by Josh Turknett, MD
What’s the single most frustrating thing when learning to play an instrument?
Not making progress. Or, at least, feeling as if you aren’t.
As mentioned in prior episodes, progress is the single greatest motivator when it comes to learning anything. Improvement is the reward we get for our efforts.
And it’s that reward that keeps us coming back.
It’s why I talk a lot about how to make progress (and it’s why ensuring continued progress, no matter how small, is a crucial element of the Brainjo Method).
Not getting better, or at least feeling like you’re not, is the reason almost everyone quits. You hit the wall, and you don’t know how to get over it.
It’s a problem that’s been amplified further by the double edged sword of the internet age – access to information on WHAT to play is more abundant than ever, leading many to jump aimlessly from one thing to the next without any guiding framework for the right things to work on and when, or HOW to learn it. The perfect recipe for stagnation.
One of the great challenges here is simply being able to tell if you’re still getting better. Change is hard to appreciate when you’re the one doing the changing.
Remember when you were a kid and people kept marveling at how much you’d grown, while you couldn’t figure out what the fuss was about?
So that’s part of the problem.
But even if you could observe yourself in the 3rd person at discrete intervals, what would you be looking for as signs of improvement? Sure, we can tell the difference between a beginner and a professional when we hear it. But there are a gajillion intermediate steps along that path – what do those steps look like?
In the early stages of learning, measuring progress isn’t too hard. When you go from never playing the banjo before to playing your first song, for example, it’s abundantly clear that you’ve made major progress.
But as your skills improve, knowing what the next step in your progression is, or where you should be putting your time an energy, becomes less and less obvious. Because if you can’t clearly define where it is you want to go, how on earth are you going to know how to get there?
In the last episode, I introduced the following graphic that summarizes this predicament – which is that oftentimes the scope of things we don’t know that we don’t know is greater than the scope of things we know that we don’t know.
Answering this question, and providing this sort of learning roadmap, is top priority for anyone involved in teaching music. So providing that roadmap is key to the Brainjo Method, and in this article I’ll be sharing the framework I use to help identify all of the obvious and not-so-obvious parts of playing the banjo.
THE “HARD” SKILLS
Every learned complex behavior we perform is composed of scores of various sub-skills, each with a dedicated neural subroutine that mediates their operation. And the entire reason we practice is to create those subroutines.
In his book, The Talent Code, author Daniel Coyle refers to two major types of these sub-skills: “Hard Skills” and “Soft Skills.”
The hard and soft skills each have their unique set of key, non-overlapping attributes, and understanding these differing attributes is indispensable in helping us diagnose the primary issue when stagnation does occur.
Hard Skills are those that that we want to perform as correctly and consistently as possible, every time (note that the word “hard” here does not refer to their level of difficulty).
Hard skills are ones you could imagine being performed by a machine, where repeatable precision is the desired objective. Hard skills are comparatively easy to measure.
In the brain, most of the networks that mediate the hard skills will be distributed across the motor system (specifically, primary motor cortex, pre-motor and supplementary motor cortex, cerebellum, and basal ganglia).
Applied to the banjo, the hard skills are what many of us think of as the technical elements of banjo playing. Much of our practice time in the early to intermediate stages of expertise is directed towards learning the hard skills.
In the pie of banjo knowledge, hard skills are usually things “we know that we know,” or that “we know that we don’t know.”
For the most part, the hard skills also give us tangible sign of progress and growth.
When we go from one day not being able to fret a full D chord to fingering it with ease, we know we’ve accomplished something. And we know we’ve moved up a rung on the ladder of mastery.
As long as we have hard skills to learn and check of the to do list, we have progress that we can identify. This is one reason the early stages of learning are so gratifying.
Preventing stagnation in the acquisition of the hard skills is a matter of paying careful attention to the quality and sequence of practice – a topic we’ve covered in depth in several prior episodes. Hard skills are learned sequentially, and increase in complexity over time.
The motor networks in the brain that support the hard skills are built from scratch, based on the inputs we provide when we practice. Once those networks are built, they are quite literally a part of you.
Perform the same bad golf swing 3,490 times over the course of 5 years and it’ll be almost as much a part of you, and as unchangeable, as the color of your eyes. Which is why it’s best to take the time and care needed to learn it right the first go round.
When confined to the motor system, these learned neural subroutines may be referred to in common language as “muscle memory.” More broadly, we often refer to them as “habits.”
And habits are the ultimate double edged sword: a collection of good habits allows us to exploit the exponential gains of compound interest, while the accumulation of bad habits progressively constrains our future potential.
Ensuring that we form good habits is precisely why HOW we practice (the focus of this Laws of Brainjo series) matters as much or more than WHAT we practice (despite the fact that the WHAT gets the lion’s share of attention).
HOW THE HARD SKILLS GET YOU STUCK:
With the hard skills in particular, careful attention to the sequence of learning, and the nuances of effective practice is essential to continuing progress. Mistakes in learning the hard skills that lead to stagnation include:
- learning multiple hard skills simultaneously
- progressing from one to the next before automaticity has been achieved, or
- learning them out of sequence
Any of the above leads to the formation of bad habits that are hard to unlearn.
Usually, these kinds of mistakes stem from trying to learn material that’s too technically advanced, too soon (for more on the importance of learning material appropriate to your level of development, click here to read about the Brainjo level system).
HOW TO GET UNSTUCK:
The adage “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” certainly applies here. Pay careful attention to the sequence and structure of practice to avoid forming bad habits.
If a bad habit is identified, re-learn a better one immediately (do not continue to reinforce it, or press on in hopes that it will magically fix itself).
THE “SOFT” SKILLS
As mentioned, the other kind of sub-skills we can refer to as the “soft” skills.
As Coyle defines them, they are skills that “have many paths to a good result, not just one. These skills aren’t about doing the same thing perfectly every time, but rather about being agile and interactive; about instantly recognizing patterns as they unfold and making smart, timely choices.”
A tennis player’s backhand volley is a hard skill. A tennis player’s understanding of doubles strategy, along with when, where, and how to deploy the backhand volley, is a soft skill.
The distinction matters because, in many cases, we may not be aware that certain soft skills exist.
In the pie of possible banjo knowledge, soft skills are things “we know that we don’t know,” along with the things that “we don’t know that we know!”
And the distinction also matters because HOW we go about learning those soft skills is a different process.
In fact, many of the soft skills are not acquired through formal practice. Instead, they’re acquired through the operation of pattern recognition systems that run beneath our conscious awareness.
To learn them, our job then is to understand what inputs those systems need to create those skills, and seek them out.
Soft skills, like hard skills, are still embedded in neural substrates. And those substrates are still created through the learning process.
But, the soft skills of banjo are like advisors to our motor system. They help to formulate the plans for what we want to play in the first place, and provide that advice to the parts of the brain involved with controlling the movements of our limbs.
For example, a seasoned banjo player in a jam is drawing on all manner of learned soft skills, each one contributing to what we can appreciate as expert playing, even if we can’t articulate why.
Soft skills, by their nature, are harder to precisely define. Not surprisingly, they are often incompletely addressed, or neglected entirely, in musical instruction.
Yet, both the hard and soft skills are needed for mastery. And it’s the soft skills that usually separate the good from the great.
HOW THE SOFT SKILLS GET YOU STUCK:
There are two primary ways in which the soft skills can pose an impediment.
The first is through ignorance, or simply not knowing that the specific skills that are needed (the “not knowing what you don’t know” part of the knowledge pie). When a soft skill stands in your way, you know you’ve hit a wall, but you don’t really know why. You know there’s a gap between where you are and where you want to be, but you don’t really know how to describe what that gap consists of, much less what you need to do to cross it.
The second is knowing what those skills are, but not knowing how to acquire them. A common problem, since most instruction is heavily focused on the hard skills.
HOW TO GET UNSTUCK:
The first step here is to cultivate an awareness that soft skills exist, and understand what they are. From there, it’s a matter of seeking out the kinds of inputs and information needed to develop them.
And so, in part 2, we’ll dig deeper into each of these to more precisely define the “hard” and “soft” skills of banjo playing. See you then!