5 Common Mistakes Of Beginning Musicians (Brainjo Bite)


All right. Welcome to another Brainjo Bite. In this episode, I’m going to cover five common mistakes made by beginning, and maybe early intermediate players. As you know, success in learning to play music has nothing to do with innate talent or ability, and everything to do with how we practice. So not about the brain you have, but about the brain you build through practice. And so your progress or your growth rate is simply a function of practice quantity, times practice quality. And the reason that people stall and give up in frustration is because they adopt ineffective practice methods. 

Ultimately, successful learning of any kind, and successful practice, is about first stimulating the brain to change, and then steering that change in a direction that we desire. And most of the mistakes that are made are in a latter category of shaping the changes in the brain in directions that we don’t desire.

Some of the concepts that I’ll cover here may be familiar to some of you who have been following the Brainjo Bite series. But I thought that packaging them in this way would be helpful because there are things that are really important to understand when you’re first getting started so that you don’t end up somewhere you don’t have to be, so that you don’t have to go unlearn a bunch of bad habits.

All right. So with that said, the first common practice mistake is going too fast. And this actually has two meanings. First, is going too fast when you’re getting started, and plowing through the early stages of learning, which is entirely understandable. When you’re first getting started, you’re inspired. You want to start making good music, as soon as you can, right? Yet, this is probably the single most important time to be careful and meticulous in the learning process. Remember, when you’re first learning, you are building what will be the foundation of everything that comes after that. And the strength of a foundation directly determines how much you can build on top of it. So super important to build the foundational skills one step at a time, really focusing on each component individually.

It’s very much like the story of the tortoise and the hare. Those who go slower in the beginning are ultimately the ones who progress much faster and further later on. This is also why I think it’s so important to have music that sounds good. That’s access accessible to you at every stage of your development. And that’s the reason for the Brainjo level system some of you are probably familiar with. In fact, a lot of the design of the Brainjo method and the Brainjo courses is there to prevent people from going too fast, early on. And to ensure the development of the foundational skills with specific criteria for knowing when to move on or when to keep practicing. And the idea is to remove the temptation to tackle tunes and techniques that are too far ahead of where you’re at, so that you don’t end up developing bad habits.

One of the most consistent things that separates master players is that they obsess over the fundamentals and they love to focus deep on the minutia of the technical details. I recently saw a story from a sports trainer, Alan Stein, who talked about being at a Nike camp with the late Kobe Bryant. And he asked Kobe if he could attend one of his workouts. And the first thing he said was, yeah. Meet me at the gym at 4:00 AM. And he went there early at 3:30, and Kobe was already there in a full sweat. And then for the next 45 minutes, he saw Kobe Bryant doing the most basic types of drills, things that he would teach to beginning basketball players. And then later on, he asked him, why on earth, as the best basketball player in the world, are you still doing those very basic drills? And Kobe responded, why do you think I’m the best in the world? Because I never get bored with the basics.

And I think this is true across the board in any field, the experts all realize the importance of the basics and the foundations. And so that’s the first type of going too fast. And the second is, literally, playing too fast. So I’ve talked about banjo players obsessions with speed in the past, especially beginning players. And as I talked about in the episode On Speed, speed is actually a byproduct of other things. So there’s really no need to practice playing fast, especially early on. There’s really no upside, and a lot of potential downside. Namely, you’re much more likely to practice mistakes and reinforce mistakes if you’re playing fast than if you are playing slow.

And one of the most fantastic things about how the brain learns is that the speed with which we practice or acquire a skill doesn’t really matter. As I’ve said, the goal of practice is to provide the brain the inputs it needs to stimulate change, and to steer that change in the direction we desire. And the speed at which we provide the brain those inputs doesn’t really matter, but the quality of those inputs matters a ton. So there’s no reason not to practice as slow as needed to get things right.

One famous instructor at a music conservatory has a rule for students when they’re practicing slow, which was that if he’s able to recognize the song that they’re playing, it means they’re playing it too fast. So that gives you an idea of what slow practice really means. People often think that pro players have some kind of special secret that has allowed them to reach their level of expertise. And I think it’s really these two main things. One, I think people don’t realize just how much they focus on the basics and the fundamentals. And two, I don’t think most people fully leverage the impact of slow practice.

All right. The second big mistake is not audiating. And audiating is just a fancy word for hearing music in your mind. So I’ve talked before about the three categories of skills that we want to work on when learning music. Technical skills, or how to move our limbs in order to control our instrument. Conceptual skills. So understanding how music works. And then perceptual skills. So training our ears, or really our brains, to be able to recognize and extract more details in the music that we hear. Ultimately, we want to learn how to think in music. We don’t want to think visually, we don’t want to think in terms of symbols on a page. We want to be thinking and working in the world of sound as much as possible.

And for the beginning player, this means making sure to imagine in your mind what you’re going to play before you play it. And this is again, why learning songs is so helpful, because you have words that you can attach the melodies to. It’s also why having a demonstration of what a tune or an arrangement sounds like ahead of time is so helpful. And if you do this, if you start audiating from the start, right from the beginning you start connecting the sounds that you hear to the movements of your hands and positions on the fret board, rather than attaching them to symbols on a page.

And then visualizing yourself playing through songs as you’re learning, as I’ve talked about before, is another great way to work on this skill. One of the key differences in learning from notation or tab in a way that’s helpful versus a way that’s harmful is in whether or not you are audiating before you play. Whether you’re moving things off the page and into the world of sound as quickly as possible. What you don’t want to do is be using tab as your primary reference for the music. You want to be using the sound as your primary reference.

Number three is not using a timekeeping device. Remember earlier, I said, what we don’t want to do is practice mistakes, right? Remember that one of the three components of effective practice is feedback, and timing is one of the most important aspects of playing music. But how can you get feedback on your timing unless you’re playing with something that’s keeping time? So practicing without a timekeeping device will almost guarantee that you’ll be practicing timing mistakes and be developing bad timing. And again, that’s not because you are a bad musician, but because you’re practicing in a way that promotes bad timing.

Some of you may be familiar with the term closet picker or closet picker syndrome, which is named for someone whose timing is all over the place, because they’ve been playing by themselves. And that happens because of no other reason than the fact that they’ve practiced bad timing because they weren’t playing with anything that was keeping time. Timekeeping devices are also a great stress test for how well you know something. It’s a great way to expose your weaknesses and identify the things that you need to work on more. And as I said before, it’s also the best way to test whether a scale or technique or tune has become automatic.

All right, the fourth mistake is overlooking music theory. So theory is an unfortunate name for this because it’s the wrong word, and it makes it sound like it’s impractical and academic. As if you’re studying parts of music to satisfy some intellectual curiosity, but that doesn’t relate in any way to playing music or helping you become a better musician. I know that’s what I used to think about music theory, something that really wouldn’t help me become a better player. Now I know that’s not at all the case. I think it’s much better to think of theory as shortcuts. Things that you can learn that will significantly cut down your learning time and open up new possibilities that you wouldn’t have otherwise imagined or thought about.

Imagine if you wanted to become a car mechanic and you first got a set of tools and learned how to operate those tools, but you had no idea how a car worked, right? Well, conceivably, you could try to tinker around and figure all that out, but you’d be far better off if you had some kind of book or manual that told you how a car worked, right? And that’s all that music theory is, is telling you how music works. So in this analogy, our technical skills in music are like our tools, and music theory is like our understanding of how the car works. It’s also necessary to be able to communicate with other musicians about music, and to understand musical instruction.

And then the fifth mistake is a fixed mindset. So perseverance or the willingness to push forward in the face of setbacks is absolutely essential to learning music. Progress is not at all a straight line. As I’ve talked about before, that’s not how our brains work. So persevering in the face of obstacles requires that you actually believe that those obstacles can be conquered. Otherwise, what would the point be? And this is where mindset is so crucial. If you believe that your talent and your abilities are fixed, then there’s no use in persevering, right? And that’s why the myth of innate musical abilities and talents has prevented so many people over the years from persevering, or kept them from even trying to learn music in the first place.

On the other hand, if you truly embrace a growth mindset, believing that your talents and abilities aren’t fixed but a product of practice of learning, then it’s not at all futile to continue to persevere in the face of obstacles. If you hit a roadblock, you know that all you have to do is figure out the way through it. This is why I spend so much time talking about the science behind why anyone can learn music or any other complex skill at any age, because doing so relies on neuro-biological properties that we all share, that are in everyone’s brain throughout their lives. And that is now supported by a very large body of evidence.

Things have definitely come a long way in this regard over the past few decades, but there’s still a long way to go, as many of the myths around talent still exist and people still selectively apply the growth mindset. But remember, again, progress equals your practice quantity, times your practice quality. And your success is not about the brain you have, but about the brain you build through practice.

All right, so real quick, let’s recap the five mistakes. But instead of framing them as mistakes, I’ll present them as the five key behaviors of a successful beginning musician. First, is that they go slowly, right? They take time to learn the fundamentals one step at a time, and aren’t in a hurry. Remember, going slower in the beginning helps you go faster and further later on. And they also fully leverage slow practice, understanding that it’s just as good to practice something slowly as it is to practice fast, with none of the downsides of practicing fast. Second, they constantly audiate, meaning they’re always hearing music in their minds before they start out to play it. And they’re also always doing so at times when they’re not with their instrument.

Third, they always practice with a timekeeping device. Remember, you can’t work on your timing, you don’t get feedback if you don’t have a timekeeping device. So you’re almost guaranteed to be practicing and reinforcing bad timing if you don’t do so. And here, again, you can use a metronome or my personal preference, a drum track, like the Beats for Banjo Tracks that I’ve created for banjo players. Fourth, is they start learning the fundamentals of how music works right from the start, making sure that they understand the key concepts and terminology. And fifth, they have a growth mindset. Understanding that progress in learning has everything to do with how they practice and learn. And if they hit an obstacle or stall, they figure out a way through it.

Okay, that’s it for this Brainjo Bite. If you enjoy these episodes, then you will likely also enjoy the book, The Laws of Brainjo, which you can find on Amazon and other online retailers. All right. Thanks so much for watching or listening, and I will see you in the next Brainjo Bite.

Thanks so much for listening to this episode of Brainjo Bite. To make sure you catch future episodes, be sure to subscribe to the podcast on your podcast player. And consider leaving a rating and review 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.