The Laws of Brainjo, Episode 7
Mind Over Matter
Not long ago, I wrote a piece for my “Brain on Banjo” article series for the Banjo Newsletter about the benefits of visualization in the banjo learning process.
Multiple studies have demonstrated that many of the benefits of practice, and the attendant changes in neurobiology that accompany them, can be attained simply by imagining yourself practicing.
Even though I’ve studied the human brain for over two decades now, and understand the physiology that supports this process, I still find the whole thing a bit magical – the idea that we can restructure our brains through thought alone seems like the stuff of science fiction. In the article I likened it to using the Force, that gift that allows a Jedi to manipulate the physical world with his or her mind.
In sum, visualization is a super cool and incredibly effective way to augment the learning process.
That said, I also know that if it’s not something you’re used to doing, you may feel a bit lost when it comes to getting started with it. If so, fear not! In this article, I’m going to share a simple procedure to help you get started, one I’d say that pound-for-pound is the most effective way to reap the full benefits of visualization.
More than a learning substitute
The fundamental idea of visualization in the context of skill learning is to simply imagine yourself performing the skill in question. Some folks may misinterpret this to mean that you should imagine watching yourself playing (the name itself is part of the problem, as it implies watching something). This is not the idea. You actually want to imagine yourself doing the activity. You want the first person perspective, not the third.
In this sense, visualization can be viewed as a substitute for practice when, for whatever reason, you can’t pick a physical banjo.
But this view sells the technique a bit short, as there are additional benefits – ones that are somewhat unique to those of us learning the music of an aural tradition – that are actually easier to attain through visualization than physical practice.
By definition, when you’re visualizing, in the brain you’re connecting an imagined sound with an imagined feeling – in this case the bodily perceptions that accompany playing.
And, if we consider what types of neural networks that support the skill set of a master musician, this is precisely the thing these networks do. Through years of [the right kind of] practice, the masters have created direct neural mappings between imagined sounds (what they want to play) and movements of their limbs (so that those sounds are emitted through their instrument).
So, when you visualize, you too are building exactly the kind of neural networks that support the highest levels of musical expertise. In fact, you have no other choice. With no tab to look at, no hands to stare at, you’ve removed the visual system from the equation. All that’s left is sound and movement.
Visualization is also a fabulous technique for memorization, and provides an exacting assessment of how well you know a tune. If you can visualize yourself playing a tune from start to finish, then you know with certainty that you’ve got it. If you can’t, then more work is likely needed.
So, now that I’ve hopefully convinced you that visualization belongs in your suite of practice methods, here’s what I think is the perfect way to get started putting it into action.
Step 1: Record yourself playing a tune
Ideally, record yourself playing through a tune you’re still working through, one that you have yet to satisfactorily get “under your fingers” (you can even just record a section you’re finding especially tricky).
Alternatively, and particularly if you’re first starting out, you could begin by recording a tune you already know well. Even in this case, you’ll be reaping some of the benefits (specifically, building those “sound-to-motor” mappings I discussed earlier).
When recording, make sure to play through the piece as slowly as you need to in order to maintain accuracy. Speed is of little importance here. And it’s fine to look at tab or some other written source if needed.
Step 2: Play back your recording at a later time, and visualize while you do
Now, to practice the visualization part, simply play the tune back at a later time (whilst away from your instrument), and visualize yourself playing as you listen.
What you’ll find is that having an auditory cue, and having it be something you’ve already played, will make the visualization part nearly effortless. In fact, most likely the visualization will occur naturally; you almost can’t help but imagine yourself playing when listening to a recording of yourself.
And that’s it. Record yourself, then listen back later and visualize when you do. Over time, you’ll likely reach a point where you can visualize without the recording.
The Time to Visualize
It goes without saying that one of the great benefits of visualization is that it allows you to practice when it’d be otherwise impossible to do so (in the car, walking the neighborhood, while exercising, while engaged in un-stimulating conversation (so I’ve heard)).
But I think the absolute best time, when possible, is right before going to bed – something I do often (it can even double as a cure for insomnia!).
Last month, I covered the topic of how to choose when to practice. As you know, sleep is the time when we grow, the time when the brain does most of its rewiring in support of transforming the experiences of our day into physical memories.
And there I mentioned that the brain, when deciding what of those daily experiences to commit to long term storage, does seem to give priority to activities performed closer to sleep (all those college kids cramming right before bed understand this phenomenon on some level).
Yet, getting in a practice session before hitting the hay isn’t always the most practical thing. So what better way to still reap the benefits of the sleep proximity effect without having to disturb your family or neighbors than to conduct that practice session entirely in your mind? It’s the perfect win-win.
With that, we’ll conclude with…