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An illustration shows two fighting game characters facing off against each other, while music notes play in the background Illustration: Isip Xin for Polygon

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Playing Street Fighter made me a better piano teacher

A music teacher compares learning Ultra Street Fighter 4 with learning how to play piano

In June of 2014, the week following Ultra Street Fighter 4’s console release, I earned my master’s degree in music education, with a focus on piano pedagogy. Staring down the barrel of what would turn out to be nearly a year of unemployment, I decided to satisfy a long-held curiosity: I bought a copy of the game and a fight stick and started losing matches. The accountability that fighting games command intrigued me, and as I worked on my fundamentals in the training stage, I noticed I often entered into a similar headspace as when I sat at the piano bench to work on a difficult piece.

If I can teach myself a Beethoven sonata, surely I can learn how to knock down an opponent jumping at me!

This comparison proved to be more salient than I knew, and, nearly a decade later, having opened a teaching studio with about 45 students, I’ve noticed a reciprocal relationship between learning fighting games and playing musical instruments.

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Physically, both skills require a high level of execution; however, our ultimate goal is for those physical barriers to disappear so that we can focus on the more abstract mental concepts that open the door to real mastery. In a fighting game, you’re up against an opponent whose specific goal is to stop you from implementing what you’ve learned, while in music you’re either playing by yourself or in an ensemble with everyone trying to complement one another. Nonetheless, both ask for intense focus, pattern recognition, and adaptability.

My parallel growth as a teacher and Chun-Li main has kept me in a beginner’s mindset, which helps me empathize with my students and appreciate how daunting the early grind can be. My days as a young musician are well behind me. In terms of ingrained knowledge, reading music is like reading words, and playing piano is like holding a pencil.

However, I’m only a few years removed from learning these exact same skills in Street Fighter. Getting used to a fight stick meant wrapping my head around a fairly unfamiliar control scheme, relative to using a traditional controller. In a sense, I’m right back to where I was when I was 8 years old, training my body to perform very specific fine motor functions.

So, how do we train our bodies to perform those functions? The first major barrier we need to surmount is establishing reliable muscle memory, to eliminate the gap between what our brain wants to do and telling our fingers how to do it.

Start small. Learn to play do, re, mi. Now you can play “Hot Cross Buns.” Add fa and sol to that, and you can play “Ode to Joy.”

Learn to consistently hit the right buttons for different strength attacks and pair those with directional inputs. Now you can perform Ryu’s crouching medium kick. Teach your left thumb to roll from down to forward — slowly at first, then faster as you become more confident — and now you can execute a Hadouken. Pair the Hadouken with the kick you learned earlier and you’ve got the tools for a basic combo.

This is a simplified version of the process, but even at higher levels, it’s more or less the same. When working on a difficult passage, we want to focus on small chunks until they become single musical “units,” and then combine those together. Similarly, when working on a longer combo, we start with small pieces that are relatively easy to achieve. So, once you’re able to perform the Ryu combo described above, you can start adding to it on either end without your brain having to struggle through an overwhelming list of inputs.

To a newbie, this can be a huge hurdle to get over, but at least the process is straightforward. Far more difficult is the mental game. Musicians know all too well the feeling of nailing a piece during a practice session, then showing up to their lesson (or worse, performance), having their mind go completely blank, and bombing. And I’m sure fighting game players have all experienced hopping online after a hard training session only to have that work go out the window because their opponent doesn’t sit still like a training dummy.

Things get complicated when other people enter the picture. This is why I emphasize muscle memory so much to my students. If playing in the safety of a practice room is you at 100%, outside factors will quickly chip away at that figure. With rare exceptions, we’re not going to be able to bring that 100% to a performance, so we want to eliminate as many question marks as possible to allow our 80% to be as strong as possible.

One of the biggest question marks is how we’ll fare under pressure, and this is pretty hard to account for. We can’t really practice performing without, well, performing. However, there are small exercises we can do in our training to help fortify ourselves against our nerves.

The process is the same for both pursuits: Let’s say you’re having a hard time against opponents jumping in on you. Enter the training stage and set the dummy to perform a jumping attack, and try to knock them out of the air 10 times in a row. If you mess up, reset the counter to zero. As you pile on the successes, the pressure will start to mount, and that 10th repetition can be pretty nerve-wracking! This exercise is a great way to simulate the pressure of a performance, and eventually you’ll start pulling off anti-airs before you’ve had time to consciously process that you’re being jumped at.

These lessons are all well and good for someone like me. I’m a classically trained pianist with nearly 30 years of playing. The real benefit of being an OK Street Fighter player (Ultra Silver, but I could hit Gold if I really wanted to…) is that I am constantly in that beginner’s mindset, which helps me empathize with my students. It’s easy to take for granted what I know as a musician — what I see as a straightforward major scale is, to a young musician, a long sequence of notes that requires you to change your hand position.

And as these sequences become longer, the early success wears off, and we’re confronted with the inescapable fact that, from here on out, it’s going to take work to improve. I’m not so removed from the frustration, the sheer despair, that comes from the deep struggle of loving something, wanting so badly to participate in that thing, and finding myself lacking in the skills needed to do so. I’ve thrown piano books across the room and I’ve slapped my controller in frustration; I’ve cursed the memories of beloved composers and I’ve called my opponents’ characters cheap.

There’s no shortcut to getting over this part. Practicing skills like these is intensely personal: if you’re doing it right, you’re wallowing in your weaknesses and making a million mistakes until, through frustratingly incremental progress, you emerge from each session a little bit better. Stack enough of these little victories together, and one day you’ll look back and realize the great progress you’ve made, almost without realizing it.

I think one of the reasons fighting games create such high highs and low lows is because, with enough practice, you can theoretically prepare for just about anything. It’s no different with the piano — at this point, the only thing separating me from, say, “La Campanella” is time. You can blame bad matchups, cold fingers, lag, whatever, but in your heart of hearts, you know that your failure comes from a lack of preparation, and that’s why the salt stings so badly. Conversely, a hard-earned victory feels like a real triumph; you can usually blame no one but yourself for losing, but the flip side is that every accomplishment is the result of your hard work.

There’s nothing more gratifying than watching a kid gain confidence in a new and difficult skill. Watching these kids go from one-note songs to full sonatas is joyous, and playing fighting games helps keep me close to the struggles that my students go through as they grow as musicians.

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