Foggy Morning Breakdown

The Kolodziejczyk Brothers Band

I watched as my first drive on Monday at The Buckhorn sailed through the mist and into the trees left of the fairway. I’m very familiar with that spot. It’s usually playable there, but the drives I hit when warming up on Monday never went left like that. They all would have been plenty long and in the fairway. (Raise your hand if you’ve heard that one before.) Wondering why that happens to me so often led me straight to thoughts of playing the banjo and The Laws of Brainjo.

The Laws of Brainjo is an unusual little book about learning the banjo. It’s written by Josh Turknett, a banjo-playing neuroscientist, and he talks about what happens in your brain as you learn a complex task. Playing the banjo and playing golf have a surprising amount in common. Both require executing a plan through a series of complicated movements, timing and tempo are critical to both, you need regular practice to get better and to maintain skills, and there are a lot of bad jokes about both activities. (What’s the difference in a trampoline and a banjo? You take off your shoes to jump on a trampoline.)

One of the little nuggets in the book is that a sequence of learned behaviors eventually becomes automatic and is moved to an unconscious brain area. You cue that sequence with a beginning behavior, and the sequence runs on automatic. Brainjo stresses that this is why it’s important to correct mistakes when learning music because if you just keep going without correction you’re creating an automatic sequence with errors in it. (Did you hear about the bluegrass band that locked their keys in the car? It took them 45 minutes to get the banjo player out.)

So when I step on that first tee and go through my usual first-tee-at-The-Buckhorn routine I’m calling up a learned sequence that ends with hitting it into the trees to the left. It doesn’t matter what I did on the range – that’s a different learned sequence. So what I need to develop is a range routine, complete with a starting cue, that I can take to the tee. With any luck, that new routine will end with a ball in the fairway. (A banjo picker and two musicians walk into a bar …) And I’ll try not to think about Deliverance as I walk to the tee.

“So,” you ask, “Why in the name of Earl Scruggs were you reading The Laws of Brainjo? Do you play the banjo?” No, I don’t. My father in law did, and that’s him with the banjo in the photo. It was taken in the peach orchard at their farm, I’m guessing in the early 1940s. I was reading the book because I fiddle around with guitar and keyboard in the privacy of my own room. It will forever be in the privacy of my room. I get enough humiliation playing golf in public.

A record of those who did and did not humiliate themselves on Monday is at this link.

4 Replies to “Foggy Morning Breakdown”

  1. I love the comparison of golf to the banjo. My golf clubs need some tuning and maybe I need to learn a new song as well!

    1. I got the book as I was fooling around with guitar and Brainjo was mentioned by several folks in an on-line forum I lurk on. As I read the book I kept thinking “This has a lot to do with golf, too.”

      As you consider tuning your clubs, another banjo joke may be appropriate. How do you tune a banjo? Apparently, no one knows.

  2. OMG! Now I find that a much better automatic sequence must be learned in order to improve my modest game. Where will this torment called golf ever end?
    Thanks Charlie. Aaarrrrgg….

    1. And the fun part of it is that those learned behavior sequences become unconscious and it’s very hard to change them. They behave like Lee Trevino described hooks – You can talk to a fade, but a hook doesn’t listen. If you’ve ever tried to talk yourself through a swing, you know what it’s like. And how easy it is for those bad habits to pop back up as soon as you get out on the course surrounded by all the old cues that called up the old habits you want to change.

      Why do I always play a D instead of a C in the same place on a certain piano piece? Because I’ve done it so many times before and gotten very good at it, that’s why. Why do I always hit that same stupid shot on the same stupid hole? Because I’ve learned very well how to hit that stupid shot, that’s why.

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