Amy Brandon, the Scientific Guitarist

Launched in January, The Scientific Guitarist explores Amy Brandon's ongoing work in the intersections of guitar performance, jazz, and cognitive research.  A lauded performer, composer, and educator as well as a scientist, she addresses topics from fretboard navigation and the pedagogy of jazz patterns to neuroplasticity in injured guitarists.
 
Molly Jones:  What motivated you to begin Scientific Guitarist and the research presented there?
 
Amy Brandon:  I am currently in my first year of an interdisciplinary PhD program examining guitar skill acquisition and expertise. Because my research draws from different disciplines and sub-disciplines, including neuroscience, psychology, motor learning, and visual cognition, I wanted a place where I could distill my ideas and form new connections. So this is my forum to do that, to organize and solidify my thoughts in a coherent way as I move through the research process. In addition, I feel my research area is of interest to fellow guitarists, and I wanted a non-academic forum to disseminate and discuss it.
 
Critically little empirical research has been conducted in guitar skill acquisition. To offer a comparison, hundreds of studies in music cognition and pedagogy have been conducted with the piano and pianists as subjects. Entire research labs exist solely to research piano skill acquisition, such as the Piano Pedagogy Research Lab at the University of Ottawa in Canada. For the guitar, it's a different story. Only a handful of experimental studies have been conducted with guitar cognition or pedagogy, including neuroscience research that only peripherally uses the guitar. For example, research into focal dystonia occasionally uses guitarists as subjects, such as Pujol et. al., 2000 or de Cássia dos Reis Moura et. al., 2012.
 
In place of evidence-based skill acquisition research, guitarists have a great deal of pedagogical material that tends to reflect the personal perspectives of individual authors. There are hundreds of method books, websites, magazines, blogs and videos that all claim to improve guitar skill, but the ideas contained therein have rarely been critically assessed or evaluated using experimental study. Jazz and classical guitar method books have been personally evaluated by individual graduate students (ie Odegard 2004, Beaumont 2015, Elmer 2009). However, experimental research in guitar pedagogy and guitar skill acquisition is minimal, from an evaluation of an author's guitar method (Berard 1998) to a survey of Australian guitar teachers (Elmer 2009) to examining formal and informal learning in a university guitar class (Beaumont 2015). More needs to be done from an empirical perspective, particularly experimental research and testing, because we still have very little understanding of exactly what underlying cognitive factors are involved in guitar skill acquisition.
 
Readers can expect brief articles on some aspect of guitar skill such as sight-reading or scale patterns in jazz and the relevant peripheral research in order to form a picture of the potential factors involved in how we attain expertise. I try to ensure that the articles are accessible and not dense academic-speak, but still presented in a serious way. The website is primarily a forum to explore ideas and connections, as my research is in the preparatory stage.
 
MJ:  What are your research interests?  
 
AB:  My research interests focus in particular on the cognitive aspects of fretboard orientation, how problems stemming from the complex layout of the fretboard influences guitar skill acquisition. Fretboard skill is of particular relevence to jazz guitarists and this research intersects with a number of disciplines including kinesiology and neuroscience. From kinesiology I am looking at factors in motor learning such as multisensory integration. From neuroscience I am looking at visual dominance and cognition, in particular pattern recognition as it relates to chess expertise, and the psychological theory of chunking and schema. One particular area of interest is the Einstellung effect and its potential influence on decision-making in pattern recognition and guitar improvisation.
 
Jazz guitar pedagogy is a central topic. Jazz guitarists are expected and required to improvise solos and accompaniment patterns over the entire fretboard, in the moment, which requires a great deal of theoretical and instrumental knowledge. However, much of the academic literature regarding jazz guitar notes the difficulties jazz undergraduates encounter in learning technical skills (ie Odegard 2004, Elmer 2009, Berard 1998 and others). The cause of these issues can be seen as a late start to training (Degner and Lehmann 2003), poor university support and ineffective pedagogy (Odegard 2004), inadequate training prior to university (Elmer 2009), or a lack of interest in styles other than popular music (Ward 2011). These issues can also be present in classical guitar practice as well (McFadden 2010).
 
Classical, jazz, and rock guitarists all train a little differently from each other. Broadly speaking, classical guitarists use much more notation and focus on rote learning. Jazz guitar tends to focus more on fretboard knowledge, harmonic/scalar knowledge and improvisation. Rock guitar tends to use more tablature, with more emphasis on tone/effects and riffs. Although there is considerable overlap, my interest is in the cognitive aspects of the fretboard and how people gain particular guitar skills, which does speak primarily to jazz guitarists.
 
MJ:   What can cognitive studies contribute to the practical processes of learning and teaching guitar? 
 
AB:   A great deal. There is so much to explore that has not been touched. The current pedagogical landscape for guitar could be improved with evidence-based theories on guitar skill acquisition. To give an example, I conducted a small pilot study on guitar fretboard orientation and memorization. The expectation was that one pedagogical method would improve retention over the others. What we found instead was that pedagogical method and amount of practice were not relevant factors. The only factor correlating with improvement was having more than 10 years of experience playing guitar, leading to the suspicion that fretboard orientation was perhaps a plastic process that required long-term experience and familiarity with the instrument itself and not necessarily intense short-term practice of a particular skill. This was an extremely small study, so the results are not conclusive.
 
 
MJ:    How has your research affected your guitar playing?
 
AB:   Not much as yet. I find using the analytical part of my brain tends to kill anything beautiful I might be trying to produce, so I turn that part off when I am composing. It does influence how I teach particular guitar skills to students. For example, I now deliberately demonstrate musical ideas whenever possible. This is due to learning more about theories regarding the action-observation network (Buccino and Vogt et. al. 2004) and guitar chord recognition in experts (Crump 2012). In addition I try to teach sight reading and fretboard knowledge consistently in small amounts, especially to non-classical students, knowing that it takes significant time and consistency for this skill to become embedded.
 
MJ:   What are some of the challenges you've faced in completing and presenting your research?
 
AB:   Finding and retaining subjects for experimental research has been a consistent challenge. I am hoping that the Current Studies tab on the website will help generate interest. 
 
MJ:   What's an upcoming project or publication you're especially excited about?
 
AB:   I am currently in the process of preparing three further pilot studies related to my research. I'm excited to start gathering data and looking to see where it takes us.
 
MJ:   Do you have any advice for people interested in getting involved in music cognition research?
 
AB:   I have found an interdisciplinary approach extremely useful. My research has led me to fields as broad as psychomotor skill acquisition in laparoscopic surgery and chess cognition.
 
 
 
 
 
 
Amy Brandon is a guitarist and composer and the creator of ScientificGuitarist.com.  Holding degrees in jazz guitar performance and composition, she is currently completing an interdisciplinary PhD in music cognition at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She has performed internationally (Canada, USA, Australia, New Zealand, UK) and at festivals including the Ottawa International Jazz Festival, Guitar Now Festival, Halifax Jazz Festival Spring Series, and 2016 Open Waters Experimental Music Festival.  She has presented her research at conferences in Australia, Switzerland, Hungary, and the UK, as well as in Just Jazz Guitar magazine.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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Volume 18 Sounding Board Piece: 
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