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The Musicians Auto Pilot

Your Brain Is A Computer, Learn How and When to Program It

Article written by Eric Dieter

Without getting too technical, Auto Pilot is essentially your subconscious trying to take over a repetitive task. Your brain is ultimately is lazy and wants to automate as many tasks as possible so it can free up bandwidth. The problem is that the brain often finds new ways to create and run these mental-background-apps without your permission and before they’ve been tested for bugs. The easiest way I can explain it is by calling it the reason you can confidently say whether you brushed your teeth this morning, but you cannot confidently say where specifically you put the toothpaste when you were done with it.

musicians mind.jpg

Auto Pilot isn’t necessarily a bad thing for musicians, it’s just not helpful when I’m still trying to polish a song or refine some element of technique or phrasing. When I play something an excerpt enough times, my subconscious eventually takes over and says “I got this, Eric. You can go ahead and think about what to watch on Netflix while I finish playing this song.”

Simply put, Auto Pilot is helpful when once you’ve mastered a thing, not so helpful when you’re still learning the thing.

The biggest issue with the Auto Pilot system is when we need flip back into “Manual Mode.” 


This tends to happen when we start to think about the next section of a song. If you weren’t paying attention to the notes you were playing, you must first figure out where you are in the current pattern before you start to think about the transition. Then you become aware that you are thinking and, “Oops! I made a mistake.”

Here are 4 very simple tasks that you can add to your practice routine.

Task 1

Make a video recording yourself playing the piece at a comfortable tempo. Play back the video and watch for any errors. Make note of where this errors occurred in your score, sheet music, or TAB.


What caused this error?

What were you thinking about when you made this error?

Have you made this exact error before?

Was it a technique issue, such as tripping over your pick?

Are you not getting your fingers there in time for some reason?

Is it a rhythmic error?

Did you learn the piece with this error in it?

Task 2

Spend the rest of your practice session isolating these mistake areas. DO NOT let Auto Pilot kick in. Go slow enough so that you can focus on every detail of proper technique. You want to store all of the correct elements of playing into your memory, not just the correct notes.

  • What is your right hand doing: is it using small efficient motions, controlled, flowing and effortless?

  • How about your left hand: is the technique loose, where are your fingertips landing?

  • Are you visualize the next note(s) or the next phrase before you play it? Where are you actually looking?

  • How does it feel to play this way? When you play correctly, how does your left shoulder feel?

These are but a few things to keep you engaged in what is happened. Just make sure you are thinking about some aspect of your playing, rather than “zoning out.” The moment your thoughts wonder to something other than music while your fingers continue to play, you are in Auto Pilot mode.

Task 3

Once you’ve isolated your trouble spots and can play them 4-6 times in a row without mistakes (not just the correct note but also correct technique!) play the piece in its entirety. Be prepared for any trouble spots at least 1 measure before you have to play it. Keep your attention focused on your playing.

Task 4

This one is easy. Now just because it’s easy, doesn’t mean that it’s not important. In addition to your regular practice, play through the song in your head 3x per day. That’s it. Just visualize yourself playing it perfectly. Make sure you can see the notes and try to recall the physical feeling of good technique.

You can do it on the bus, in line at the grocery store, or when engaged in a dull conversation. Visualize and feel every element of your performance. Believe it or not, the subconscious mind has a difficult time distinguishing real events from imagined ones. While imagined rehearsals don’t have the same impact as real ones, there is evidence that suggests that if you actually do something 10 times and then imagine doing it 15 more times, your subconscious believes you’ve done it closer to 20-something times.

Your brain is going to continue to store chunks of your behaviors with or without your permission. Wouldn’t it be great to make sure the behaviors it stores are desirable ones AND shorten the learning process? You can!

Now go practice.

About the author:

Eric Dieter is a professional guitarist and guitar teacher in Lancaster, PA. He has appeared on dozens of international albums as a session guitar player and tours with the synth-pop band Hudson K and prog-rock band Hiding Scarlet. Eric has studied guitar at Millersville University and Berklee College of Music. Additionally, he holds a degree in psychology and a certification in hypnosis, making him uniquely qualified to train the minds of young musicians. Contact Eric if you are looking for guitar lessons in Lancaster, PA.

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