Why Your Path Matters (Brainjo Bite)

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Recently, I received an email from George, who is a member of the Breakthrough Banjo fingerstyle course. George mentioned first that he had taken several different online courses, but had become frustrated and then said, “I’m in the process of going back to the beginning with fingerstyle and claw hammer banjo, trying to unlearn my issues. For example, learning fingerstyle roll patterns early gives a false sense of proficiency that really isn’t there. How you progressed from 2-finger to 3-finger to the Scruggs makes it very clear. Now, I just have to execute and erase what I had learned before.”

I get notes like this all the time, and I know exactly what George means here. I get notes from people who have struggled with learning 3-finger style banjo in particular, sometimes for decades, and who are finally going back to basics and rebuilding things the right way from the ground up in order to break through their plateaus and their frustrations.

I said I can relate to this because I had to do exactly the same thing. Years ago when I first took up the banjo, I started with 3-finger style and I was in the exact same boat. I began as many others do with instruction that started with learning 3-finger rolls as the foundation.

Most of you probably know that these are picking patterns that typically occupy a measure of music, and starting with learning these patterns has been the prevailing method of learning and teaching 3-finger bluegrass banjo for years. As you may know, a lot of people are unsuccessful in learning bluegrass banjo, or get frustrated with it.

As George mentions very insightfully, this approach gives a feeling of progress for a while until at some point, you reach a moment where things just aren’t sounding right. A common complaint is that I’m playing all the notes, but they don’t sound right. Or, why does my playing not sound like Earl, or Earl Scruggs in that case? Like I said, I was there many years ago, and in fact, that particular experience in many ways was the origin of what became Brainjo and the Brainjo method of instruction.

By this time, by the time this happened to me, I had enough of a background in cognitive neuroscience and the science of learning to understand how critical the learning process was to developing new skills, including new motor skills and learning a musical instrument. I realized that learning with rolls is what had created this issue that I was now struggling with, and that so many others who learn the same way struggle with. I realized that I had no choice but to go back and rebuild things from the ground up.

In this episode, I’m going to explain some of the neuroscience behind why this approach of learning rolls or patterns right from the start creates this particular scenario? Ultimately, my hope is to prevent people from following down this path which, again, so often leads to years of frustration and leads to so many people giving up on banjo, and has given 3-finger banjo, in particular, an deserved reputation as being especially difficult.

Now, since there hasn’t been a lot of research specifically into the neuroscience of learning 3-finger banjo in particular, I’m going to start by talking about an area that has received a lot of research, which is learning how to read. As you’ll see, the lessons from this research have clear implications for learning to play music as well.

A few decades ago, a new approach to teaching kids how to read started to emerge and grow in popularity. The traditional approach to reading, one that was used throughout much of the 20th century, was to start kids off with phonics. With the phonics approach to reading, which is likely familiar to many of you, children start by learning to recognize letters and the sounds that go with them.

In technical jargon, this is known as as grapheme to phoneme correspondence. Grapheme being the symbols on the page and phonemes being the sounds that they’re associated with. You might also call these print to sound correspondences. Then children are taught to sound out the words they encounter as they read by combining these sounds together. This is very analogous to how kids learn to speak, how we all learn to speak. Begin with learning the basic phonemes of the language, which we refer to as babbling, and then after they’ve learned those basic sonic elements, they start combining those into words.

Now, with the new approach that started to emerge called whole language, children were taught to use other strategies besides phonics to figure out how to decode a word on the page and figure out what a new word was? In this instance, or in this method, if a child encountered a word they weren’t familiar with, they were instructed to look for other clues about what that word might be, like the context in the story or pictures on the page.

Ultimately, the difference between these two approaches is that, whereas someone who is taught with phonics sees each word as a sequential combination of sounds, someone who is taught with whole language ends up recognizing words as whole units. The individual letters, and the sounds they make don’t carry as much meaning to them. In that approach, children learn to recognize words like they might recognize a picture, as a whole discrete unit, rather than a combination of its individual parts.

For years, there was an active debate about which of these methods was better, phonics or whole language? It is not an active debate anymore because over time it became abundantly clear from the research on the outcomes of children who learn with either approach that there was a big problem with the whole language method. Kids who learned with phonics were much more likely to become skilled readers. Those who had learned with whole language were much more likely to struggle.

For the children who learned with the phonics approach, reading ultimately became effortless and automatic, just like talking is. But for a substantial number of those who learned with whole language approach, reading always remained effortful and unpleasant. Given the tight relationship between somebody’s enjoyment of reading and educational success and lifelong learning in general, this sort of difference can really make an enormous impact on the course of somebody’s life.

Now, one of the sad parts of this story is that cognitive scientists had known that this was a bad idea for decades. They had known that the key factor that predicted a child’s future success as a reader was how well they were able to map letters to sounds, which is the basis of phonics instruction. The most skilled readers did not use context at all to decode words and figure out what they were, but could instantly recognize those words in isolation. Again, this was known even before this whole debate started.

Unfortunately, the advocates of this new approach for teaching kids to read weren’t aware of the science about how the brain learns, how to read. It was instead based on someone’s idea of what they thought would be the best approach, rather than any empirical evidence about what actually worked?

Now, one really key takeaway from this story, one that is central to the mission of Brainjo, is that all of these differences in reading ability were a result of how these kids learned, had nothing to do with their innate reading aptitude or abilities. How they learned and the neural machinery that was created by that learning process was the thing that drove whether or not they became highly skilled readers.

There’s a quote that I really like that I’m not sure where it originated but it says, “If we don’t know how the brain learns, then how can we know how to teach?” Unfortunately, as this particular story about reading illustrates, the science of how brains learn or the science of neuroplasticity has been conspicuously absent from the field of education, and absent from the field of musical instruction and education as well.

When you stop and think about it, this seems crazy, right? After all, the goal of all education is to change the brain, period. Acquiring any new knowledge or skill, which is what education is designed to do, requires the construction of new neural machinery to support it.

Okay, so back to the realm of banjo picking. Some of you may have already figured out the implications here of this research for learning how to play banjo, learning how to play 3-finger. Again, number one, the key factor driving whether someone became a skilled reader or not was how they learned to read, right? Much more so than any innate ability or aptitudes.

In this case, specifically, whether they learned words as whole discrete units or whether they learned them by combining their fundamental elements, in this case the letters or the graphemes, together. Learning by learning rolls as a foundation is the banjo equivalent of learning by the whole language approach. Just like whole language, it’s skipping to learning a pattern and bypassing the fundamental elements of which that pattern is constructed. When you understand it from this perspective, the issues that so many players report are a lot easier to understand.

With the banjo in general, 3-finger as well, a lot is going on. As I’ve talked about before, you have melody notes, harmony notes, drone notes, all being played in succession, all being played against this underlying rhythmic backbone that you’re also creating with the notes that you’re playing. Playing this style successfully requires being able to emphasize certain notes, either by changing their volume or their timing, more than others in order to make the melody stand out, in order to create specific rhythms, in order to create drive.

Yet, if the brain has stored a pattern as the fundamental unit, then it becomes exceptionally hard to emphasize specific components of that unit. The brain treats all of the elements in that pattern as the same, so the notes may be there, but all of those nuances that really are key to the sound are going to be missing. Again, take the difference between whole language and phonics. In whole language, the brain is seeing the whole word as the basic element, rather than its components.

Another common issue that people report is trouble jamming with others and playing with others requires that our playing is flexible. You’re not going to be able to play things exactly like you play it when you’re practicing on your own when you’re playing with someone else. That includes, in some cases, having to deviate from the patterns or the rolls that you’ve learned for a particular song. On the other hand, starting with the most fundamental elements and building up from there provides you with the ideal amount, or the optimum amount, of flexibility.

Now, just as with reading, there are people who ultimately become successful this way, typically because they’ve figured out a way to learn or to teach themselves the skills they needed. In the case of reading, to learn those print to sound correspondence that are necessary to decode words. But in these cases, their success is in spite of the method or approach in which they were initially taught, not because of it.

Again, the biggest takeaway from this whole story here is it’s yet another powerful demonstration that how we learn is the ultimate driver of our success in learning to do anything well, whether that’s learning to read or whether it’s learning to play a musical instrument. Because of that, it’s super important that the science of learning informs and is integrated into how we teach and how we learn.

There are so many banjo players, and other musicians out there, who have hit a wall or are frustrated and struggling, and it has nothing to do at all with whether they have what it takes, or whether they’re musical, and everything to do about how they went about learning? Just like the differences between the kids who were taught with the whole language approach, versus those who were taught with phonics.

In George’s case, who sent the original email that I read, his struggles were from learning fingerstyle rolls from the outset, which he describes as giving a false sense of proficiency, which incidentally was the exact same finding with whole language compared to phonics. Early on, children taught with whole language initially progressed faster and were able to decode words more easily. But that did not last, and ultimately limited what they were able to do and what skill level they could achieve?

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.