How Many Songs Should You Learn At Once?

EPISODE TRANSCRIPT

How many songs should you learn at the same time? That is the question we will be tackling in this Brainjo Bite.

A few episodes ago I talked about the principle of motor interference and its implications for how we should structure our practice sessions. So motor interference as a refresher is the phenomenon where learning a new motor skill within four hours in the studies that have been done within four hours of learning, a prior motor skill ends up suppressing your ability to learn the prior skill, as well as the most recently learned skills.

So both are affected if they’re done within that timeframe. So in other words, trying to learn two new unrelated things in a short period of time ends up slowing your pace of improvement compared to if you were to just have learned one thing. Now, there are some additional nuances there that I explored in that episode.

So I’d suggest taking a listen to it if you haven’t done. So, but in today’s episode, I want to address a question that several people had naturally after that episode, which was, well, how many songs then should I learn at the same time? And is it bad to be learning more than one at the same time, as always with questions of this kind, there are multiple factors at work that matter, and that bear on the answer, some of which will be individual or personal related to your own goals, preferences, and ability level. But here I’m going to discuss some general principles mainly so that you’ll be able to structure your own practice in ways that are in line with your own goals and preferences. So perhaps the most important thing to know about with respect to this question are the stages of learning.

So as you’re probably aware, every song that you learn goes through a kind of evolution. And from the standpoint of the brain, what we’re trying to do, anytime we learn a new song is construct a new neural network for playing that song the set of instructions in the brain that we need to play it. And that network itself undergoes a kind of evolution, which we experience as the various stages in the learning process.

So when you start out learning no network exists, right? And we’ll refer to that stage as the exploration phase and in the terminology of neuropsychology, this is the stage of conscious incompetence. So you don’t know something and you know, you don’t know it. This is the time when you’re familiarizing yourself with a song’s melody, rhythm, harmony, and its overall structure. And when you’re in the process of figuring out how you’re going to play it, now you might be using some form of notation in this process.

Maybe you’re playing it by ear or some combination of those things. And then you’re figuring out you’re making decisions about how you’re fingering it essentially identifying and then learning the sequence of movements that you’re going to need to play it. Needless to say, this is when things are the most challenging. And the time when it’s most demanding for the brain, that also means that this is the time in the evolution of learning a new song when the brain is going to be changing the most. And it’s during this stage in the learning process where it’s probably most important to be mindful of this phenomenon of interference. So I think it’s safe to say that working on a new song, that’s in this stage for 15 to 20 minutes, and then moving on to another song that’s also in this same stage not long after would be counterproductive, and based on the principle of motor interference would likely undermine your ability to learn either one. So you’d be better off just learning one.

Now, at some point in the evolution of learning a song, you get to a point where you can play through it entirely, but it’s not quite to the point where you can perform it. So you still have to concentrate hard to play it, and it still needs some work to bring it up to where you want it to be. And we’ll refer to this as the Refinement stage.In the neuro-psychological lingo, it’s the stage of conscious competence.

So at this point you are competent in playing it, but it requires focused attention. And the key metric for determining whether a song has moved from the first Exploratory phase to this Refinement stage is whether or not you’re able to play it in its entirety from start to finish with some kind of external timekeeping device, no matter what tempo as mentioned, what we’re trying to do here is ultimately construct a neural new neural network in the brain. And one thing we know is that as we move through these stages of learning, the location of our evolving neural network also begins to shift.

And that means there will be less overlap in the brain activity when playing a song that’s in the Exploratory phase versus the Refinement phase. That also means there will be less overlap in the signups is that are supporting the playing of those songs since that is really the central spot in the brain where learning happens. And so based on the research on interference, that means that learning or practicing a song that is in the Refinement stage is less likely to interfere with one that’s in the Exploratory stage.

Okay? So ultimately

You’ll then reach a point where, you know, a song you can play it like you want to and doing. So doesn’t feel as effortful as it once did. And you may even be able to play through the whole thing while your attention is focused elsewhere. In other words, the song has become yours. And the reason you can do those things is because through practice, you’ve created a dedicated neural network for that song in your brain. And we can refer to this as the Maintenance stage in the neuropsychological lingo. It is the stage of unconscious competence. You are now competent in that skill, even when your conscious attention is directed elsewhere. And the good thing about thethis stage is you can probably go extended periods of time without forgetting the song and still being able to play it. And it’s referred to as the Maintenance stage though, because it does require revisiting this material from time to time to keep it in peak condition.

Also, as you grow and improve as a musician, you may decide to change. You play a song that’s in this Maintenance phase in one way or another. So it’s always a good idea to revisit this material in the Maintenance phase, not just to keep it from getting rusty also as an opportunity to exercise your creative creativity and imagination and your evolving musical skills. Okay. So now for some general guidelines about how to implement this with respect to, you know, how many songs to be learning at the same time. And again, the first thing to understand is these three categories in the evolution of the learning process – Exploratory phase Refinement phase and the Maintenance phase, and to be able to place the songs that are in your evolving repertoire into one of those categories. And of course, what you place in those categories is going to change over time.

As you continue to practice the ideal thing here would be to keep an ongoing list of the stuff, you know, and place it in these categories as well. And then once you have that list, guideline would be not to have more than two in the Exploratory phase at any particular time. Now, as you become more and more advanced, that number may increase some, but I think keeping it low one to two songs is especially important in the beginning and intermediate phases.

And then the second would be not to work on two songs in the Exploratory phase back to back in the same session. If you were going to work on them in same day, try to allow for at least four hours in between them. So you don’t run into the issues with interference. So one way to structure your practice would be take a song that’s in the Exploratory phase, work on it, maybe 15 to 20 minutes, take a short break. And then after that, either work on that song again, or work on some material that’s in the or Maintenance phase, and then the next guideline would be going back to the previous episode. If a star song stays in the Exploratory phase, more than a couple of weeks, assuming that you’re practicing on a regular basis, then it’s probably worth putting it on the back burner and selecting something else to start working on. That’s a little more accessible and then re maybe revisiting the other one at a later point in time. And

Remember there is loads of great material to play on the banjo that is relatively simple to play, but sounds incredible. And then it’s also worth noting that things can move in either direction with respect to these categories. So while we would like it for things always to move forward from the exploration to Refinement to Maintenance phase, there may be times when things move the other way. So for example, you might revisit a song that is in your Maintenance phase and you find out it’s not quite what you want it to be anymore, or that things have degraded a little bit. So no worries. Just move it back into the Refinement category and work on it a bit more.

All right, that’s it for this Brainjo Bite. Again, if you have any questions about these episodes, feel free to leave them in the comments, as you probably know, by now, I read them and they’re often great fodder for future episodes. So if you enjoy this Brainjo bites series you will likely enjoy the book, the 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 search laws of Brainjo, or just Brainjo on Amazon. 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.Aca