How Do You Play Faster? (Brainjo Bite)


How can I play faster? That’s a question. Every musician probably asks themselves at one point or another. Uh, but it’s also a question that seems to be a particular obsession amongst banjo players. So in this brain, Joe bite, we’ll be looking into where speed actually comes from and how you develop it. And I think you will find some of this surprising, uh, maybe even a little bit counterintuitive, including the reason why pursuing speed directly can actually make it harder for you to play faster. All right. So let’s begin this discussion with a famous study. This took place in the 1940s, uh, by a Dutch psychologist by the name of Adrian de Groot. So in this study, he set up 20 pieces on a chess board in configurations that could actually happen in a real game of chess. And then he had people of varying skill levels and chest all the way from begin from beginner to Grandmaster, briefly glance at the chess board, and then try to recreate it from memory.

And what he found was that the grandmasters, the most experienced players and the best players could recreate the entire board from a single glance. Whereas the beginners who had no experience playing Chast were completely lost, and this tracked very linearly with skill level. So the more skilled you were, the better you were able to recreate the chess board with one little glance. Now, one conclusion you might make from that was to say, well, that just must mean that grant be having a really good memory is good for chest, right? So the grandmasters had the best memories, so that allowed them to be the best chess players, but then the group did another task. And in this one, he arranged the 20 pieces on the chess board, but they were done in random positions. And so these were positions that couldn’t occur during the course of a normal chess match.

And in this case, and again, the gave the subjects, they could glance at it quickly. And then we’re asked to recreate the positions from memory. In this case, the grandmasters were no different than the beginners. So experience with chest or skill level with chess, uh, did not make them any better at memorizing positions of the chess pieces. If those pieces, if those positions weren’t ones that could occur in an actual game. All right. So what’s the lesson here. The lesson here is playing chess changed how the chess players brains stored information about chess pieces on a chess board. And that changed in perception also changed how they stored the pieces in their memory, such that it made a much easier for them recall. So they were able to extract more, much more information from a chess board provided it was set up like a game could be, uh, than a beginner. And this process of recognizing and storing things in patterns is known as chunking. And it’s something your brain does all the time. So let me give you an example of a type of chunking that you do each and every day. So I’m going to give you a string of 15 letters and when I’m done, I want you to then try to recall those 15 letters in order from memory. Okay. Ready? Here are your letters? B X, J L w I Q S a N I E K L R. All right. Go.

Okay. How’d you do I imagine? Not so hot, right? Maybe you’ve got a few. Um, no, let’s do that again. I’m going to give you 15 more letters to remember, but this time they’re going to be a little bit different format. All right. Ready? I bounced the ball. Okay. Can you repeat the letters in that sentence? Back to me, probably a lot easier, right? I B O U N C E D T H E B a L L. I don’t have to look at my cheat sheet to do that one. So I’ll bet that you were able to effortlessly remember all 15 of those letters in, I bounce the ball and that you are able to repeat them back to me much faster than you were that initial random sequence of letters. And again, both of these were just strings of 15 letters, but the difference in your ability to recall it and the speed at which you could do so has nothing to do with how good your memory is, nor it doesn’t have anything to do with how fast you can move your lips or your tongue, or your vocal cords and everything to do with how your brain stores linguistic information.

So there are all sorts of patterns in human language and chunking language into patterns has allowed your brain to store way more information than it would without using that strategy. Take a word like banana. So with just that one sound, you now have an image in your mind, um, a set of facts like its color, uh, where it grows, what shape, uh, you’ve got a sequence of six letters, B a N a and a, you have this string of three sounds or syllables, and that’s just one single word, right? So w things get much, much larger when we think about the amount of information that you’re able to extract from just a single sentence. But again, this all hinges on our ability to recognize these patterns or to chunk linguistic information. And this happens to be something that your brain is really, really, really good at doing every brain, because you’ve been speaking your whole life.

Your brain has constructed machinery to store language at multiple levels of organization. And it’s your brain’s ability to take the individual components of language like letters and phonemes and syllables, and chunk them into larger structures and vice versa that allows you to do these things. And our goal with music is to build those same sorts of structures in the brain. And there really is no better model than language for showing us how to learn music and what we want to accomplish. Okay. So now what does chunking then have to do with being able to play fast? Perhaps you already have some idea, as I said, pain is a way your brain is able to efficiently store large amounts of information. And that includes a set of instructions for moving your hands to play music. When you’re first learning how to play music, you have zero stored motor patterns.

Um, it’s very similar to trying to memorize that random string of letters. It’s very effort, effortful and slow. Now over time, as you learn the movements that are required to play music on your instrument, your brain starts to recognize patterns after all music is just pattern sound or sound, sound with patterns, right? And making those Sonic pop patterns, of course requires patterns in the movements that are required to produce it. So over time with practice, your brain begins storing things, not as individual movements, but as patterns of movements. And it does the same thing for the music that we hear as well. And this ends up making the entire process much more computationally efficient. Um, in other words, you’re able to do a lot more with a lot fewer resources, and that is where the ability to play fast comes from, think about a child learning how to talk.

Why does a child who’s still learning how to talk, speak more slowly than the adults around them? Is it because they can’t move their lips or their vocal chords fast enough? No, it’s because their brain is still trying to figure out all those patterns in the sound we call language. And over time as their brain starts chunking language into patterns, into larger and larger structures. Speaking takes less and less effort and less and less, less computational resources and the brain until ultimately they’re able to speak as fast and fluently as the adults around them. And the same is true for writing. All right, the very first step that every person who writes has to go through is to one, learn the path, learn the patterns needed to make the letters, and then automate those patterns, right? It’s not until you start to do that, that you can begin to write with any type of speed.

So developing that automaticity allows you to write faster. And then as you begin chunking things into larger units, like words and sentences, you write even faster still yet. I imagine that you can probably speak or write about as fast as you’d want to certainly fast enough to communicate, right? And I’ll also bet that you never actually worked directly on the ability to talk faster or write faster, unless perhaps you’ve had a stint as an auctioneer speed. Instead came as a natural by-product of first developing automaticity for the motor movements required, and then being able to chunk information into patterns. If those components aren’t there, the no amount of trying to play faster is going to allow you to play faster. On the other hand, once those things are there playing faster, comes as a natural by-product. In fact, the most likely outcome of trying to play faster when those components aren’t there is that you’ll end up just developing bad habits and sloppy neural networks, which will then ultimately, and ironically prevent you from forming the very types of networks you need to play fast.

All right, I’m going to leave you with an, a final analogy that I think will help to bring this home, and that is have a music box. So I’m sure you’re familiar with a music box. The critical element of a music box is a cylinder that has metal pins sticking out of it, which will ultimately sound the little tines that make the sounds of the music box and that, uh, those pins are placed in a very specific pattern. The pattern that will produce the song that, that music, that music box plays and that cylinder itself is a kind of chunking, right? It contains an entire pattern. And in this case, the pattern for an entire piece of music and all of the work in creating a music box is really in that particular thing in that cylinder, in knowing precisely where each, each of those pins should be placed and where they should be spaced in relation to the other pins, once that cylinder or that chunk of information is built and the music box around it, then playing the song faster is just a trivial matter of turning the crank faster with your hand.

And so you can imagine the neural networks that you’re trying to build in the brain with music as cylinders, these types of cylinders of varying complexity. And so what we really want to do is create them really well, right? We want to take great care as we’re creating those, those cylinders are those chunks of information. Those are what are going to allow us ultimately to play as fast as we need to. And now let me make one final point related to the banjo, uh, or a myth about the banjo. And that is the myth that the banjo is an instrument that’s supposed to be played fast. And I think that myth exists for a couple of reasons. One is just the nature of how a five string banjo is played. Um, you play a lot of notes per measure in order to give it that kind of rolling machine gun sound.

So if you take a typical banjo arrangement, maybe less than half the notes you’re playing are actually melody notes and the rest are embellishments. So harmony notes and drones, and to the untrained ear, all that activity sounds like it’s playing fast. Like it’s all about playing things really fast. It reminds me of, um, the great ragtime composer, Scott Joplin, who wrote on all his scores, that the music was not to be played fast. You can click clearly tell us as a pet peeve of him. So ragtime is a style of piano where it also sounds like a lot is going on. The left hand is very active. The right hand is very active. So it gives the impression that the music itself is fast, but that’s an illusion that’s created by the style. And I think the very same thing happens with the banjo. So there’s this impression amongst, uh, beginning players, especially who think they really need to learn how to play fast.

And the second reason I think for this myth of the banjo as a fast instrument is because there are certain tunes, um, typically known, referred to as breakdowns that are intended to play faster that are typically played fast and, and we’re kind of, uh, exist as show off pieces. Um, so typically in those situations, what a banjo player is actually playing melodically, um, isn’t very complicated, but if you play a lot of notes really fast, then it’s pretty easy to impress an audience, um, regardless of how musical, uh, it ends up sounding. Um, but again, these are really just a subset of novelty tunes in a particular genre of bluegrass. Uh, and so even within that genre, they’re not the mainstay, they’re just kind of a, a one-off type of tune. And then on the broader scope of music of banjo music, they represent just a very, very tiny fraction.

And there is tons of music on the banjo that sounds best played at slow or medium tempos. And I try to put a lot of those on my channels so that people will appreciate that there is nothing inherent about a banjo that necessitates a play being played fast, and you could play a lifetime of great music on the banjo without ever having to play it fast. All right. To summarize playing fast speed and music comes as a by-product of developing other skills, chiefly developing automaticity, and the motor skills, the banjo, and the development of chunking in how the brain stores musical information. And neither of those things are developed by trying to play fast or working on playing fast. In fact, just the contrary, and this is why you hear the mantra in musical conservatories to learn, to play fast, play slow, and again, think back to the music box and the goal there of taking great care to build a really good cylinder. So that’s the first take-home point. And the second is don’t have the impression that the banjo is an instrument to be played fast. It isn’t intended to be played any faster than any other instrument and how fast you play. It is totally dictated by whatever music you’re trying to play on it at any given time.

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 funding it as well. To learn more about music courses based on the Brainjo method of instruction, head over to Brainjo dot ACAD.