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

Posted by Josh Turknett on Friday, February 6, 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 2

by Josh Turknett (

First, let’s recap.


In part one, we said that:


  1. In order to learn how to play the banjo, we must create a dedicated neural network for each of the technical components of banjo playing. This is the purpose of practice.

  2. These neural networks take time for our brain to create, and the goal of our individual practice sessions is not to get better right then, but rather to provide our brain the inputs it needs to make those networks.

  3. Mistakes happen when we rush this process, when we proceed to learning new skills before the more basic ones they’re rooted in have been solidified - before the foundational neural network has been properly established.

  4. We can test whether a network has been properly established by testing for “automaticity”. A learned skill is defined as “automatic” when it can be performed while our conscious attention is directed elsewhere.


Experimentally, in snazzy neuroscience studies, “automaticity” is usually tested for by having a subject perform the learned skill while engaging in some arbitrary task on a computer - counting the number of blue squares that flash by, for example.


But is there a way for us to test automaticity for ourselves without any kind of specially designed digital equipment? Might there be some kind of device that’s tailor-made for the business of banjo learning, inexpensive, and delightfully analog?

Why of course. Here it is:



Now, before you run away screaming, let me explain.

I know the metronome has a dicey reputation. Like eating liver, flossing nightly, or routine colonoscopies, it’s one of those thing you know is probably good for you but you don’t exactly enjoy doing. So you put it off, or avoid it altogether.

But it’s time we changed your relationship to the metronome, because as you’ll soon discover it’s an indispensable tool in your learning arsenal, and using it can actually be great fun.

In my view, the metronome’s largely undeserved reputation is primarily based on two things.

First, playing along with the metronome isn’t something that comes naturally. For most folks, it’s not entirely clear what you’re supposed to be doing amidst all the incessant clicking. Do you only play with the clicks? In between the clicks? And what the heck is “largo” and “allegro”, anyhow?

So, just like you must know how a melody goes before you set about to play it, you must know how whatever you’re playing is supposed to sound along with the metronome before you get started. Otherwise you’ve sabotaged yourself from the start.

This is one reason I bring out the metronome very early in the 8 steps to clawhammer course, and demonstrate exactly where you’re to play in relation to the clicks (click here for an example).

Second, and most relevant to this discussion, is that folks tend to misinterpret the feedback they get from the metronome. Especially if it isn’t positive.

You see, most people think of the metronome as a tool for practicing their timing. And yes, it’s useful for this. But a greater - and often neglected - purpose of the metronome is as a test for automaticity.

Consider this: in order for you to successfully play along and in sync with the metronome, you must listen closely to its clicking while simultaneously making the proper movements of your picking and fretting hand to produce the desired sounds from your banjo.

In other words, when playing with the metronome, you’re performing a learned skill (whatever it is you’re practicing on the banjo that day) while your conscious mind is focused on something else (the metronome). And, to do this successfully, you must perform the learned skill just as well as you would without the metronome clicking away. In other words, the learned skill (your playing) mustn't degrade even when your attention is directed elsewhere.

This, fellow fans of the five, is priceless feedback. Here we have a simple, inexpensive tool capable of peering into the brain and analyzing the state of our neural networks. We have the perfect litmus test for automaticity.

Unfortunately, this is not how most folks seem to interpret metronome feedback. The most common conclusion when things don’t go so well is “I guess I’m just no good with playing with the metronome” or, worse yet, “I’m a lousy player.”

But both of those conclusions are unjustified. And they stem from a basic misconception of what the metronome is all about, and why it’s useful.

So here’s a better, more productive, way to think about it. If you try playing along with the metronome and it doesn’t go so well, all it means is that the skill has yet to become automatic.  If you have to devote your attention to the movement of your hands when the metronome is clicking, then it is biologically impossible to play in sync with it. The path just isn’t fully formed, and so a little more time is needed in the woodshed.

I should point out here, though it may be obvious to you, that you can use things besides a metronome for this purpose. All you need is some sort of external timekeeping device; something you have to focus your attention on whilst your hands are otherwise engaged in the business of picking.

One option could be another human being tapping their feet, clapping their hands, or banging a drum at a steady beat (provided they’re capable of such things), or, even better, a guitarist with solid rhythm strumming along.

I’m also a big fan of backing tracks (in fact, I’ve found them so helpful I’ve got a whole website full of hundreds of them!), which provide the added advantage of simulating a musical experience. So they’re a wonderful tool if you have access to them (or you can create your own). And, these days there are all sorts of free metronomic devices online, including this metronome playlist I compiled on youtube.

Suffice to say, you don’t have any excuses for not using one!

So this brings us to the 4th law of Brainjo, which is:


Brainjo Law #4: Test for automaticity by playing alongside an external timekeeping device


You can apply to this law to virtually anything new that you’re learning, whether it’s early techniques like hammer ons, pull offs, and basic chord shapes, a difficult bit of fingering in a particular tune, or an entire song.


With this fourth law established, we can create a foolproof and basic template/procedure to guide the pace of learning anything new on the banjo, which is this:


1. Practice the new thing until it gets easier, then

2. Test for automaticity by playing along with an external timekeeping device


If you fail step 2, you just go back to step 1 and repeat the process. If you pass step 2, then you can move to the next item in your learning agenda, with the confidence that you’ve effectively carved out yet another pathway.


You’re now one step further to building your banjo playing brain.


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

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

helijohn Says:
Tuesday, February 17, 2015 @4:09:31 PM

Brilliant. I believe in making new pathways all through life. Wouldn't it be good if I could have a conversation and pick the stings at the same time.

Bullard Says:
Tuesday, February 17, 2015 @5:51:43 PM

great article and information Dr. T! Now I know why playing very slowly with a metronome and gradually building up the speed works so well in learning new material - and keeping older material in good shape!

eMike Says:
Tuesday, February 17, 2015 @7:43:38 PM

Great stuff, thanks!! BTW, what does a neuroplastician do?

jhko Says:
Tuesday, February 17, 2015 @10:23:18 PM

One issue I'm interested in is how long this all takes. My experience is that most people wildly underestimate the time needed to build these neural pathways. I know from my experience doing semi-pro musical theater for years, that it took around 60 repetitions (spaced over several weeks) of the lines in a show just to get the lines memorized. Then it took many more repetitions to add more subtle levels of content (emotional intent, movement, etc.). 60 repetitions may not sound like a lot, but it actually is quite a bit. It means running through a show three times a day for three solid weeks. Amateur performers would always way under-prepare, and then be surprised when they couldn't remember their lines.

I find music to be similar. For me to memorize a new song seems to take about the same number of repetitions, just for very basic memorization. Then it takes many, many more repetitions over weeks, sometimes months and years to build the quality level higher and higher. I'd like to hear your thoughts on this- practically speaking how long it takes the pathways to be built. Also, how long before the neural pathways start to break down again (due to lack of practice).

mjpgkessels Says:
Wednesday, February 18, 2015 @3:12:38 AM

I fully agree with jhko.
Is singing along of a song you know
very well a good timekeeper for
your banjo. Has it more soul than this
cold metronome?

Grumps Says:
Wednesday, February 18, 2015 @4:03:16 AM

Thanks, this has really enlightened me, it's been happening, whilst playing & being distracted by surrounding items, an open book, reading a passage, "I'm still playing !!!" & being astounded afterwards, marvelling that my 'single remaining brain-cell' can do this !! but not fully understanding. Thanks again Dr.Josh.

Neil Allen Says:
Wednesday, February 18, 2015 @4:51:44 AM

Interesting reading, many thanks for taking the time to make this available. Just wondering whether there is any such thing as an optimum time period for a practice session? I get the intuitive feeling that two twenty minute sessions a day might be better than one forty minute session a day, but I have no idea whether there is any science behind this.

Datawrangler Says:
Wednesday, February 18, 2015 @8:54:46 AM

Playing with a metronome helped my playing immensly. Here's great anecdotal evidence-
In the 1980's I had a private lesson or two with Pat Cloud when I lived in Bishop CA, he told me to start playing with a metronome- it would help me.
I had a private lesson with Tony Furtado in the 1990's, he told me to start playing with a metronome, it would help me.
I had a private lesson with Armando Zuppa, he told me to start playing with a metronome, it would help me.
One more before it sunk in- Lubos Malina in the early 2000's gave me a private lesson, and guess what he told me?
So FINALLY I started playing with a metronme. I guess I was really waiting for a private lesson from Bela, so HE could tell me to use a metronome. But that was not to be.
Now, I am actually playing waaayyyy less than I used to. Sometimes only a few hours every few months. BUT, I practice with a metronome, AND, after doing that for a few years, people asked me if I had a new Banjo, or, if I was doing something different. I guess playing in time makes you sound pretty good. Less practice, with a metronome=better playing.
Don't wait for 4 of the top 50 pickers to tell you.

ranzamaceanruig Says:
Wednesday, February 18, 2015 @10:18:28 AM

After reading this I feel like I've just reached another level of conciousness, not unlike Jonathan Livingston Seagull :). Thank you for your incredibly helpful article series Dr. Josh.

dhardin50 Says:
Wednesday, February 18, 2015 @1:41:55 PM

The Metronome is my favorite band to play with. Its timing is impeccable and whatever I want (need) it to be, it's never late, plays only when I want it to, plays any song I want it to and doesn't mind what it is, doesn't care if I screw up, and doesn't drink all my beer!! The most dependable bandmate I've ever had!

Mark Steiger Says:
Thursday, February 19, 2015 @5:50:15 AM

Very interesting and helpful, thank you very much!

BugTugly Says:
Saturday, February 21, 2015 @1:32:43 PM

Excellent! Thanks for sharing.

Josh Turknett Says:
Sunday, February 22, 2015 @5:18:00 PM

eMike - a "neuroplastician" is one who helps folks change their brains - hopefully for the better!

Josh Turknett Says:
Sunday, February 22, 2015 @5:24:48 PM

jhko - those are great questions. Regarding the amount of time it takes to build new pathways, or for automaticity to occur: the answer is it can vary widely. The changes that occur in the brain that support learning occur over various time scales. Some on the order minutes to hours, some on the order of days, some weeks. There are some simple learned tasks where automaticity can occur over the course of a single day.

Much of it depends on complexity, and for sure there are some that take much longer than that, and it will vary by individual. The key, in my mind, is to have an awareness of this process, so that you're neither devoting too little or too much time on it (both of which I think are common - early on, I think folks probably often move on to learning a new tune before they've solidified the one they're working on, for example).

Once automaticity has developed, however, the skill is basically yours, and requires minimal upkeep. This is where the phrase "it's like riding a bike" comes from. If you haven't ridden for a while, you know that it may take a few seconds to get comfortable, but it comes back pretty quickly.

Josh Turknett Says:
Sunday, February 22, 2015 @5:25:48 PM

mgjpkessels - Absolutely. Singing while playing is certainly a more than adequate test for automaticity.

Josh Turknett Says:
Sunday, February 22, 2015 @5:26:29 PM

Grumps - never underestimate the power of a single brain cell. :)

Josh Turknett Says:
Sunday, February 22, 2015 @5:28:34 PM

Neil - good question, and something I do plan to cover. Generally speaking, when it comes to practice, less is more, and most of the gains are produced in the first few minutes. One of the biggest keys here is how long you can sustain attention, particularly when it's something challenging. Most folks will top out and 20 to 30 minutes. Once you find yourself feeling fatigued or distracted, you know it's time to stop. Remember, the most important part of practice is providing your brain quality information - if you're starting to get sloppy cause you're tired, then call it day. :)

Josh Turknett Says:
Sunday, February 22, 2015 @5:29:49 PM

Thank you all for the very kind words and for the lively discussion thus far. Much appreciated!

Thumpik Says:
Tuesday, February 24, 2015 @8:04:01 AM

Thanks for the very basic and clear explanation.

Paul Foytack Says:
Friday, February 27, 2015 @4:48:08 AM

Outstanding info Josh. It helps to understand why to practice a certain way.
Can this be applied to the elderly with diminishing brain skills such as dementia ?

Tony S Says:
Tuesday, December 8, 2015 @2:48:07 PM

Where can I get a decent metronome? All the ones I have used seem to keep irregular time.

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