that they fit together in the structure. You’re building at the bottom without any gaps. And so you have a shape that starts to fall from the top and your job is to figure out what the best spot to place it in the stack of shapes below again, trying to fit it so that there are no gaps. Now, when the game is moving slowly, there’s time to kind of figure that out while the shape is falling down. But as you progress the, and the game, it starts falling quicker and quicker.

And so you have less and less time to make decisions about how to rotate your shape, and where’s the best place to put it. Now, here’s the important part. And the key to the Tetris technique. Another feature of the game is that there’s a little box up top that shows you what shape is coming next. And in order to get to the higher levels of Tetris, at some point, you have to start looking ahead at that next piece, as you’re still manipulating and putting your current piece into place. So in other words, by the time your current piece reaches the top of the screen, you already know the moves that you’re going to make with your hands to bring it down into your structure. And because as you’re making those movements, you’re busy, your conscious attention is busy looking at the next piece, figuring out what you’re going to do with it, with it once it arrives.

So in this instance, your hands are executing a motor program pertaining to what’s happening right now while your conscious attention has moved to focus on planning for what’s next and really deciding what the next motor program is going to be, what the next sequence of movements of your hands will be while you’re executing, executing the current one. And in fact, we have different parts of our brain specifically in the frontal lobe that are responsible for those two different things. We have areas that how’s stored motor programs. So like the movements of the fingers we need to make to do things like forming chord shapes or the movements needed to rotate and move a Tetris piece in a video game. And we also have different areas of the frontal lobe that are involved with selecting which of those plans we’re going to execute next.

And so while one motor program is unfolding after we’ve sort of called it an action, the planning area selecting which one will come next. And so again, every expert player at Tetris does this because you can’t again, get to a high levels without doing it. And if you have ever played your fair share of Tetris in your life I imagine, you know exactly what I’m talking about. In fact, this is, this imaging ahead is a fundamental technique in many video games where your hands are executing a move while you are focused on figuring out what you’re going to be doing next. But this technique of looking ahead to the immediate future, it’s also key with playing music especially playing more complicated material or playing at faster tempos. One of the things that happens when you learn to do this in Tetris or another video game, is it makes the game slow down.

It makes it feel slower. Likewise, when you do this with music, it also makes the music feel like it has slowed down, and it makes you feel like you have more time to make decisions when you’re playing. The truth is you have to do this imaging ahead at least a little bit in order to play in time or with the beat. Otherwise you’ll always be a fraction behind the beat if you aren’t anticipating a little bit what’s coming next. But for some that may only be the tiniest fraction of a second. And if that’s true, it may feel like you’re holding on for dear life to keep up. But the further ahead you’re able to image, the slower things will feel. Now, there is a difference between how this technique is performed for musicians who cite read, and for those who don’t.

So for a musician that’s reading from notation, the technique is really virtually identical to the Tetris example. The musician’s eyes are staying slightly ahead of their hands on the, in the notation. So they see what phrase or notes is coming up next as their fingers and maybe their mouth is executing the current phrase or a set of notes for the musician that doesn’t play from notation by ear. This is done in the mind’s eye and it first requires knowing how the music is going to sound. And second it requires knowing where your fingers need to be in order to execute or produce that sound. And if you spend time visualizing regularly that sort of imagery will become more and more natural. But again, as with anything, this particular skill of imaging ahead is something that will get better, the more you practice it.

And it’s something that I’d encourage you to try doing every time you’re playing something on your instrument, just like with test truss. All we’re really interested in when using this technique is what is in our immediate future. So the next set of notes or the next chord these things are especially important if what’s coming next is going to require a significant change with our hands or our fingers. So like a chord change or like a movement from one portion of the fret board to another, or for the claw hammer and two finger banjoist’s out there, things like an alternate string pull off. That’s a technique that you can’t perform unless you’re prepared in advance, or it requires you knowing that it’s coming up next. And so if you’ve never done this imaging ahead, at least at least deliberately before start out slow and simple, start with easy melodies that, you know, well, and go slowly and see that as if while you’re playing, you’re able to visualize what’s coming up next.

And ultimately you want to get to where you do it, that sort of thing out of habit, so that you kind of automatically always looking in your mind for what’s coming up next. But of course, this does require that you have learned whatever you’re playing to some degree. Number one, how it goes and number two, how to play it. So it’s also a way of revealing parts of a song that you might need to strengthen that you don’t know as well. Incidentally, this skill is also necessary for improvising as just like with Tetris, the decision about what to play next, happening while your hands are executing, the thing that you are playing right now which you decided a moment ago. And again, that’s the real key that your mind is slightly ahead of your hands.

So that is the Tetris technique. Again, something I would venture that every expert musician does, but that isn’t talked about all that much, but hopefully something you’ll find helpful. And again would highly recommend getting in the habit of doing it. Once again, if you enjoy these Brainjo Bite episodes, then you’ll likely enjoy the book, the Laws of Brainjo: The Art and Science of Molding a Musical mind, and you’ll find a link to it in the description, or you can just search “laws of brainjo” and you’ll find it. Thanks so much for listening, and I will see you in the next Brainjo Bite.