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The Immutable Laws of Brainjo: Episode 5 (How Much Should You Practice?)

Posted by Josh Turknett on Friday, May 1, 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 5: How Much Should You Practice?

by Josh Turknett (ahttp://aboutbrainjo.com)





 

If you hang out around the hangout for long, you'll notice certain commonly recurring topics:

"What's the best banjo under X amount of dollars?"

"Can I play Scruggs style without fingerpicks?"

"How much do you practice each day?"

Years ago when I first took up the banjo, I'd find those conversations about practice time a bit demoralizing.

Tales of daily marathon sessions of 8-10 hours were commonplace. Anything less than 4 and you best not speak up for fear of public shaming.

I was in my first year of medical residency when I got my first banjo, when 90 hour work weeks were the norm. In those days, I was thrilled if I could squeeze in 15-30 mins of picking time in a day. Was I deluding myself by thinking I could become a banjo player with such comparatively little time to devote to it?

Needless to say, not only did I become very interested in methods that would maximize practice efficiency at that point, but I also became intensely concerned with the question of how much practice was truly enough.

We seem to have a natural tendency to believe that if a little of something is a good thing, a lot is even greater, even if our experience tells us that more is often not better.

So what then of practice? How much is enough? And is there such a thing as too much?

 

The Minimum Effective Dose

First, let's clarify precisely the question we're asking, which is how much practice time is necessary to get results? In other words, what amount of time is required to make sure that the next time we pick up our banjo, we're a better player?

Remember, the goal of each practice session is not to get better right then and there, as getting better requires structural and physiological changes in the brain that take time - changes that are set in motion during practice, but that continue long after we've set our banjos down (much of it while we sleep).

With this in mind, our question then becomes, what's the minimum amount of time needed to signal our brain to change?

 

Necessary Conditions

As stated above, to learn anything, the brain must literally remodel itself to build novel neural circuitry that supports the new skill or technique we're learning.

Yet, we don't have unlimited space or energy to work with. Our brain is relatively fixed in size, and building new brain stuff requires precious energy stores. To operate successfully within these constraints, our brain must be selective about when it changes, and when it doesn't.

To illustrate, think back to February 9th of this year. Do you remember what you had for breakfast, lunch, and dinner? Do you remember who all you spoke with that day, and the contents of those conversations? The emails you sent? The websites you visited?

Me neither!

You don't remember those things because your brain didn't deem them worthy of long term storage. They weren't worth spending valuable space and energy on. I think you'll probably agree that your brain made a good decision. Whether it was eggs, toast, or a pop tart on February 9th, who really cares?

And how exactly did your brain decide not to encode those things into long term storage?

Because you didn't pay much attention to them.

Every minute of every day, our brain is busy sifting through an incomprehensible amount of sensory data. Most of it is discarded as irrelevant, not worthy of the resources required to store them for a later day.

But what of the stuff that is worthy and relevant? How does the brain know to keep that for later?

By only storing the things you were paying close attention to.

Attention is the means by which we tag the events of the day to signal our brain that we might need them again later, cueing the brain to then rewire itself towards that end. There's a large body of research on this issue, and the results are solid: without attention, memories aren't formed and skills aren't learned.

But the type of sustained and focused attention we're talking about here isn't easy, and it isn't something most folks can carry on for too long in one stretch. At least not before the mind tires and begins to wander. And once the mind wanders, further efforts are wasted.

So what's the typical amount of time a person can maintain this level of focus? About 20 to 25 minutes.

Brainjo Law #7: When practicing something new, practice until your attention starts to fade. For most, this will be 20 to 25 minutes.

 

The Time to Change

So, if our practice sessions are best divided into 20 minutes bursts, the next question, then, is whether this is enough time to trigger the brain to remodel itself in the service of our desired skill. Stated another way, how much is enough time to induce neuroplasticity?

Until recently, we were left to only make an educated guess about this question. But thanks to recent technological advances, we now have the tools to assess when the brain has remodeled itself through practice, enabling researchers to target questions of this nature more precisely.

Using those tools, it's been shown that 25 to 30 minutes of focused practice time is enough to produce the structural changes in the brain that support skill acquisition

Putting all this together, we can reasonably conclude that, when learning something new, about 20 to 25 minutes of focused practice is sufficient for achieving our goal, which is to ensure that the next time we sit down to play the banjo, we're a better player.

Furthermore, given what we know of the limits of human attention, and given that there's a limit to how much the brain can change in a day, the practice curve is likely U shaped, like this:


After a certain amount of time, we face diminishing returns, as our attention wanes and we run the risk of spinning our wheels. This goes on too long and we start to compromise the quality of our inputs. We can take a break and return later, of course, but at some point we come up against the limits of neuroplasticity.

So, should your predicament be as mine was many years ago, when the demands of work and family left little time for banjo plucking, don't despair. Take heart, and keep mind this next law of Brainjo:

Brainjo Law #8: When practicing new skills on the banjo, quality beats quantity. Twenty to thirty minutes of focused, distraction-free practice is sufficient to ensure consistent progress. 

 



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 aboutbrainjo.com)



 



23 comments on “The Immutable Laws of Brainjo: Episode 5 (How Much Should You Practice?)”

dhinds4100 Says:
Wednesday, May 6, 2015 @6:32:34 PM

Good stuff.

GO VOLS Says:
Wednesday, May 6, 2015 @7:57:10 PM

Thanks Josh. This topic is the very thing I been interested in for quite a while. I've bought a few e-books on the subject of practice and how much is too much. I'm retired and have the time to put in several hours a day practicing, but recently have been concerned about the very things mentioned in this article. I find my mind wondering and that I am only going through the motions. I highly value your opinions on the subject, because I feel you are much more qualified on the subject since you are a professional and not just an author. I will file this article and I'm sure I 'll go back to it several times in the future. I find your articles on how the brain functions very interesting and I"m sure lots of other do also. Thanks again.

bruce7 Says:
Wednesday, May 6, 2015 @11:54:58 PM

This is more or less what I've always done with every instrument I've learned to play! Great advice Josh. I play when I feel the need to for as long as I want to!

drewlarge Says:
Thursday, May 7, 2015 @2:30:09 AM

I actually practice that way, not because I intend to, but my brain tends to switch off after about 25-35 mins and I feel myself needing to close my eyes and go into a sort of sleep for 10-15 mins or so, a kind of sleepy meditation. When I come out of it I can do it all again without losing focus.
Pity it dosen't sound like that!!!! Naw just kidding, it does work.

Groover Says:
Thursday, May 7, 2015 @2:32:38 AM

Does the useful number of 20 minute sessions in a day vary from person to person? By how much do you think? And the time between sessions? So one person can only do a single session but perhaps someone else can do 10 spaced through the day?

honketyhank Says:
Thursday, May 7, 2015 @6:44:34 AM

I am wondering about that graph. Should it not form a plateau instead of a peak? Or are you actually saying that the longer one practices, the less improvement one will see?

Mark Steiger Says:
Thursday, May 7, 2015 @7:32:46 AM

Very interesting and helpful article like the four others before! Thank you! I agree with Honketyhank that the curve should not decrease. Even if our concentration wanes, the future long-time improvement is neither increasing nor decreasing! Too long practice time is just unnecessary because there is no more progress.

Josh Turknett Says:
Thursday, May 7, 2015 @8:43:43 AM

honketyhank and Mark - thanks for the comments! The curve is U shaped on purpose (with the decline after the plateau). The reason being is that there are two primary constraints on learning effectiveness:

1. attention span
2. the brain's capacity for change in a given time period (which is finite)

So our brain has a finite capacity of change, and that change will be determined by the inputs we provide during our practice session. Imagine, then, that we have two fingerpicking beginners practicing a square roll.

The first beginner practices for 25 minutes, maintaining sharp focus and solid technique. The inputs his brain gets are of the highest quality.

The second beginner does likewise for the first 25 minutes, but decides to press on for another hour. As expected, his concentration begins to fade, his fingers begin to tire, etc. The end result is that the quality of inputs he's providing his brain starts to degrade.

After practice, the brain begins constructing square roll networks using the input from those practice sessions. With our first beginner, who only provided his brain high quality inputs, the resultant network is also of high quality. Our second beginner, who provided his brain both high and lower quality inputs, runs the risk of his network being of lower quality (this gets back to the importance of not practicing mistakes, as they can become embedded in your playing and difficult to undo). This is the reason for the dip in the graph.

One safeguard against this is to limit practice sessions to shorter durations, as discussed in the article. And you could conceivably do this for multiple sessions a day. That said, given that the brain is only capable of a finite amount of change over time, it's not certain that these additional sessions will confer additional improvements. There is certainly a limit, given constraint #2, but we don't know what that is (but we do know that 30 minutes is enough to stimulate structural change, on the other hand).

Remember, too, we're specifically talking about practice sessions, where our specific aim is to improve. This is separate than playing for enjoyment, which I think you're free to do for hours on end!

Josh Turknett Says:
Thursday, May 7, 2015 @9:01:30 AM

Groover - There is certainly a bell shaped distribution when it comes to attention span, so there are outliers on either side; however, we're probably talking 35-40 minutes at the high end (that's just speculative, though, as I don't have access to the raw data at the moment). I think the most important thing is maintaining an awareness of your concentration level, and recognizing when you're starting to fatigue.

Regarding spacing sessions through the day, I do think multiple shorter bursts are preferable to longer sustained sessions; however, there is likely an upward limit to what can be accomplished (see my answer above for more on this).

Ed Emrich Says:
Thursday, May 7, 2015 @9:52:46 AM

Great article. I start with warm up rolls then play a couple of tunes I "know" then hit the new stuff when I'm warmed up and in the grove. Last I play my fun things I want to keep on the front burner as kind of a reward. Works out to be like 10, 10 20, 20 total 60. Minutes Sometimes it goes longer depending upon my energy level for the day. Works for me.

Josh Turknett Says:
Thursday, May 7, 2015 @9:57:50 AM

That sounds like a really good routine, Ed. I like it!

Josh Turknett Says:
Thursday, May 7, 2015 @9:58:57 AM

Thanks to all for the great comment so far!

handysteve36 Says:
Thursday, May 7, 2015 @12:53:04 PM

After a hour of picking my skills start to fade and what was simple in the onset is harder. Some time between my sessions does show improvement. I keep a recorder near and it always is just after a warm up of 5 - 10 minutes I am hitting on nearly all cylinders. I record myself when I am doing my best. The tapes are another tool I use to help me hear just how horrible I sound. After I run through all my songs (14) a couple three times, I am done for the day. I do sometimes miss a day or two. When I return, I am always better.
I think my 30 minutes takes a hour or so, I may be a little slower than the rest?

honketyhank Says:
Thursday, May 7, 2015 @12:58:27 PM

Josh, after a careful reading of your reply about the shape of the graph, I have this to say:

I can buy that.

Thanks.

brazilhead Says:
Thursday, May 7, 2015 @10:54:22 PM

I've really enjoyed this series of essays! If it's not asking too much, would you consider discussing the effect that practicing one stringed instrument has on another? I was so encouraged by how much practicing banjo seemed to help my guitar playing (and vice versa) that I decided to go ahead and learn mandolin, hoping that such carryover in improvement would continue. I'd be interested to hear your take on this.

The Memphis Flash Says:
Friday, May 8, 2015 @2:24:39 AM

Now, do you mean that after 30 mins of trying to learn new material your effectiveness falls off? With the job and family I have now, I don't get to practice every day
some days it takes longer than 30 mins just to get my fingers limbered up (and sometimes way more, depending on how long it's been since I was able to play. (growing up and learning to play banjo in my teens, I was one of those who would put in 6 hrs a day routinely).

I myself have found that my attention span goes elsewhere after awhile, so when that happens I go practice on another song. I play both. 3-finger and clawhammer style, so sometimes I'll swap over and play the other style for awhile.

Usually on the days I'm off work, I tend to try to squeeze in at least an hour of practice-not necessarily a new song, but possibly new licks or variations I work up for tunes. (Can't remember the last time
I actually learned a new song, I'm afraid!!!)

Is there anything wrong with this approach?

Thanks,
Mike M

tertom Says:
Friday, May 8, 2015 @5:00:39 AM

That has really worked for me. I eat my lunch in the car, parked by a beautiful river and then practice banjo for about 25 minutes. Then it is back to work. Breaks up my day and increases my level of playing.

RickyDoo Says:
Friday, May 8, 2015 @6:39:54 AM

There's nothing like practicing banjo by a river!

Mark Steiger Says:
Friday, May 8, 2015 @7:08:46 AM

Thank you, Josh. You explain very clearly. I'm looking forward to your next episodes of effective practice and playing.

iattbpp Says:
Friday, May 8, 2015 @10:58:35 AM

Besides the fact that it's tremendously encouraging to hear to that I probably don't have to play 40 hours a week to get anywhere, Josh Turknett is a good writer. He has helped me calm down about my goals and just enjoy the learning experience and the music I can make.

banjerman Says:
Friday, May 8, 2015 @12:22:45 PM

Great ideas but the learning curve isnt quite that easily put in a box. As a guideline it fits pretty well for the average beginning picker. As time goes on you go into a different phase of ability and you can play much longer as you learn to build songs on the fly with little thought needed. Jamming for 2 hrs is less tiring than 20 minutes of struggling in other words.

route66 Says:
Friday, May 8, 2015 @12:35:50 PM

I do appreciate your insights, Josh. This is a question I've been wondering about. Way back in the dark ages when I was 8 and "encouraged" to learn piano, the teacher mandated and mom enforced a practice regimen of 30 minutes a day. I've been pretty much sticking to that all my life as nobody's ever told me different (I'm a guy after all:). It's nice to hear that I've actually been doing it right all these years.

Josh Turknett Says:
Friday, May 8, 2015 @12:56:45 PM

banjerman - yes, an advanced player jamming is definitely a different thing. It's analogous to learning a language you've yet to master and speaking it with fluency. In the learning phase, the process requires intense focus and consistent practice. Once fluency has developed, you can talk for hours without tiring (unless you're a guy, of course! :)

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