The brain-friendly way to master an instrument

I’ve noticed something about all the videos I’ve studied on learning an instrument like piano, guitar, and others. So many of them do a great job showing you where notes are, how to hold your fingers and hands, the nature of chords and scales, and a bunch of other technical things. But where do you go to learn what I’ll call the softer skills like developing a solid sense of rhythm or connecting your inner musical ear to your instrument or even how to practice well?

I want to fill that void with a new series of online courses I am producing. The lessons within this course are not dedicated to trombone players. Instead, they apply to any instrument. Regardless of your instrument, I want to help you make more out of the online classes you may be taking. Online instruction is becoming more and more accessible but students are missing the benefits of a private teacher–someone who will provide feedback and encouragement.  The things I explain and demonstrate will help you get much more out of those online lessons and help you become more self-sufficient in developing musical instrument mastery.

The lesson I begin with is about how to practice. Whether to build skills or maintain a current level of skill, not enough is out there about how to effectively practice. I make the comment early on in the lesson that practice doesn’t necessarily make perfect. In fact it can make you worse if you don’t know how to practice effectively.

I’ve been working with a psychologist who has been teaching me some important aspects about how the brain works. One of the points he makes is that the brain learns best when it’s engaged. That may seem obvious but think about your routine practicing. How deeply are you focused and present as you play? Are you going through the motions in order to simply chalk up another day of practicing?

Don’t practice bored

Practicing while bored is of low effectiveness, and if you are, it could be a major reason you’re not progressing as quickly as you’d like.

Here are some tips for becoming more engaged with your practicing so that you can make that time much more effective in becoming the musician you envision.

  • Have goals for your practicing–short term and long term. What do you want to accomplish today? How would you like to sound in three months or a year? Having something to strive for will give your practicing direction and purpose and focus.
  • Choose pieces to work on that you love. Most every popular or semi-popular song is a browser click away. You will learn more when you enjoy what you’re engaged in.
  • Change up where you practice. This depends on how many options you can find. I am lucky in that I live on a big hill overlooking a valley so I have fun blasting my trombone sound into the void. It’s fun. So go outside, or to another room, or in a place with funky acoustics like a massive concrete room, and practice.
  • Find creative ways to develop technical skills. In the lessons within this course on developing one’s ear and improving one’s rhythm, I’ll make available audio files that provide you a very different way to practice those aspects of musicianship.
  • Give yourself not just a goal, but also the promise of a reward. Give it to yourself for accomplishing the goal. The reward could be ice cream, a nice dinner out, or some personal nick knack you’ve been putting off buying. Something you really want!
  • Use phone technology like a metronome app or a tuning app. It makes it more enjoyable to play along with something and get feedback.
  • Gamify it. As a variation on the last point, give yourself small goals and after achieving each one, give yourself points. Enough points earns you something you want. Maybe enough points lets you stop practicing for the day.

Increasing your engagement will allow you to better hear yourself at a deeper level. I think that the better a musician we become, the more we hear of our own playing and of music in general. I think it’s fair to speculate that Bach heard much more within the frequencies of notes and chords than others. I think the same can be said for the great improvisers like Miles, Trane, Bird, Sonny Rollings, Bill Evans and others. They hear more within the music and the potential for that music.

How well do you hear yourself?

Of course you hear scales and exercises being played, but how deep is your listening? How engaged is your brain within each moment of your practicing? When I coach musicians, I’m constantly asking after they’ve played something, “What did you hear?” Far too often, they say something obvious like, “I missed the B natural in bar 8.” What they didn’t hear was that their intonation was flat or that they they slowed down in the more difficult spot or that they got lost a bit while improvising over the A7 b9 chord.

You might be thinking that the reason for not hearing the more subtle aspects of playing is a younger or less developed ear. True. But my experience, both with myself at times and others, more often is that the focus is in the wrong place. Again, maybe we’re bored or we are thinking about the note we missed three bars ago, or the part coming up with which we always struggle, or how much longer we’re going to practice today, or the feeling of hunger, or the wave of frustration over how we feel about our playing skills. Maybe we’re congratulating ourself on how well we think we’re playing, and in the process being oblivious to how we truly sound. All of these and thousands more thought distractions remove the focus from our playing and practicing.

Assuming we catch that misplaced focus or distraction, how to get back on track? Well, the brain engages best when we are having fun. The question you might ask yourself as you practice is, “Am I enjoying this?” I know, it’s hard to enjoy something as difficult as struggling to play a musical instrument well, but frustration kills focus. Do you find yourself repeating a phrase or a piece over and over and hearing no improvement? Maybe you’re thinking that if you just keep beating it, your playing will eventually fall into place?

Instead of mindless repetition hoping for a breakthrough, slow down and listen deeply to what you are playing. Where exactly is the difficulty? Isolate that and be present with it. Are you frustrated and is that feeling getting in the way of constructively improving? If so, take a break and eat an ice cream sandwich or do something that will get you out of frustration. Or play something more satisfying. I’m not suggesting to avoid things that are difficult, but rather to encourage you to practice only once you are engaged and for you to recognize when you are less than fully engaged. Need a quick reminder about what fully engaged focus looks like?

Knowing how your brain works most effectively will go a long way toward helping you master a musical instrument. Enjoy the process, be fully aware of how you sound, and ruthlessly honest about what needs improvement and your attention.



Leave a Comment