The brain learns firstly through a deliberate step by step process. Remember when you were a child learning to tie shoe laces? It was a challenging task that required serious concentration and practice. This is referred to as 'Deliberate practice'. Playing guitar is about learning and developing a range of skills such as picking technique, finger placement, pitch recognition, rhythm, reading and so on. Isolating each of these elements is important for development but also for recognition. Recognising the different elements of what you hear is the first step to being able to play what you hear.
Watching a TV music quiz show recently I was impressed by the woman who was able to identify instantly the instruments being played in a complex orchestral arrangement after just a few seconds of listening. It made perfect sense when they announced she had spent years touring with some of the world's best orchestras. She was able to single out the different instruments instantaneously.
The following video is a visual awareness test was conducted by Daniel J Simons at the University of Illinois. You may have seen this already but if not try watching this short video and doing the exercise before you read below.
I, like many people who were unaware of the real test also missed the appearance of the surprise guest. I was completely focused on the number of passes by the white team.
The above experiment demonstrates how our brain filters when it is focused on a task. This is important because irrelevant information can just get in the way. Learning music is a real trap because the music itself can get in the way. Ask the average non-musician to count the number of beats in Happy Birthday and they will have trouble because they just want to sing along to the words they know.
To learn music effectively you need to isolate its elements. Learning music can resemble the 'Rub your belly and pat your head simultaneously' challenge most of us did as kids. If you did learn it I bet you can still do it now. If not you will probably find it challenging. The secret is to not to begin by doing both. Start by rubbing your belly in circles until it is automatic and then stop. Now pat your head until it is automatic and stop. Now start the belly rub and then introduce the head pat after 15 seconds. If it doesn't work start all over again. Keep isolating and then combining and you will have it down in no time and once you do you will probably never forget it.
The reason this works is because the part of brain that needs to learn has difficulty trying to multitask. In fact multitasking is not recommended when trying to learn something new. If you try doing a complex action your brain doesn't know which part to filter out so it will filter depending on where you focus. Breaking down a complex action or thought is the key. Learn one element at a time. Once your brain understands one part of the task it can more easily incorporate another part. Now how does this apply to guitar?
Students (and I don't just mean beginners) invariably pick up a guitar and try picking out a riff with the left hand moving around the fret board and the right hand picking out the right strings at the same time. This rarely works because you need both hands to execute correctly yet the brain can only focus on one at a time. So begin by picking out a few notes and then focusing on just one hand. Once say your left hand knows its part go to your right hand and rehearse its part. Then like the 'Rub the belly, pat the head' exercise bring them together. Keep doing this until you have it.
David Hart - Program Director
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