Episode 3: The Easiest Way to Get Better at Banjo
When it comes to pattern recognition, the human brain is king. Compared to the rest of the animal kingdom, our brain’s ability to extract patterns from the world around us is arguably its single greatest distinguishing feature.
It’s what enables us to make accurate predictions about our world, and to imagine new tools and technologies. And it does all this in the service of one primary goal: to keep us alive. The better our brain can predict and manipulate the world around it, the better its odds of achieving that goal.
But here’s the wondrous thing about our pattern recognition capabilities: most of it occurs beneath our awareness. In other words, it happens without any conscious effort or deliberation on our part, and it happens whether we want it to or not. Just going about the business of our day, we provide our brains with a continuous stream of sensory data that it sifts through and analyzes in an effort to better understand the world we inhabit.
This isn’t the narrow view of learning most of us are accustomed to. Learning is something that requires teachers, books, and intensive study. And, to be worthwhile, it probably should be a bit unpleasant.
Yet, most of the knowledge that any card carrying adult member of the human race possesses wasn’t acquired in this manner. Most of it comes simply by existing in this world, and it starts the moment your draw your first breath.
Every 6 month old knows that if they drop their milk-filled sippy cup, it’ll hit the ground with a pleasing thud. We all implicitly understand the law of gravity long before we ever crack open our first science text.
When you see someone’s face with their eyebrows and mouth angling down and their eyes narrowed, you immediately recognize the face of anger. You can interpret all sorts of facial expressions, in fact, effortlessly and instantaneously.
Yet how many times have you sat down and analyzed the differences between patterns of facial muscle contraction and the emotions they convey? Not once, I imagine.
Listening to Language
Nowhere our are pattern circuits on more impressive display than in the process of learning our native language. It is the crowning achievement of human cognition and, to this point, an achievement unique to our species. Most children are fluent by the time they enter their first school classroom.
In order to reach fluency, the child’s brain must be able to decode the composite sounds of speech, build associations between those sounds and the concepts they represent (e.g. that the sound for “cheerio” refers to the crunchy little circle mom puts on your plate every morning, etc.), and then construct motor programs that allows them to reproduce the full array of those sounds through the vibration of their vocal cords, coupled with movements of their mouth and throat.
Now, next time you have a conversation with a three year old, ask them how they figured all that out? They’ll surely cast a quizzical glance in your direction. Figure out what, exactly?
Here we have the most sophisticated of human behaviors, the pinnacle of human cognition, and it develops without any formal study whatsoever. The brain, using its massive computational horsepower, figures it out for you using nothing more than the data of daily experience.
Now, how can we put this remarkable pattern recognition ability we already possess to good use when learning banjo? Preferably with zero effort ?
Let’s revisit the infant learning how to talk for a moment.
The first rudimentary attempts at spoken language don’t typically begin for a full 6 months after birth. What, then, is she doing in those preceding 6 months? Being a bit lazy, perhaps?
No. She’s listening.
In order for her to utter the sounds that comprise her native tongue, she must first know what those sounds are. She must unravel the basic sonic elements of her language.
And this is no trivial matter. Nowadays, you’re so good at parsing through the sounds of your native speech that you probably take this gift for granted. But to get a glimpse of just what a major feat this is, simply listen to a conversation in an unfamiliar language. It’s entirely inscrutable. You don’t know when when word stops and another begins, and many of the sounds themselves are entirely foreign.
The very first task our language-learning infant must conquer, then, is to build a vocabulary of the fundamental sonic building blocks of her language. Yet, to do so, all she must do is listen to other humans speak.
She listens, and the amazing pattern recognizing machine inside her skull does the rest.
Over time, as she begins the practice of making those sounds with her voice, her brain builds associations between her sonic vocabulary and contraction patterns of the muscles that control her mouth and throat. Ultimately, and in impressively short order, she will become an expert at producing those sounds.
And this is precisely the kind of neural machinery we’re trying to build as we learn banjo: associations between sounds in our head and movements of our two hands (so that those sounds come out of our banjos).
As such, the language acquisition model provides us with an ideal template to guide our learning efforts. It’s one that mother nature has refined over a couple of million years, so we’d be wise to pay attention.
Which brings us to the 5th law of Brainjo:
We’re all in the midst of learning a language – the language of banjo. And, like any language, it is comprised of basic sonic elements that we combine together to make the music we enjoy.
These are sounds that are unique to the 5-string, though, and that are further defined by style and technique (clawhammer, 3 finger, etc.). So, like the infant learning her native tongue, we must first acquaint ourselves with these sounds if we hope to one day be able to fluently reproduce them on our instrument. What’s more, the richer our sonic vocabulary, the better we’re able to express ourselves.
So listen up. Find the music of the 5 string that moves you, the music you’d like to make, and listen every chance you get. Then sit back and let your brain do the heavy lifting.
It’s as central to your development as a player as any other aspect of practice. And it couldn’t be any easier.