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How does memory and learning work, anyway?

I’ve been playing clawhammer banjo for close to two years and I’ve been working on learning new tunes and at the same time improving my technical skills. I find that some songs are much easier to remember than others, even though they are require a similar skill level to play them. Perhaps it’s because some melodies resonate with me more immediately than others. I’m not really sure.

When I started playing, I learned primarily from tabs, and I suspect that sometimes my brain gets lazy and uses the tab as a crutch. I can play certain tunes reasonably well if I have some music in front of me, even if I only occasionally glance at it, but when I take away the written notation, I sometimes have trouble. Once I learn a tune, I tend to try lots of different things with it and after a while the way I play it becomes somewhat different than the way I learned it. I like to watch videos of other players doing the same tune and sometimes I’ll try to add in some of the things I see them doing. When I was playing a lot of button accordion, I found that certain licks were key to remembering a whole song. In other words, if I remembered how a particular part is played the whole tune would fall into place.

I know that being able to hear the song in my head is key. I have poor vocal control so I don’t try to sing much. Some players learn to sing a tune first then try playing it. One of my goals is to wean myself away from using written notation. I’m going to try learning tunes by watching and listening to videos. There are plenty of videos on the YouTube in which a player goes through a tune slowly and I think those will be helpful. I think that hearing it slowly, having some visual clues by watching the video and really listening to what’s going on in the song will help. I suspect not having a tab to be dependent on will help as well. Once I’ve managed to learn a dozen or so tunes this way, the next step is to try to learn it from a recording without the visual aid. I think that’s a good goal to set, even if it takes me some time to get there.

When I attended the Midwest Banjo Camp, I was very nervous about jamming and starting in a slow jam helped build my confidence quite a bit. I surprised myself by being able to contribute to a jam on some tune I hadn’t heard before. Of course there are lots of things going on in a jam that help. I found that hearing the guitarist’s chord changes helped, and in a jam you know the tuning at the get-go and that helps too. Old time tunes aren’t that complex, even if they sometimes sound that way at first blush. I found if I could pick up some of the melody, and I could figure out the chords I could recognize licks that come up over and over in old time music and next thing I knew I was more of less playing along. Sometimes I would get in the weeds and play something that sounded horrible, but I think that’s part of the learning experience. I wonder if regular jamming would accelerate my learning on the incident or just my learning in jams. I’m not sure.

One thing I learned playing button accordion that holds true for clawhammer as well is that many shorter sessions cause me to learn more and faster than fewer long sessions, although that doesn’t make long playing sessions bad. Any way you look at it, practice is at the heart of learning an instrument. It’s true that for some people this kind of learning appears to come effortlessly, but I think most people have to work at it to get good. When my brother and I went to see the Kruger Brothers’ last performance in Toronto, Salvelinas had an opportunity to chat with Uwe Kruger, who mentioned to him that when they weren’t touring, they worked in the studio all day every day. It seems those guys play effortlessly, but I suppose it makes sense that they too work hard at it and practice all the time.


  1. Salvelinas Fontinalis

    Quite a few people have tried to make scientific studies of how we learn things. These studies often result in scientific papers being published that contain all sorts of theories but not a whole lot of anything practical. Some ideas that are generally considered to be true with regard to learning to play banjo are:

    -Yes indeed a half dozen practice sessions of 5-10 minutes each will help you progress faster than one marathon session.
    -If you are learning a new tune try to play it through correctly the last thing before going to bed at night. Apparently our brains continue to practice when we sleep and we need to give them some correct playing to work with
    -much of learning to play banjo is developing muscle memory. If you have to think about what you are playing you are going to have problems. To develop correct muscle memory it is important that you never practice your mistakes. That means that in practice sessions you should never play faster than you can play perfectly. If you play fast and keep making mistakes your muscles will learn to repeat those mistakes.

    I used to be a banker but I lost interest.

  2. dan

    Repetition does matter, but mostly because you are making a conscious attempt to remember while you are doing it.

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