Lots to Learn

by J. Rose

As musicians, beginners or not, we all know that learning to play an instrument is a labor of love. Not only does it take hours of practice and dedication, but it takes infinitely more hours and dedication than we thought it would. Throughout the years, there have been plenty of discouraging studies to show the drawbacks of being an adult learner, but in more recent years, researchers have uncovered new truths about the adult mind and how it learns new things. It’s not that it’s too late for a person to learn, it’s just that we need to go about it differently than a child would. It’s a bit funny if you think about it. We adults need to relearn how to learn before we learn.


As adults, we are used to applying the same principles to an unknown set of skills that we have used our whole lives. We have developed processes rooted in our life experience. For instance, we have all had to learn the ins and outs of a new job or even find our way around the new interface on our smartphone, but these skills do not fall in the same category as learning a new instrument. As you might remember from high school psychology class, researchers have identified 3 main learning domains:

Cognitive: mental skills (knowledge)

Affective: growth in feelings or emotional areas (attitude or self)

Psychomotor: manual or physical skills (skills)

We can thank the Affective domain for the urge to play the instrument and the Cognitive domain for remembering the notes of the chords and where they are located on the fretboard, but it’s the Psychomotor domain that is tasked with learning the most important part of playing an instrument: Technique, precision, and speed. These skills (Psychomotor domain) can only be learned through practice and repetition. This is where the most obvious difference between children and adult learners is exposed. Because children are constantly faced with learning new physical skills that require hand/eye and hand/ear coordination, their Psychomotor domain is more active. As adults, our priorities shift and our lives tend to require more cognitive and affective tasks such as learning facts and figures and understanding our emotions. We spend the majority of our time gaining knowledge and mental skills. The good news? Our brains are like any muscle. The more we exercise the Psychomotor domain, the stronger it gets. In other words, while we can’t rush the process, it will eventually get faster.  

We’ve all heard the expression “ten thousand hours.” Anders Ericsson, a cognitive therapist, coined this term during his research on psychological expertise and human performance. Ericsson defines two prerequisites when developing a skill; ten thousand hours and practice. There are three identified types of practice concerning Psychomotor learning.


Deliberate practice targets a student’s weaknesses. Ericsson credits “deliberate practice” over "number of hours." This entails focusing on a specific tune or lick and slowly working through each hand position or strum until you can play it slowly, but completely. This type of session should be fairly short and with full concentration. If you find that your mind is wandering, then put down the instrument and come back later. A wandering mind will result in mistakes and it’s better to take a break from practicing than to spend time practicing mistakes. “Quality, not quantity” should be your motto for this type of practice.


Random practice is perhaps the most useful when it comes to developing our skills in any field. This is a type of hands-on practice that you experience in an environment where you are forced to make real-time decisions using the tools that you have on hand. Yep, you guessed it. Jamming is the best type of random practice you can get. Playing music with other people forces you out of your comfort zone and gives you the opportunity to apply your knowledge in order to answer any questions that might come up. “What chord is she playing?” “What key is this song in?” “Where can I play the new D-run that I was practicing yesterday?”


Blocked practice defines a type of studying that I refer to as “cramming.” Perhaps you remember studying for an exam using flashcards or simply repeating the information back to yourself over and over again. As we all know, this type of practice is great for short term memorization, but how much of the information on those flashcards do you still remember? This type of practice will not pay off in the long run and should probably be left for your history final.

Expert or not, it always helps to understand what’s going on behind the scenes when we are taking on a new task. Additionally, it’s a good idea to have a plan when efficiency is the goal. Take a minute to decide what things you need to work on in your next practice session. Try to employ Ericsson’s tips for Deliberate practice and then put yourself to the test and see if you can play your new lick or tune during Random practice. If you can’t find the time to make it to the local jam, you might try playing along with an original recording which will force you to play it up to speed as well as learn what areas you might need to work on. Mike Stahlman, a west coast banjo player, music teacher and flight instructor explains how jamming with other people will build your Psychomotor skills faster than anything else, “My observation over the many years of being around bluegrass music is that people who jam get better and people who don’t, don’t.” In other words, let's pick!


“My observation over the many years of being around bluegrass music is that people who jam get better and people who don’t, don’t.” 

Note: For further reading on this subject, check out Gary Marcus’ book, Guitar Zero, The Science of Becoming Musical at Any Age.