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The Immutable Laws of Brainjo: Episode 2 (How To Play In The Zone)

Posted by Josh Turknett on Thursday, January 29, 2015

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About the Laws of Brainjo Series

The Laws of Brainjo ("the Art and Science of Effective Practice") series describes the theoretical foundation for the Brainjo Method, a system of musical instruction that integrates that science of learning and neuroplasticity specifically designed for the adult learner.

The Brainjo Method is used for the Breakthrough Banjo courses for both clawhammer and fingerstyle banjo (and a brand new fiddle course!). 

Click here to learn more about the Breakthrough Banjo course for clawhammer banjo

Click here to learn more about the Breakthrough Banjo course for fingerstyle 

Episode 2: How to Play "in the Zone," and Why You Want to be There, Part 1

by Josh Turknett (



“I was playing out of my head”

“It was like the banjo was playing itself”

“I was in the zone”


Ask a master - regardless of domain - what it feels like when they’re performing at their very best, and these are the kind of descriptions you’re apt to hear. The words may be different, but the underlying sentiment is almost always the same: an alternate state of consciousness has been reached, allowing for effortless and optimal performance.

Over the years, different names have been used to describe this state of being: “the zone”, “flow state”, “zen-like”. In these moments, the conscious mind is quiet, sometimes leaving the player with the impression that they’re no longer involved in the playing. He or she may even feel a bit sheepish about taking credit for the resultant performance. 

But the zone isn’t territory reserved just for masters. On the contrary, these moments of effortless execution can happen to anyone, at any stage in the learning process. In fact, you’d be wise to make it a habit of seeking them out often, just as the masters do.

Here’s why. 


The Bird’s Eye View of Learning

Nobody is born knowing how to play the banjo. This is obvious. Even Earl had to build his own banjo playing brain.

This means that every component of playing the banjo, from plucking a string cleanly to fretting notes with the fingers to forming chord shapes, must be learned.

More specifically, this means that a dedicated neural network - a set of instructions for how to perform that particular skill, written in the language of neurons - needs to be created for each and every technical component of banjo picking. The brilliant thing about the human brain is that it can create those instructions for itself, based entirely on the inputs it’s given through practice (which in reality is the inputs it provides itself...consider your mind blown). 

In Chess and Tai Chi master Josh Waitzkin’s book The Art of Learning, he likens the learning process to hacking a path through dense jungle with a machete. At first the task is arduous and taxing, with great expense of time and effort. 

During this stage, the conscious mind is fully engaged, frantically trying to cobble together an ad hoc motor program (i.e. a set of instructions for movement) out of existing multi-purpose neural machinery. All cognitive resources are brought to bear on the task at hand. 

If we place a subject at this stage of learning in a functional brain imaging scanner, we see brain activity all over the place (indicated by the colors, which signify increased blood flow to the corresponding areas):

With repeated practice over time, things change. A lot. Ultimately, if the learning process goes well, the brain creates a customized neural network for the learned activity. When the task is performed now, we see both a shift in the location of the brain activity, along with a marked reduction in the number of neurons involved:

The neural network that’s been created not only consumes fewer resources, but much of it also now exists beneath the cortex (it is "subcortical"). Thinking back to our jungle analogy, a path has now been cleared, allowing us to walk down it effortlessly, without any contribution from the conscious mind. Through practice, a new pathway has literally been carved in the brain. 


The Purpose of Practice

So what might this have to do with playing “in the zone”?

Everything. Playing “in the zone” can only happen after these paths have been cleared, after we’ve built neural networks specific to the corresponding activity through effective practice

The truth is, you enter the zone all the time, everyday. Walking down the street, brushing your teeth, driving a car, fixing a sandwich - these are all learned skills you can perform while your conscious mind is engaged in something else (we take these activities, complicated as they are, for granted, precisely because they feel so effortless). Each of these activities has its own pathway carved in the brain, a dedicated neural network containing its set of instructions, built and reinforced through years of experience. 

Creating these neural pathways is the reason we practice. Which brings us to the second law of Brainjo:


Brainjo law 2: The primary purpose of practice is to provide your brain the data it needs to build a neural network. 


The goal of practice is not to get better right then and there. The goal is to signal the brain that we want it to change, and provide it the inputs it needs to do so effectively

But this raises a critical point. If our brain is building new networks based on the inputs we provide, then we need to ensure that we're providing it with the right kinds of inputs, at the right time. The brain will build a network, a set of task specific instructions, based on any type of repeated input. Provide the wrong kind of input, and we end up with the wrong kind of network.

Practice a sloppy forward roll over and over again, for example, and guess what you’ll end up with? 

A "sloppy-forward-roll neural network”, that’s what. You’ve successfully carved a path, but the problem is it leads to the wrong place.


Knowing When (and When Not) to Move On

In the beginning, the temptation is always to go too fast. We’re excited and eager to start picking some good music, and we want to play it now!

But the danger here in going too quickly is that you move to more advanced techniques before the basic ones they’re grounded in have fully developed, before those pathways, which serve as the foundation, have been laid. Rinse and repeat this process, and you end up with a bunch of networks that don’t do what you want them to do. The result is frustration, and the only remedy is to start over from scratch.

But what if there were a way we could know when those pathways were fully formed, a way to know when it was safe for us to move onward to the next hurdle? As it turns out, there is.

In neuroscience parlance, when a skill no longer requires our conscious mind for its execution, it is said to have become “automatic”. This can be tested for experimentally by having a subject perform the skill in question while their attention is diverted elsewhere. If there’s no decline in performance, then the skill meets the criteria for automaticity. If performance declines, then more practice is needed.

So if we want to test for automaticity ourselves, we can steal this same strategy, which brings us to the 3rd law of Brainjo:


Brainjo Law #3: Work on one new skill at a time until it becomes automatic.


Now, I know what you’re probably thinking: How do I tell if a skill has become automatic?

As I mentioned above, automaticity is tested for experimentally by having a subject perform a learned task while paying attention to something else. Is there a way, then, for us to test this for ourselves, without any fancy high-tech equipment?

You bet there is! In part two of this series next week, we’ll cover a foolproof and indispensable method for testing for automaticity. So stay tuned!


About the Author: Dr. Josh Turknett is the creator of the Brainjo Method, the first music teaching system to incorporate the science of learning and neuroplasticity and specifically target the adult learner (more at

13 comments on “The Immutable Laws of Brainjo: Episode 2 (How To Play In The Zone)”

Banjoshirl Says:
Tuesday, February 10, 2015 @7:48:03 AM

As a piano teacher, I was aware of the need for correct and graduated practice but didn't have the full understanding of the why this was so. Thankyou so much for such a well written explaination! P.S. Have enjoyed all your banjo videos also

truenorth53 Says:
Tuesday, February 10, 2015 @9:12:18 AM

Many times while playing, and by my standards actually playing well I have had the thought enter my head that said "Wow this is really going well." Whenever this has happened within nanoseconds all the wheels fall off the wagon, assuring me that I am closer to the Twilight Zone than any banjo zone.

Josh Turknett Says:
Tuesday, February 10, 2015 @9:17:25 AM

Thanks Banjoshirl!

truenorth53 - I've certainly been there before! You've got to master the art of enjoying it without enjoying it. Talk about zen-like! :)

casey050 Says:
Tuesday, February 10, 2015 @2:42:17 PM

Brilliant, i have to go back to the first 8 lessons hey? Pensilcase!

Wyozark Says:
Wednesday, February 11, 2015 @5:19:48 AM

About three years ago my wife and I were perusing a used book store and she found a book by a popular "brain doctor" for about a dollar. Upon reading the book I was convinced of the need to continually learn new things in order to offset some of the loss of mental acuity associated with aging. What would it be? Art? Foreign Language? Music?
I have always wanted to make music, but life's circumstances had me believing I would only be a music listener, not a maker. But I thought I would try - though relatively late in life - and started with a $4 harmonica. That quickly became nearly $300 worth of harmonicas....and then a ukulele....and then...a banjo! Again, life's events have interfered with consistent practice and so the learning curve has been slow, but in the past few months things have settled down somewhat so that I try to get a little banjo time each day and am encouraged when I play a song or tune that is at least "recognizable."
Thank you for the time and effort you have put into these lessons and all of your videos. They are a great source of knowledge, encouragement, and enjoyment.

Groover Says:
Wednesday, February 11, 2015 @7:58:00 AM

It would be interesting to know also the amount of input the brain needs to direct it's network building. How can a person tell what is too little and what is too much? I guess too little = no progress, but too much = ?

Josh Turknett Says:
Wednesday, February 11, 2015 @8:25:08 AM

Groover - good question, and will be the topic of an upcoming article. I'll say this, though: generally speaking, less is more :)

Groover Says:
Wednesday, February 18, 2015 @4:31:36 AM

I'm wondering if is efficient (or not) to learn more than one non-overlapping skill at the same time. For example assume the basic clawhammer strum is automatic. Is it a good idea to now learn in parallel: 1. fretting hand chord patterns while strumming, 2. double-thumbing while not using fretting hand.

Josh Turknett Says:
Wednesday, February 18, 2015 @5:02:43 AM

Another good question, Groover. I think, generally speaking, working on non-overlapping skills is fine - i.e. you don't risk creating poor quality networks. Since there's a finite amount of change the brain can make over time, you may face diminishing returns with this approach (i.e. the skill takes longer to develop than it would were you working on it in isolation). However, I think it's likely that this type of non-overlapping parallel approach would be a bit more efficient - even though each individual skill takes longer to develop in isolation, as long it's not twice as long, this approach would be more efficient. This is speculation, however. :)

I also think that this would also vary according to the complexity of the skill in question, particularly the cost of distributing your attention.

Anyhow, good question. I may have to dig a bit to see if this has been specifically tested.

gitanomama Says:
Sunday, March 22, 2015 @6:27:17 AM

I often tell my students that when they first learn something, it takes up a lot of the brain, and then it gets small. And now I see the picture of the brain that shows this! Thank you. Now I need to get to practicing more faithfully.

OzarkBanjoMan Says:
Tuesday, September 29, 2015 @12:33:46 PM

After I have worked on a tune for a while like to play it with my eyes closed and listen to the music. Would/could this process be part of the learning curve?

lami88 Says:
Wednesday, April 26, 2017 @11:52:40 PM

Thanks Banjoshirl!Playing the banjo is my love.But i just start to learn.I'm common rail come from sensor

Texasbanjo Says:
Thursday, April 27, 2017 @4:37:51 AM

Do not click on URL from Lami88. She's a spammer!

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