Training your brain to play music better

This is an excerpt from my upcoming book Rhythm Savvy. The skills I teach in my books are complex to say the least. Playing a musical instrument is an incredibly difficult task. Learning or improving skills like improvisation, developing a groove, and playing with accurate time only come with time and hard work. Just buying a book and reading through it once or twice won’t likely develop your skills.

Thinking about how the brain works might provide a bit of motivation to develop habits from the ideas, exercises, and examples introduced in my books and others. Consider:

You probably know that reading and playing cover to cover once through this book will not transform you into the player you ultimately aspire to be. The ideas, exercises, and examples within are all starting points for a lifetime of practice and development. That’s not to say that you will take a lifetime to get better. Progress can begin pretty quickly, but it depends on the focused work you put in and the repetition you apply to that work.

Your brain is an amazing organ. Three pounds of tissue contain more neural connections than stars in the known universe. And we know of a LOT of stars! By learning and practicing something new, you build new connections in your brain that after a while develop into habits–activities like driving a car or operating software without much thought just like playing trombone with a beautiful groove in your unique style.

Don’t worry, this isn’t a book on brain surgery, but take the next minute to better understand how your brain can rewire/reprogram itself to turn the content of this book into you playing beyond your expectations.

Cells that fire together wire together

A new thought or new way of doing something fires electrical signals across a tiny gap into another nerve cell. Keep repeating that activity and eventually that gap closes and become a “hardwired” path. Think of it as the difference between an electrical spark firing across the air into a conductor and that same energy conducting itself down a thick copper wire. Your brain craves efficiency and it will build those new pathways every time you give it a reason to do so, like when you play subdivisions of five within a four beat metronome click and vice versa (yes, you’ll get to that on page 17).

Repeat those activities enough and your brain then builds insulation known as a myelin sheath around those connections to protect and further insure that efficiency of the energy pathway. All this is like the first time you off-road in your vehicle. The first time, you leave light tire tracks. Follow that same path and the tire tracks deepen until you’ve worn a channel into the dirt. Deep enough and your tires follow along without you steering. Autopilot. Wouldn’t it be nice for things you currently struggle with to not only improve, but become a habit? A habit of excellence.

Your brain cannot help but operate this way as long as you provide it with a new activity or new way of doing. So no, one reading of this book and listen to the audio files will not create an automatic habit of you playing effortlessly laying out a killer Bossa nova groove. But play, record yourself, and listen back critically enough over that Bossa groove on page 43 and your brain will eventually say, “I’ve got this. Leave it to me. You, go concentrate now on something else.”

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