3 Keys To An Effective Practice Session (Brainjo Bite)

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All right. Welcome to another episode of Brainjo bites. So in this episode, I’m going to be going over the three essential components of an effective practice session. So in the last episode, we looked at the science behind how long we should practice to ensure steady and continuous progress or what the necessary components are in order to provide a signal to the brain that we want it to change in order to acquire a new skill or some new form of knowledge. But of course, it’s not just how long we practice it matters, but also what we actually do during those practice sessions as well. And that’s what this episode is about. So in other words, it’s about both quantity and quality. And in that last episode, I said that when it comes to practice that consistency trumps volume. And here I would say that quality trumps quantity.

And that’s because really how we practice makes all of the difference in terms of whether we reach our goals or not with music and good practice techniques are a force multiplier on our efforts. So someone who’s practicing effectively with good habits can achieve in 10 hours, what it might take someone else to achieve in a thousand or ever. So today, again, I wanna go over the three, necessary ingredients for an effective session. And so if you ensure that these three things are present each time, you are virtually guaranteed to see a return on your practice, time in the form of future growth or improvement. And on the other hand, if, if one of these things aren’t present, then it’s virtually impossible to improve and grow. And I guarantee that every great musician you’ve ever heard or every great athlete or writer or whatever has these three elements in their practice session, whether they’re explicit or deliberate about it or not.

And the nice thing about this framework is you can really apply it to anything that you want to practice beyond the realm of music. And I’ll note here that when I’m talking about practice here, I’m really referring to a session of playing in which your specific aim is to improve at something, right? So you’re trying to get better at, or reinforce a particular skill or learn some new piece of knowledge. That’s in contrast to times where you’re just picking up your instrument and you’re just enjoying and playing some music. And of course you should be doing plenty of that as well because making music is why you’re practicing in the first place, right? And of course the lines here aren’t always distinct, you know, you may pick up your instrument, have some time where you’re just playing some music for fun, and then you may spend some time working on something.

But that’s kind of the point is to be deliberate about things and to try to bring some focus to this area, to make sure you’re getting a return on the time that you’re investing. So ultimately an effective practice session comes down to getting your brain into what I call the growth loop, because when you’re plugged into the growth loop, you’re creating this virtuous cycle of improvement that I’ll talk about in a minute. Okay.

So the first essential ingredient is clarity. And by that, I mean, know what you’re working on and know it in very clear terms. So it seems kind of obvious that you wouldn’t sit down to practice without knowing exactly what you are going to work on, but people oftentimes do that. They oftentimes start to practice without a real clear idea of the thing that they’re trying to learn or improve upon.

And they might kind of have this idea that they want to get better in a general sense, but can’t identify the specific element or thing that they want to get better at during that session, you just may just kind of want to get better at everything. So you might just pick up your instrument and run through, run through some things you’ve been working on recently. You do a little bit of this and a little bit of that, and you could end up spending, you know, an hour or two, but because your efforts lack really clear focus and clarity your brain, hasn’t received a strong signal about what it’s supposed to be working on while you’ve sleep. And remember that the reason we practice is to construct and modify neural networks in the brain that are devoted to whatever it is we’re learning. And during those practice sessions, we’re trying to send our brain a signal or give it the data of what it is we want it to learn.

And when it comes to music, there are really three broad categories of focus, which I’ve talked about in the banjo player’s roadmap. And I’ll link to that in the description for this episode, if you want to download it. But the first category there are, are technical skills, and these are the motor programs that we’re creating in the brain that will control the movements of our limbs and our hands and our fingers to make the music that we wanna make. And I think that when most people think about practice, they’re probably thinking primarily about technical skills. Incidentally, this is sometimes also referred to as muscle memory, a term that makes most neuroscientists cringe, since muscles don’t have any memory, Muscles just respond to the nerve impulses that are sent to them from the brain. And so the real memory which exist in the brain are these stored patterns of nerve impulses that control different kinds of movements.

So again, you might have a practice session where you’re working on a particular technical skill. It could be, you know, moving from a G chord to a decor. It could be working on a couple of challenging measures in a tune that you’re trying to learn. Whatever it is, identify it, and then focus intently on that particular thing. And the more specific you can be about what it is you’re trying to work on, and the end result that you’re after the more effective your session is going to be. So again, that’s the first category of technical skills. The next would be ear training. So maybe your goal there is to work on picking out simple melodies, or maybe it’s working on picking out chords progressions or distinguishing certain intervals, like a major third and a minor third. And again, the point being be clear about the thing that you’re trying to work on and how you’re going to work on it.

And then the last category, if you recall, is musical knowledge and concepts. So this is basically understanding how music works and your goal here may be to learn how to retune your instrument to different tunings, maybe to use, to learn how to use the capo to play in any key. It could be trying to understand the Nashville number system. So you’re working on trying to find the 1 4 5 in every key. Again, the point being for number one, to be clear on the thing you’re working on and number two on how you’re going to work on it. So the first essential ingredient again is clarity. And so don’t make the mistake of either number one, not having a specific idea about what it is you’re working on, or number two, trying to work on multiple things at the same time, so that you’re not ending upstanding the brain, a strong signal.

As a side note, a lot of people asked after the last episode about whether it’s useful to do multiple practice sessions in a single day. And if so, what’s the best thing to work on during those sessions. And it’s a great question, and it brings up some interesting issues, nd I’m gonna do a future episode on the topic. But I’ll say for now that if you’re gonna do multiple sessions in a day, probably the most effective approach would be to practice elements from these different categories. So for example, if you spent your first practice session working on a technical skill, then you may be best off in the next session working on ear training or learning some new or working on some new musical concept. And, I’m gonna dig into the reasons behind this again, in a future episode.

All right, the second essential ingredient is attention. So I said in the last episode that one of the limits to the duration of an effective practice session is our attention span. And the reason the length of the attention span is so important is because attention is essential for signaling the brain to change. So it’s impossible to even wrap our heads around the amount of sensory data that the brain is processing every day. It’s been estimated that the retina alone. So the back of the eyeball is transmitting 10 million bits of visual information every second. So we’re, our brain is processing far more information than we’d ever want or need to store, which means that we have to have a mechanism for identifying what’s actually worth saving because that requires energy and resources. So we only need to store and remember a fraction of what our brain is processing every day. And the way we signal the brain that something is worth remembering and something is worth changing for is through our attention.

So again, the structural changes that support learning and memory happen primarily during sleep and the things that you paid close attention to during the course of the day are the things that you’re going their brain is going to start changing for while you sleep. And at the base of the frontal lobe, you have these collections of neurons that send their projections or their axons to every other part of the brain’s cerebral cortex and every layer in the cerebral cortex. And these neurons are active and firing whenever we’re focusing on our attention, our attention on something. And when they’re active and firing, they’re squirting out a chemical called acetylcholine onto the neurons that they’re projecting to. And what that does is starts to initiate changes in that particular synapse that will support learning and memory. So it’s basically a chemical cue that happens when we’re focusing intently on something that signals this brain that this is worth changing for.

So I like to say that attention is the gatekeeper of neuroplasticity. So without attention, the brain doesn’t change to learn new things and form new memories. So that’s the second essential ingredient. And then third essential ingredient is feedback. So in other words, you have to have some way of evaluating how well you’re doing right? And in some endeavors, this is baked into the activity. So imagine learning how to shoot a basketball. If the ball goes in that’s feedback, that said, you just did it right. And if you, if it doesn’t go in, if you miss, then you need to make some kind of adjustment to your next effort, right? And the magnitude and the nature of that adjustment will depend on the particular miss. And this isn’t actually something you’re going to sit down and consciously figure out, right? All of this happens deep in your subconscious networks, where the bulk of your intelligence actually lives.

This is how your brain learns most everything. So almost all learning is happening at this deep level where your brain is figuring out all the complex details. You’re just kind of feeding it, the, the relevant information that it needs to work out those details. And now imagine if you were trying to learn how to shoot a basketball, but you never actually knew whether your shot went in or not. Right? You’d never improves because feedback is essential to this process. And when it comes to music, your primary tool for feedback is your ears. So in this case, you’re listening to what you play and evaluating it. And then your brain just like in the case of shooting baskets is making adjustments based on that feedback to bring it closer to your desired result. And again, all of this is happening subconsciously based on the inputs that you’re providing to the brain, it’s making all of these complex adjustments to your hands and what you’re doing in order to try to achieve your desired result.

Now, I bet you’ve heard expert musicians say that when they play, they actually have no idea what they’re doing with their hands. So Earl Scruggs famously said, he couldn’t explain what he was doing on the banjo. He couldn’t teach his banjo style to someone else. He also said he didn’t think he ever played the same thing twice or played it the same way twice. And this is just like, if you were to ask a basketball player to diagram the strength and the sequence of muscle contractions that are needed for them to make a three pointer, you know, they would have no idea. So rather, you know, Earl Scruggs had in mind what he wanted his music to sound like. And over time his brain created the neural networks that were necessary to create that music on its banjo with his hands. And so the thing that I want to emphasize here is that with music, our ears are our primary feedback mechanism.

And if we listen intently to things, our brain is going to figure out what we need to adjust and do with our hands in order to get our desired results. And again, it all boils down to providing the brain what it needs and then letting it do its magic. And one of the things that makes music such a great learning environment is because the feedback, the sounds are immediate and clear, , provided we are paying close attention to it, and that we’re evaluating that feedback. So that means number one, carefully listening to what you’re doing. And number two, to knowing what you’re listening for and knowing what you’re listening for, includes things like number one, am I playing the right notes? And in order to do that, you must have some kind of imaginary reference that you’re comparing to. So what you don’t wanna do is play from some form of written notation, like tab that you’ve never heard, or you don’t know what it’s supposed to sound like.

This isn’t classical music where you’re trying to site read sheet music. And even if you’re goal was to site read sheet music, you’d still need to know if you’re playing it right. You’d still need feedback either with an external reference of the song that you’re trying to play, or with a teacher sitting behind sitting beside you slapping your hand with a ruler every time you made a mistake.
So that’s first thing are the notes, right? Number two, are the notes clear? So are you generating a nice clear note or do you need to adjust your technique in some way? Three are the notes in time, and four am I maintaining a steady rhythm? And that brings me to another point, which is in order to work on rhythm and timing, you must have feedback about it. So if you’re not practicing with any kind of time keeping device, whether it’s a metronome or the beats for banjo tracks, or backing tracks or another musician with good rhythm, then you’re not getting quality feedback about your rhythm and timing.

And this is another area where the idea of innate talent or ability is commonly used incorrectly to explain what is actually an issue with practice methods. So when people play with poor rhythm and timing, it’s not because they lack rhythm it’s because they’ve practiced without that feedback. And just like not knowing whether your basketball win in the goal or not, you can’t improve it something without feedback. So feedback is essential as is evaluating your efforts with a critical ear. And this is always true, no matter what stage you’re at, whether you’re beginner, intermediate, advanced, if you’re learning new things or trying to maintain the things you’ve learned, you always want to be listening with a critical ear. And the key is not to take it as some sort of value judgment, cause remember that mistakes are the only way we learn anything.

So we want to be finding them in order to improve. We need to be practicing right at the edge of our current capabilities. And there’s a term desirable difficulty that refers to that particular concept of finding just the right amount of challenge. So that means if you’re not screwing up sometimes then it’s unlikely that you’re providing a challenge sufficient enough to stimulate growth and change. And that is provided that you make sure you adjust your playing accordingly in response to the feedback that you’re getting now for learning new musical concepts, you need some other way of evaluating how well you’ve acquired what it is you’re trying to learn. So that’s things like testing or quizzing yourself or applying that knowledge in some way. And this is another thing that seems obvious, but is oftentimes not done. So studies of college students show that most don’t actually test themselves when they study.

So the most common study technique is for a student to read over a text and highlight it and maybe read over those highlights again, but to never actually quiz themselves or try to apply that knowledge, which we know is an incredibly ineffective technique, just like with music, the difference between really great students and not so great students is not innate intelligence, but how they study and those who do well, not surprisingly use effective study techniques and so are able to learn the same material better and in less time. And the difference again is feedback, right? You want to make sure you’re asking yourself, how am I doing? You know, am I actually learning this? And do I have a method for knowing how I’m doing all right. So to wrap up, those are the three essential ingredients, clarity, attention and feedback. And as I mentioned earlier, what we want to ensure is that during practice we’re plugging ourselves into the growth loop and the growth loop is simply taking an action.

So we have some particular thing we’re practicing. We take in action. We evaluate that action. And then we’re using feedback to evaluate our efforts. And then we’re modifying those efforts accordingly based on that feedback in order to get closer to our desired result. And again, this seems like an obvious thing, but what you don’t want to be doing is repeating the same mistakes over and over in the hopes that things will somehow get better, which is something we’ve probably all been guilty of at some point in time, but doing that, you’ll not only not progress, but you risk reinforcing movement patterns that you don’t want to persist and that you don’t want your brain to actually learn. And so if you do find yourself making the same error over and over again, it’s usually because you’re either number one, going too fast or number two, working on too many things at the same time.

So remember that the goal, especially with respect to technical skills, is to develop automaticity with those particular skills, which is the ability to execute them while your conscious mind is directed somewhere else. And if you’re working on or practicing something that involves multiple skills that you’ve yet to master that you’ve yet to automate, then you’ll be forced to direct your conscious attention to multiple things at the same time, which is not biologically possible. So rather than continuing to repeat things in hopes that they’ll magically get better instead either number one, slow things down until you can get it right or simplify what you’re doing. So again, the growth loop action evaluation modification, this is the virtuous cycle of growth that you want to make sure you’re plugged into in order to have an effective practice session. All right. So hopefully you found this run through the essential ingredients of an effective practice session to be helpful.

It’s one of those areas where in retrospect, things can seem obvious. You know, of course we have to have a clear idea of what we’re doing. Of course we need to play, pay close attention to it. Of course we need to have good high quality feedback. And yet I bet if you stop and think about it, you’d be surprised by the number of occasions where you’ve sat down to practice and you didn’t have all three of those components. So I’d encourage you to keep this framework in mind and think through it at the start of your practice sessions. I think that you’ll find that not only will it make those sessions more productive, but it’ll also likely change where you’ve focus your energies over time.

And in the next episode of Brainjo Bites, I’m going to be talking about how we can apply neuroscience to kill stage fright. So this is probably an issue that almost everyone has dealt with at some point myself included for sure. And it’s something I get asked about quite a bit. So if you want to catch that episode, make sure you’re subscribed to Brainjo bites, either on YouTube or wherever you listen to your podcast.

Also, if you enjoy this Brainjo Bites series, you will likely enjoy the book, the Laws of Brainjo, which was published last year. It’s all about how to apply the science of neuroplasticity to learn smarter and more effectively the easiest way to find it is just to search laws of Brainjo or just Brainjo on Amazon. Thanks so much for listening to this episode of Brainjo bites, to make sure you catch future episodes. Be sure to subscribe to the podcast on your podcast player and consider leaving a rating interview in iTunes, which helps other folks to find it as well, to learn more about music courses based on the Brainjo method of instruction, head over to brainjo.academy.