Moderators: I wasn’t sure where to post this, hope this is an ok place.
While reading posts on an acoustic guitar forum I came across a recommendation for the book “The Immutable Laws of Brainjo: The Art and Science of Effective Practice” by Dr. Josh Turknett. “Brainjo” is fantastic, and while reading it I started to incorporate some of Dr. Turknett’s recommendations into my practice routine. It’s been a couple of months and I’m seeing the results I had hoped to see, so thought I’d pass on what’s been working for me. I also mention Justin Sandercoe in this summary: I’ve got no affiliation with Brainjo or JustinGuitar.com — just a very happy customer of both.
TL;DR Highly recommend the Brainjo book. It’s highly applicable to guitar (and other instruments) and the advice it provides has really helped my playing improve. Minimize the use of tab, record yourself playing, incorporate spaced repetition into a practice plan.
Here are the key challenges I’m working on (I bet these sound familiar):
- improve my recall and playing of material I’ve learned
- be able to improvise while playing
- be able to hear a piece of guitar music and have a sense of where on the neck it might have been played
- make my practice time more effective and structured
The timing of reading Brainjo coincided with me completing one fingerstyle blues course and being about to start another. In the course I had just finished, Fingerstyle Blues Handbook (Vol 1) by David Hamburger, David has you work through videos plus tabs for lessons on 10 short blues tunes (tunes range from 8 to 16 bar studies). The tunes get progressively harder, and most focus on a melody played over a “steady thumb” bass.
I spent about a week or two learning each piece, and my practice generally included:
- Gathering my iPhone or laptop to watch a lesson video and my binder containing the printed tab for each tune
- Watch the video of the instructor play the piece
- Practice the piece by reading the tab and watching the video: work through the piece measure by measure until I can play it
- Make written notes on the printed tab about chord shapes, what intervals the notes are in a scale (e.g. root, 3rd, flat 7th etc) to get my head around the theory of what I’m playing.
At first I thought this was working. My playing improved, I was learning to play the pieces, I felt organized.
Here’s something interesting, and as it turns out, normal and predictable: I can play the pieces while looking at the tab, but it’s a huge struggle for me to recall them without tab as a reference.
This is a problem! Not only because all that effort seemed somewhat wasted, being able to play from memory is going to be crucial for the next class I planned to take.
The next class I took, also by David Hamburger, is his Fingerstyle Blues Factory course. This course is structured a bit differently, you first learn 41 licks or turnarounds organized by keys E, A, D and B. After learning the licks, you assemble them into 8 different tunes.
Not wanting the same results as the Pre-Brainjo course, I read Brainjo while keeping in mind that I knew I needed to change my approach to practicing. My goal was to be able to memorize the licks and recall them without referring to tab.
As of this writing, I’m near the end of the Blues Factory course (just 5 turn-around licks to go!), and I’m able to play the 36 I’ve studied so far from memory. Assembling the licks into tunes has been relatively easy — I’ve done three of the eight so far, and I’ve found I can play them pretty much by ear because I can recognize the individual licks.
Here are the key changes, suggested by Brainjo, that have really helped me improve my ability to memorize:
- Minimize the use of tab
- Focus on listening (rather than tab)
- Apply spaced repetition
Brainjo points out that when humans learn to speak, listening is a crucial part of the process: infants learn how to connect what they hear to the muscle control needed to produce the sounds that form words. Learning to play music is the same process, you learn motor control to produce sounds in a structured way.
Brainjo points out that learning to play music by reading tab encodes a different set of instructions in your brain compared to learning to play by listening. Relying on tab focuses on visual cues for the motor control — i.e. the work your brain does is to to translate the printed notation to command what your hands need to do.
Key change (pun intended): Learn the licks by listening to the course instruction, watching the videos to see the instructor’s hand positions, and only refer to the tab as a last resort.
Focus on Listening
Minimizing tab is a start to a “listening focused” approach. In addition to this, I recorded myself playing — even if it was bad, even if I could barely make it though. Recording helped accomplish two things: 1) have an audible reference for what the lick should sound like and 2) hear and celebrate the progress as I improved.
The other aspect of this is that you need to be able to hum the music. If you can’t hear it in your head, there’s no way you will remember it. Brainjo mentions this along with visualization — where you imagine yourself playing, picking and fretting the notes. I found this to be a great way to “practice” even if I wasn’t holding a guitar.
Key change: Record yourself playing (for this low-fi is fine, I just used my phone).
This technique is mentioned by Justin Sandercoe and is a widely accepted approach to memorizing lots of different material. The idea is that you put increasing intervals of time between playing something once you’ve learned how the piece goes: first a day then two days, then four days, then a week, two weeks, month, two months, and so on.
Spaced repetition has the added benefit of spreading out whatever material you are learning across practices. I’m at the end of the Blues Factory course and have learned 36 of the 41 licks. Because of spaced repetition, I’m not playing all 36 every time I practice (which would take way too long).
Key Change: I started using a to-do app to manage what I’m going to practice (I use Omnifocus, but really any will do if it allows you to set up tasks that repeat once you check them off). I start out with a new lick on a daily repeat. Once I think I’m ready, I move it to a two day repeat and gradually increase the interval. If I come to a lick and it’s been, say, two weeks and I can’t remember it then I listen to the recording and figure it out. If figuring it out is a struggle I move the repeat to a shorter interval (usually back to two days). I try really hard to not use the tab when figuring it out — that’s an approach Justin recommended and I think it really makes a difference.
Other Key Changes
Some other learnings from Brainjo that I’ve incorporated into my practices:
- Learn one new thing at a time: you are trying to get your brain to encode instructions, so make it easier for you brain to know what you are trying to learn, and just learn a little bit at a time. I limit new material to one at a time.
- Dissect licks: find the root, look for the chord shape it’s based on and/or scale the lick is derived from. Find the intervals (does it start on the root and move to the V?). Look at the root and the intervals and how they are positioned (e.g. if the root is on the 4th or 5th string, the V is on the same fret but on a lower (sounding) string right above the root…the IV will be on the same fret one string up, and another V two frets up from the IV…).
- Identify where the lick starts and ends — where did it take you to? Does it start on I and end on IV or V?
- Play something , do something else, come back to it. This is especially helpful in the early stages of learning a lick. Make the clumsy attempts to learn a new one, then turn your focus away for a few minutes, then go back and try again. More often than not I found I had improved (even if just a little)
This ended up being a longer write-up than I intended (thank you for your attention if you made it this far). I hope that this was helpful, and I highly recommend the Brainjo book — it’s a fast and easy read (and the Kindle version was inexpensive). It’s had a huge impact on how effective my practices are now. I’d be really interested if any of you give it a try, let us know what you found to work!