This is Your Brain… on GUITAR

Many people think that great guitar improvisers are born with magical powers that allow them to zip all through a song at a fast tempo without making a mistake. To a degree, this is true; some people are more adept at “hearing” music and have a natural facility for executing a performance that leaves the audience enthralled and screaming for more. But science is casting a new light on why some people have these abilities and how you too may be able to harness whatever natural qualities exist within you to improve your playing. As with anything and everything in life, HOW ONE LEARNS is extremely important and directly connected to HOW ONE DOES. While this might seem obvious, how it works internally is pretty amazing. One of the fellas I’ve been playing with for the past few years is a psychiatrist and he laid this paper on me, What Musicians Can Learn about Practicing from Current Brain Research, written by Molly Gebrian. I don’t have much of a background in the science of the mind or biology/psychology in general, but I’d like to give an overview of what I have gotten out of reading this paper. What’s interesting is that I think you will find by the end of the post that even guitar powerhouses of the past understood the concepts presented even if they had no idea WHY or HOW. If you are a guitarist, knowing this WHY or HOW might make the difference when you approach practicing, rehearsing, writing or performance in the future.

You can download the paper at the above link or just follow along here as I pull out the parts that really made an impression on me. Since I have been using what I’ve learned from this paper in the study of Gypsy Jazz, I will be drawing correlations between the two, but you can apply these methods to any style of music. The concepts presented deal mostly with string and piano players, and the author is an accomplished musician (viola). All of these quotes come directly from the paper.

“Two very important areas for learning and executing motor skills are the primary motor cortex and the cerebellum. The primary motor cortex is activated whenever you move voluntarily, whether it’s a skilled action like playing the Tchaikovsky violin concerto, or a not-so-skilled action like dragging yourself out of bed in the morning. The cerebellum is important for coordinating actions and it also serves as an error detector. As you learn a new piece of music or a new playing technique (such as circular breathing), the synapses in these two brain areas change. In the motor cortex, the synapses that relay the information on how to play something correctly get strengthened, while those that send erroneous or irrelevant messages get weakened….The brain accomplishes this through changing the number of receptors on the receiving neuron and/or the amount of neurotransmitter released by the sending neuron. The more receptors or neurotransmitter, the more likely the next neuron will get the message and pass it on, or vice versa.”

Every Gypsy Jazz instructor or instruction manual stresses the importance of learning new material slowly. It is important to fully digest what you are trying to do because you will never be able to play correctly if your knowledge is rushed or superficial. If you LEARN WRONG you will PLAY WRONG. Whether you are learning technical stuff or not it pays to try to be as focused as possible on the mechanics of what you are doing. I am the biggest violator of this rule so don’t think I’m lecturing. I have to force myself to chill out all the time! Given my background, which was for a long time, ROCK, punk-rock, and metal-esque riffing stuff, it is understandable why I might not be a very deliberate and patient player. Some people are just naturally very methodical too, but I think it’s possible for anyone to make these adjustments and s l o w d o w n because it will do your learning phase a whole bunch of good!

“So what all of this means is that every time you practice or learn something new, you’re actually changing your brain…In brain terms, you have to strengthen one group of synapses while also weakening another, rather than just strengthening a message.”

Initially, the brain changes are so small they happen on a microscopic level and if you aren’t doing something right it is easy to correct any mistakes. As time and practice continues however, the synapses involved are made stronger, new synapses are created and groups of neurons, which are called neuronal ensembles become synchronized and streamlined in their behavior. While there is “noise” and mistakes at first, with time and practice the neuronal ensembles become more adept at working together and the result is similar to all of the instruments of the orchestra performing in harmony.

“…some neuroscientists think musicians are an ideal population to find out what happens when you practice a motor task repeatedly for years and years. One of the most obvious changes is that, especially in string players and keyboard players, the portion of the motor cortex devoted to the fingers is much bigger. At the same time, the neurons in this cortical network are much more efficient. These two things happen because, presumably, over time, lots and lots of neurons get connected by synapses that wouldn’t normally be connected, and the neuronal ensembles that result from these new connections get much better at what they do because they get to practice everyday. A musician’s brain is so efficient at things like scales and other simple patterns that are automatic to us that entire brain areas don’t get engaged in a musician’s brain that are very active in a non-musician or amateur’s brain.”

String and keyboard players have a much larger portion of the cortex area of their brains devoted to the fingers than people who don’t play these instruments. A good player is capable of performing finely coordinated movements without activating other areas of the brain like the pre-motor cortex and the supplementary motor area. This is impossible for a non-musician who tries to execute similar movements. Can you begin to see why a great guitarist is capable of playing some really impressive stuff while making it look so easy? This person is using much less of their BRAIN…to do so much more! When ZE ZOMBIES attack, accomplished guitar players will be the first people they go after! Run! Hide!

“The other amazing thing that happens in musicians’ brains as new synapses form is that our motor cortex gets connected to our auditory cortex. Think about how strange that is. For most people, what they hear doesn’t cause them to have automatic associations with movement, and moving certainly doesn’t cause them to hear things in their heads.”

WHOA! WAY COOL! When a musician listens to a piece of music they know and play well, not only does their auditory cortex light up on a brain scan, but the area of the motor cortex devoted to finger movement does too, and not only does this area light up as a whole, but the individual fingers light up in the order and timing necessary to play the piece. Consequently, if someone asks you, pro guitar-person, to air-guitar a song you know well, your auditory cortex is going to light up as you execute the movements necessary to play the song, even if you don’t have a guitar in your hand or make any actual sounds. That’s pretty amazing don’t you think? I think this is why many guitar teachers advise players striving for better improvisation to “SING” their parts. Because the motor cortex is connected to the auditory cortex you must KNOW what you want to HEAR so the auditory cortex can send an endless amount of messages to your fingers on what to play.

“Matthew Walker and his colleagues here in Boston have done a number of experiments on motor learning during sleep (Walker, et al, 2002, 2003, 2005). Their basic experimental paradigm involves three groups of people. The first group gets taught a finger tapping task (4-1-2-3-4 where 4 is the pinky finger and 1 is the index finger) at 10am, which they then practice and are tested on multiple times throughout the day. The second group gets taught and practices the same task at 10am, but they don’t get tested on it again until 10pm. Then, they are sent home to sleep and tested the next morning at 10am. The final group is trained on the task at 10pm and has their first retest at 10am the next morning. What they found is astonishing. The first group gets gradually better throughout the day at a rate that you can predict. The second group shows the same linear increase during the day, but when you test them the next morning, there is a huge jump in their performance (measured by faster sequence execution without loss of accuracy). The same goes for the group that was trained at 10pm and then retested for the first time the next day – they got much better overnight, even though all they were doing was sleeping! (Everyone was instructed not to practice when they went home.) Even more surprising, there is absolutely no relationship between how much better a person got during daytime practicing and how much better they got after sleeping.”

They researchers believe that our sleep time is when the brain is actually PROCESSING the new information learned or practiced during the day. There are theories that some learning is dependent on practice (which we all need to do) and other learning is dependent on sleep and they function independent of each other. You can’t learn just by sleeping (if only huh?), but if you are, say learning a new fast and tricky passage, it makes more sense to get it so you can play it CORRECTLY at a nice slow tempo, and then leave it until the next day and progress that way. Using this “steps” kind of process you should be able to pick up speed faster over time than if you try to get it all immediately.

“Sleep is divided into two broad types: REM sleep and non-REM sleep (or NREM sleep)… During what is called Stage 2 NREM sleep, however, electrical brain events occur that are called sleep spindles. During a sleep spindle, there is a huge burst of electrical activity in a population of neurons that causes massive amounts of calcium to enter those cells. Calcium is what causes all the changes discussed earlier, from strengthening and weakening synapses, to making new synapses, to synchronizing the firing of neuronal ensembles. Sleep spindles reach peak intensity late in the night and have been shown to increase following motor learning during the day. The study by Matthew Walker and his colleagues at Harvard Medical School also found that the percentage of improvement after sleeping strongly correlated with the amount of time the person spent in Stage 2 NREM sleep in the final quarter of the night, precisely when sleep spindle activity is at its peak.”

I’ve made it a habit to pick up the guitar and run through some new things right before bed and even after I put the guitar down, I briefly go over what I’ve just played in my mind as I try to drift off. Obviously I can’t do this every night and neither can most people, but if you are unhappy with your abilities or stuck at a plateau that you can’t move beyond, try to incorporate some of these ideas and see if they make a difference. I think it is important to focus on ONE THING; a lick, a passage, or technique, instead of trying to cram a lot of ideas at once, especially if you want to make a leap forward. Sometimes a very simple thing, like starting descending runs with an upstroke instead of a downstroke, or learning a new arpeggio or scale application can lead to big changes.

Finally — mental practice. Have you ever heard the legends of how some of those really boss jazz players like Charlie Parker, Miles Davis or John Coltrane were able to practice mentally, without a horn, moving their fingers correctly and hearing the notes and sound in their head? If not, it is a legend that has actually been around for a while and the thing is: It’s true. There is no legend involved. Science!

“Another surprising finding is how much you can accomplish by practicing mentally. Alvaro Pascual-Leone and his colleagues at the NIH (National Institutes of Health) did a study in which they looked at the effects of mental practicing, resulting in very exciting conclusions. In their study, they had two groups of people (all non-musicians) learn to play a five-note scale (do-re-mi-fa-sol-fa-mi-re-do or C-D-E-F-G-F-E-D-C) on the piano in 16th notes at quarter note equals 60 (or four notes per second). Both groups practiced for two hours a day for five days (a total of 10 hours), but one group was only allowed to practice mentally. They were not even allowed to move their fingers. Everyday at the end of the practice session, everyone was tested to see how well they could play the scale. This is the only time the mental practice group got to actually play the keyboard. As easy as this would be for any trained musician, regardless of instrument, it is quite difficult for people with no musical training. At the end of the first day of practicing, both groups had a very hard time playing steadily and they would often play their fingers in the wrong order. After having practiced for five days, however, the group that got to practice on the piano everyday could play the scale perfectly. After five days, the group that only practiced mentally could play it at the same level as the physical practice group achieved after three days. The mental practice group was then allowed to practice at the keyboard for two hours, after which they could play it perfectly!”

Not only did the group that physically practiced piano for two hours play this scale perfectly but both groups had their cortex measured daily, and as you can probably guess, all participants had growth in the size of the motor cortex region devoted to the fingers, even if they were in the group that was only THINKING about playing. Pretty far out isn’t it? This is something that might be useful if you find yourself in a situation where you don’t have an instrument, or have perhaps sustained some kind of injury that prevents you from playing for period of time. In addition, the combination of mental practice and physical practice can make you a really boss player. Ever read the story of Edward Van Halen sitting in the closet humming ideas into a walkman because he didn’t want to wake his wife? Supposedly the awesome Girl Gone Bad from the 1984 album started that way. Or how about Jimi Hendrix once musing… that sometimes daydreaming could produce the most intense music, but if he reached for his guitar and tried to duplicate it right away, it just ruined the moment? I wonder if some of these “dreams” or “ideas” don’t show up as music at some point without players even trying to recreate the ideas verbatim. Considering all of this new scientific info, could it be that our brain isn’t making as much of a distinction between our thinking and our playing as we do? Have you ever played or written something and wondered, where did THAT come from?

While most of this might not seem like a HUGE revelation, it should make you appreciate just how great a machine the brain is and how you as the controller of your brain, can adjust it in order to be a better musician. I was never a very technical player before my introduction to Gypsy Jazz, even though I was capable of playing some fairly intricate rock stuff. But I quickly learned that if you are going to have a really good technique, you must have a lot of patience and focus and bring as many of your mental resources to the task as possible. If you’ve read this and are interested in improving your technique or maybe getting out of a rut, see if you can try to bring your brain into the mix instead of just letting your fingers go to their familiar moves and positions. Learn something new and really learn it so well you can wake up in the morning and play it. Own your brain and you will own your music. If you leave everything up to the fingers, or old habits, you will always be using a small fraction of the resources at your disposal. Also, keep in mind that this does not mean FEEL and EMOTIONS go out the window. Django Reinhardt, Edward Van Halen, Jimi Hendrix, Joe Pass, Jennifer Batten and many others have had complete technical command of their instruments and were/are very feel-oriented players. While there have long been discussions in guitar circles of one versus the other, in actuality, the better your technique, the better the possibility you will be able to translate your emotions into sophisticated playing. How can you use YOUR brain to move forward with your approach to GUITARING?

** All quotes from:
What Musicians Can Learn about Practicing from Current Brain Research. Molly Gebrian.

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