Forget to learn

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about learning. I’m studying banjo and fiction writing and Spanish at the moment. Sometimes things seem to be going well, other times, not so much. Thanks to the magic of the YouTube recommendations algorithm and the generosity of people in my FaceBook writing groups, I’ve found some terrific information recently that I think is going to be really helpful.

The Feynman approach

If you want to understand something, explain it simply.

You can do this in person, if you have someone handy, preferably a kid who will keep asking you “why?” I often discover how inadequate my own understanding is when I try to explain something to someone else. Of course, that can be embarrassing, and not everyone may want to listen to you flail around.

An easier approach is to explain it on paper. Here are the steps:

  1. Write the name of the thing you want to understand at the top
  2. Explain it in simple terms. Include examples and ways to use the iScreen Shot 2017-06-04 at 11.14.23 AMnformation.
  3. Identify problem areas where your explanation is weak or your understanding is shaky. Go back and learn more, then revise your explanation.
  4. Identify any technical terms or complexity, and try to simplify your explanation.

Here’s a post from Thomas Frank with more details, a video, and links.

And I recommend checking out Richard Feynman himself. He was a brilliant theoretical physicist and a great explainer.Here’s a website dedicated to him, and here’s one
of his books that even us non-physicists can enjoy.

Spaced repetition

To remember more, give your brain more time to consolidate the information, and give yourself a chance to forget a bit so when you come back to it, you’ll learn more and your recall will be strengthened. This is that “forget to learn” idea. The harder you have to work to retrieve the information, the better you’ll be able to remember it later. Two obvious ways to make retrieval harder are letting some time go by (giving time for interfering information to seep in) and focusing on something else (e.g., interleaving study topics, like ABCABC instead of AABBCC).

Thomas Frank recommends a flash card setup called the Leitner system with five boxes Screen Shot 2017-06-04 at 12.29.21 PMor piles:

  1. Review every day
  2. Review every other day
  3. Review weekly
  4. Review biweekly
  5. Review when you need it (i.e. before a test)

All the cards start out in box 1, and you move each card to the next box when you’ve mastered it. If a card’s in a higher box and you discover you don’t remember it, you move it back to box 1. Frank’s post lists several apps you can use for this. Duolingo, the language learning app I’m using to learn Spanish, seems to follow this principle.

Here’s Robert Bjork explaining the “new theory of disuse” which is behind this idea.


Practicing and engagement

Engagement is key to effective practice when learning a skill. You have to be there, focused on what you’re learning. This is going to be my challenge – I’ve gotten used to practicing banjo rolls and running through pieces I’m trying to memorize while watching Netflix, or even while reading (more difficult. Banjo picks get in the way of turning pages.)Screen Shot 2017-06-04 at 12.35.53 PM

Here’s what it takes:

  1. Focus when engaged in practice
  2. Minimize distractions
  3. Start slow, and increase speed later
  4. Practice repeatedly with frequent breaks
  5. Visualize the skill to reinforce practice

To reach a big goal, you have to really want it. You also need to be able to break it down into bite-sized pieces, and take pleasure in completing each piece.

This article, about a kid auditioning for Juilliard, explains this and more in a clear and entertaining way. I followed some of the links in the article, including this one, which includes a TedEd talk about how practice works, and this link to The Bulletproof Musician.

Do you have any tips on learning or resources you’ve found helpful? Please share in the comments below.



The great banjo quiz

Used to be, I was a little sponge. Tell me something and I’d remember it. Teach me to spell a word (we used the See It, Say It, Spell It method at Fairmeadow Elementary in Palo Alto) and I pretty much had it nailed. And it was fast and easy to retrieve, too.

Those days are gone. I don’t know if it’s the crowd of stuff in my brain, or maybe constant distractions interrupting the process of transitioning something into long term memory, or what. But nowadays, memorizing is a real challenge. And there’s a lot of memorization and retrieval involved in learning the banjo. Things like where all the A notes are or which string in a particular chord is the root note.

I wondered what other people have said about the best way to learn things.

The Knowledge of London

Anyone who wants to be a licensed cabbie in London has to take written and oral tests to prove they know 25,000 streets and 20,000 landmarks and points of interest, along with the shortest legal route for 320 sample runs and a quarter-mile circle at each end of the runs. It takes years to master the knowledge. For example, one native Londoner spent 5 years on it, and according to this National Geographic article, every day he would recite at least 30 of the 320 sample runs, working his way all the way up through the list and then starting over. “Knowledge boys and girls” – people who are learning The Knowledge – ride around London on scooters with maps attached, as shown in the introductory video on this official website.

Thankfully, I don’t have nearly as many things to memorize. How does this Herculean effort apply to playing the banjo?

  • Reciting and repetition – Daily review of the facts I’m trying to memorize, and going back over them later on, will help with retention and ability to retrieve the information.
  • Hands-on experience – Applying the facts in the real world of the physical banjo, like the Knowledge students on scooters, will make them more meaningful and useful.
  • Testing and retesting – Testing myself on paper and in person (trying to play a new piece from musical notation or guitar chords) will show what I still need to work on.


This Lifehacker article explains a bit about how the brain reacts to learning. You’re aiming to increase the number and strength of connections between neurons, and to build myelin that speeds up the signals. To achieve this:

  • Productive failure – Force yourself to learn without help (finally, my beloved trial and error approach is vindicated!). This is the principle followed by Project Euler (see this Atlantic article about it), which gives you progressively harder problems that you figure out how to solve using math and computer programming. Confusion and struggle help you learn better, because you’re doing more thinking, processing more deeply, and maybe invoking those emotions that make things stick. You end up remembering what you learned better, and being able to apply it more flexibly to new problems. On the banjo, I can apply this by figuring out a song on my own. Right now I’m learning The Sound of Silence from a guitar book, figuring out how to use the chords as a structure, find and play the notes, and add banjo type embellishments.
  • Distributed practice – This is that reciting and repetition idea from the cabbies. Spread it out over time, don’t try to cram it all into one concentrated session. Mix it up (this editorial explains it). For banjo, this means even if I feel like I know where all the D chords are and am working on the A notes, I should mix D chords into my practice sessions.
  • Sleep –  Solidify what you learn: have a nap after your practice, or practice right before bed. Here’s a very cool infographic about how to nap, if (like me) you aren’t naturally a napper.
  • Retrieval practice – Testing, in other words. If you practice retrieving information, it will be more accessible, and you can use it when you need it.

Deliberate practice

At first I thought this didn’t fit here – it seems more relevant to learning to play better than to memorizing facts. But experiential learning, where you learn by doing, through deliberate practice – applying your skills – connects what you’re learning to real world tasks and puts it in context, which forms bonds in your brain so you learn better.

I wrote about this idea in June 2016 (Practicing better). There’s lots more information out there, like this violinist’s article that is eerily precise in its description of how I’ve usually learned to play new songs (play it through to figure out the fingering and chords, maybe taking some notes, and then playing little chunks over and over and over till muscle memory takes over).

The violinist recommends:

  • Limit practice time so you can stay focused. Could be 10 minutes, could be 60.
  • Practice at your best times of day (Cal Newport says twice a day is best).
  • Use a notebook to plan practice, keep track of goals, and record discoveries.
  • Stop and think of other approaches when something isn’t working.
  • Use a problem-solving model to stay on task (define problem, analyze it, generate and test solutions, implement and monitor). It’s easy to slip back into rote mode.

The Piano Practice Assistant provides some concrete advice about this:

  • Use explicit, specific goals, like “play this passage without stumbling.”
  • Practice at a speed where you’re just barely not making mistakes.
  • Monitor with recordings to find ways to improve.

And finally, a USC study says to mix up your practice routine, so you’re solving the problem anew every time and thus processing it more deeply than if you just keep repeating the same movement. This also has the advantage of fighting boredom. Metro Music Makers suggests five things to do:

  • Branch out and try something new, like a different music genre.
  • Practice with a backing track to accompany you.
  • Learn a different instrument’s part.
  • Get out of your usual practice space.
  • Go back to the classics, the first things you learned, and try to improve.

Developing the ultimate quiz

I made myself a set of flash cards a while ago. Here’s what I covered:

  • Major chords. What notes are in them (1, 3, 5 based on the naming note’s scale), where the root note is, the distance between each shape as you go up the neck (3 frets from bar to F shape, 4 to D shape, and 5 back to the next bar shape), and then for each of the 8 major chords, where they are and which note is on which string for the first 3 inversions. An inversion is a fancy name for other versions of the same chord.
  • Minor chords. The same stuff, plus how you get from a major chord to a minor chord (you flatten the #3 note, which results in different shapes depending on what major chord shape you’re working with).
  • Scales. What notes are in the major (whole-whole-half-whole-whole-whole-half step) and minor (W-1/2-W-W-1/2-W-W) scales for the 8 named notes.
  • Seventh chords. Same stuff as for minor chords.

And then I made special flash cards for certain songs that had weird chords, like F# dim, and for certain practice routines, like 3-finger grabs up the neck of G-C-D or G-Em-C-D. I can think of other things I could make flash cards for, like picking patterns, musical notes, other types of chords, and little licks and embellishments.

Since I already have those cards, I’m going to use them, along with some of the principles summarized above, to develop the Great Banjo Quiz:

  • Schedule two daily 10-minute sessions for working on memorization
  • Divide the flash cards into groups
  • Study and quiz with one group at a time, and stick with that group until I seem to have it down. Read the cards, read them out loud, test by only looking at the cue side, and play the associated chord or whatever on the actual banjo.
  • Put the mastered cards into a separate deck. Shuffle the deck at the beginning of each session, and after every third card of the current group (the new stuff I haven’t nailed yet) pull a mastered card.
  • Log the daily plan, practice, and results. Modify the plan as needed. If it’s working, go ahead and make those other cards and work them into the plan.

How about you? Do you have any effective strategies for memorizing and retrieving? Please share them in the comments below.






Practicing better

I’ve been taking banjo lessons for 2 1/2 years and I’m definitely making progress. So far, I’ve learned a bunch of songs – Scruggs style bluegrass mostly, but also some classical and a few others. It’s fun being able to play the songs, and they’ve helped me learn some chords and some licks, plus develop my dexterity. But there’s a lot I don’t know, and I want to get better faster.

So I’ve started thinking about the way I practice. What I usually do is a bit of warmup with a couple of songs I know pretty well, and then I work on the song I’m trying to learn. I break it down and memorize a bit at a time until I can play it all the way through. Sometimes I use a metronome or record myself. I try to focus more on the harder parts. If I can find a recording of the piece, I’ll usually listen to it once or twice early on, and sometimes if I’m really struggling I’ll either track down sheet music or laboriously translate the banjo tab to notes and play it on the keyboard. Sometimes I watch t.v. episodes on Netflix while I run through parts of the song over and over.

I wouldn’t call it deliberate, mindful practice. It’s pretty haphazard.

I decided to create a practice plan. I went looking for a template on the web, and stumbled across a terrific website called The Musician’s Way which is the companion site to Gerald Klickstein’s wonderful book.

MusiciansWayThis is exactly the right book at the right time. Even though it’s written for people who’ve been playing longer and have loftier ambitions than I do, it’s packed with practical information I can use. It inspired me to create a better practice environment, with fewer distractions and with everything I need close at hand. It encouraged me to take it more seriously, mentally and physically preparing before I pick up the banjo.

Klickstein advocates scheduling regular practice, with plenty of breaks, and using multiple short stints instead of marathons. Hours of sloppy run-throughs will produce nothing of value. Make it your top priority to raise the quality of your practice. He recommends choosing material that you like and that’s within your ability to play, using etudes and exercises to improve your technical ability, and regularly attending performances and listening to recordings to widen your pool of possibilities.

He advises breaking practice down into 5 parts: learning new material, getting better at older material, preparing for performance, improving technique (scales & such), and musicianship (including studying and listening). I don’t have any performance plans but the other four are spot on for me. I see now that I’ve been spending almost all my time in the first box, which is why I’ve felt like I’m spinning my wheels.

That advice to listen and study reminded me of a story I heard from  a banjo teacher I met in Flagstaff at Pickin’ in the Pines last year. He talked about a student of his who wanted to play bluegrass but only listened to rock music. I write fiction, and I would never attempt writing in a genre I don’t read, but I confess I haven’t listened to enough of the kind of music I’m trying to learn to play. At my last lesson, my teacher turned me on to a guy named Bill Keith who developed something called the melodic style of banjo playing, and I really think this is going to be a breakthrough for me. Turns out there’s a whole boatload of YouTube videos like this one:


With Klickstein’s permission, then, I’ve started watching these videos and seeking out a bunch of different versions of Arkansas Traveler (the song I’m learning right now – you know, I’m bringin’ home a baby bumblebee, won’t my mommy be so proud of me) and, although I feel weird about it, visualizing playing before I touch a single string. And this week I’m focusing my technique block on the G, D, and C scales and converting major chords to minor chords.

And I’m only in Chapter 2!






Should you be practicing right now?

Fact: learning something new – anything – helps to stave off dementia. Fact: music makes you feel better (and bluegrass is particularly cheerful). Fact: kids who play an instrument, do a sport, or have another extracurricular activity are better students and have better social lives. Fact: playing an instrument opens up opportunities to meet other people and have more fun. Bonus: when you have both hands occupied on a banjo, you can’t be eating junk food.

So, I’m learning to play the banjo.

I’ve been taking lessons at my local music store for about 2 1/2 years. I have a great teacher, a nice young guy who’s been playing the banjo since he was 8 years old. I’ve learned a bunch of songs and bought a bunch of books. I’ve made flash cards to try to cram the chords into my brain. I practice pretty much every day, unless I’m traveling (and even then, sometimes I bring my banjo along).

Here’s what I’ve learned so far. It’s incredibly complicated! There’s your left hand, making the chords. There’s your right hand, plucking or strumming. So there’s that manual dexterity feature, which has never been my strong suit. And then there’s your brain. Remembering where the chords are (and the same chords have different shapes depending on where you play them on the neck). Finding out why a C chord is a C chord – not something I ever needed to know when I was learning to play piano as a kid. Memorizing the patterns in the songs, including both hands and all the repeats and all the minor variations.

And on top of all that, the banjo is an extremely loud instrument, so everyone in the house gets to hear all your mistakes!

Somebody said it takes 10,000 hours of practice to turn someone from an amateur into a professional, and then someone else said the practice needs to be deliberate – you need to stretch yourself and work on the stuff that’s hardest.

So yes, I should be practicing right now.

(The clip below is my audio Christmas card from 2014, with my teacher accompanying me.)