Grow the Matrix!
Updated: Oct 15, 2018
I have found the right-brain/left-brain distinction to be very useful to my teaching methods as well as my own growth as a person and a musician. Rather than get into a technical
explanation of the medical or physiological aspects of the subject (not to mention the controversies attached to it) I prefer to use it as a conceptual construct, although there is a physical basis for the concept.
In short, I use it as a framework for defining different types, ways or modes of thinking/perception - I call them L-Mode and R-Mode.
L-Mode: L-mode is linear, sequential and cannot multitask. It goes from A to B to C in order. It cannot perceive patterns; pattern recognition is R-mode. It is concerned with naming and defining things. It understands things in a literal, concrete sense.
As a guitar/music teacher, one of my responsibilities is to organize the data in the most logical, linear manner possible, and to present it that way. In other words, I input the data in the most optimum order. The more linear and sequential the information is, the less time it takes for the integration of L-mode and R-mode.
Integration is the goal.
Any time information is codified (that is, organized, labeled and presented in a systematic manner), you are in a primarily left-brain mode of operation. Both are necessary to learning but R-mode takes care of itself as I will explain in a minute. In a formal guitar lesson, L-mode is predominant.
R-Mode: R-mode is parallel processing. It is visceral, that is, emotional. It is intuitive and holistic; it can recognize patterns.
Holistic: adjective: PHILOSOPHY; characterized by comprehension of the parts of something as intimately interconnected and explicable only by reference to the whole.
It is associative and delights in discerning relationships between things. As such, it understands things in terms of symbolism and analogy. It is visual. It is experiential, not abstract. It doesn't care about names, definitions or the order of things.
Learning in an R-mode frame of mind has no conscious methodology. You must see, hear, feel...all sensory data that inputs simultaneously. When you go see a guitarist perform (or you watch a video of a performance), you watch, listen and feel. You observe his attitude, how he carries himself, how he relates physically to his instrument, what his hands look like on the instrument, his body language, facial expressions, and a thousand other variables, most of which you are not conscious of - and how it all feels. Then you attempt to emulate that - you attempt to cause it to happen.
This is learning by example - and is valid and very necessary. However, the L-mode is minimized. Now, this R-mode stuff goes on in a guitar lesson but is not codified, it's organic. It is, from a conscious perspective, a random process. If you codify or organize it in any way, it is, by definition, L-mode. It's Zen-like; it works best if you're not thinking about it.
So I usually don't even mention it in a lesson. I direct the student's attention and energy towards L-mode activities - doing things one at a time in the most efficient manner - and trust nature for R-mode. I require knowing and understanding the names of things, I teach students to focus on drilling, repetition, reciting names, increasing their awareness of the intellectual aspects of music and playing the guitar.
I teach them to think analytically about their hands, fingerings and technique. There are many, many reasons why these things are important in and of themselves, but one of the reasons is that it deflects conscious attention from R-mode, which functions automatically and organically, but can be inhibited by attention being paid to it. As a matter of fact, NOT paying attention to it but rather inputting data in a sequential, organized way (L-mode) actually speeds up the process of L-Mode/R-mode integration.
Actually playing music REQUIRES R-mode. You can't produce real music without being in R-mode. It's all about feeling, visualization, color and pattern recognition and the interrelationships between all these things. The only aspect of L-mode that HAS to be involved is timekeeping. R-mode is not aware of time, that's why it's not concerned with order or sequence. When you are so engrossed in a task that, once you begin, you think of nothing else and the next thing you know you look up and an hour has gone by without you being aware of the passing of time - that's being in R-mode.
Timekeeping is essential to music, but other than that, it is possible to have no L-mode components and still be a great player. The world is full of wonderful players who have no idea of what it is that they're doing. They have intuited some kind of idiosyncratic method of associating geometric patterns on the fretboard with sounds and feelings - at least, that's what I did. But sooner or later, those kinds of players hit a wall that they can't get beyond. A very few are lucky; what they can do is unique enough or popular enough that they become successful.
However, if you have L-mode components in place you can surmount any wall you may run up against. L-mode will remove the boundaries that exist for R-mode. Those boundaries exist because of the randomness of R-modes' acquisition of data. Inputting data via L-mode - ordered, sequential and timed - causes R-mode to integrate data much more efficiently - which can result in massive progress after you hit the wall! For my first-hand experience of this, read Part 1 of A Little Story.
Sometimes I'll get a student who can already play - even at a professional level. They've come to me because they've been stuck in a rut, for years maybe, and they're sick of what they're doing. They heard me play somewhere, or heard about my teaching, and they want to notch up. They're mostly self-taught and maybe have teacher-hopped somewhat.
Remember, these folks can play but have hit a wall as far as progress is concerned.
I know all about this because I've been there, and I know what it takes to get beyond it.
What has to happen is the L-Mode has to catch up to the R-Mode...and from then on L-Mode should lead the way.
The dominating aspect of R-Mode is the ear. Learning by ear means learning by trial-and-error. What the ear is really good at is telling you is WHEN YOU'VE ALREADY MADE THE MISTAKE!!!
And THAT is why learning by ear is THE most inefficient way to learn there is.
Guitarists who have learned this way, when playing music, are R-Mode dominant; that's why they can play. As I mentioned above, their ear has associated sounds with geometrical patterns on the fretboard, tactile feelings, emotions, moods, colors - all kinds of associations. This is a holistic, pattern recognition, associative and visceral way of thinking/perception. In short, R-Mode.
They just don't know what they're doing. And that's why they can't get beyond whatever level they've achieved thus far. They've hit a wall. There is no organized system on which or from which they can build.
When you learn by ear you move your hand before you know exactly where it should go. Your ear then tells you whether or not you were right. If your ear tells you, "That's wrong!" - it's too late, you've already made the mistake. And every time you make a mistake, you program your hand to make that same mistake the next time.
It takes 10 perfect repetitions - in a row - to erase the effects of one single mistake in your brain.
And yet, the ear is loathe to give up it's dominance.
I often hear a prospective student say; "For as long as I've been playing I should be way better than I am" - and then they proceed to dictate what and how they're going to learn! Oh yeah? Well, how's that been working out for you?
So I'll say, "Ok, let's play - show me what you can do."
So we're playing along, and they sound good, maybe even impressive. Then I'll say, "Stop! What's the name of that chord you just played?"
You would not believe the agony that ensues. Agony; because they have to take this big, beautiful, wonderful matrix of sound, feeling and color, cram it into a meat grinder and spit out a chord name.
But that's what you have to do; you have to catch your brain up - your Left-Brain - to your ear. And it's agonizing - I know, I've been there, and I've guided many, many students through it.
The ear hates this process. It has been dominant for so long and now it must submit to L-Mode.
Many of these kinds of students quit. They don't have the patience and discipline it takes to do this. But for those who do, the reward is a quantum leap of progress in a relatively short period of time. I've seen it over and over. The method works. It worked for me and I was that kind of player.
How, exactly, do you get the L-Mode caught up to the R-Mode?
First of all, you can't do it yourself - you have to have someone guide you who knows what they're doing. A Teacher. Everything depends on this. And 99% of the teachers out there are not what you need.
When I was searching for THE guy, I would bar-hop listening to guitarists. Whenever I heard a guy that was doing what I wanted to do, I would ask him if he gave lessons. Some did, some didn't, but all of them told me who they studied with - and it was the same guy! It was like all roads led to this guy. At least in my case, THE guy was not very flexible; it was his way or the highway. I was convinced his way was what I needed because there was a track record of superior players coming out of this guy's studio for decades.
Secondly, the teacher needs to ascertain what you know, not what you can do. You're already playing beyond what you know - that's part of the problem. The teacher needs to find the gaps in your knowledge and fill them. You start from wherever the teacher says you need to start and you learn names, definitions and context; as you go, everything that you can already play is ordered and categorized. You define it, you name it and you drill it in every key, over and over.
With me, it took about a year to get to the point where I hadn't already played what the lesson was (see A Little Story). But I had to recite the names of everything I played - while I was playing. That was a year of catching my L-Mode up to my R-Mode - or you could think of it as catching my brain up to my ear. Music theory is like math. Take the highest number you know the name of; all you have to do to get the next number is add 1. After about a year, my teacher added 1 - and it was something I had never played before!
From that point on, my L-Mode led the way and my ear followed. Six more years worth of stuff from that teacher.
My ear is waaay better now as a result of this process. And you can be sure that my ear could never have gotten as good as it is by being in charge.
Another thing that happens as a result of this process is that the L-Mode and the R-Mode integrate and work together - they fuse. You don't have to give up that big beautiful matrix of sound, feeling, color and expression; it gets added to, it gets enhanced. IT GROWS!
There is much more to say about the integration of L-mode and R-mode and how important it is (it greatly enhances music, performances and personal growth).
That'll be the next blog.
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