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The Illusion of Mastery

Dr. Molly Gebrian touched on a concept called "the illusion of mastery" in her Rethinking Genius interview.  Basically, it's what psychologists call it when you do something over and over again, giving yourself a false sense of mastery.

Wait... if you do something over and over again, shouldn't it be mastered?

Well, not always.

The true test of mastery is internalization.  If you're still having to follow the directions for how to make chicken, you haven't mastered chicken cooking.  Mastery means that you've cooked chicken so many times you're no longer worried about the basics.  It also means that you are confident enough in those basics that you are able to add extra elements with some degree of certainty.  For example, you know how the chicken should be cooked even after adding a sauce or extra seasoning.

In other words: you can complete the task under pressure.

The physical and psychological leap from the practice room to the stage is the biggest hurdle that any musician faces.  Hours and hours of practice seemingly fly out the window when someone is watching and this leads to frustration.  How is it that you could play something so perfectly in the privacy of your own home only to falter in the performance?

The key to answering this question is that you are playing the piece in your own home.  In that particular setting--when you have the cookbook in front of you for guidance--you were able to cook the chicken perfectly.  This is the illusion of mastery.  You mastered the task in the more relaxed setting and this leads to the false sense of security.

Unfortunately the only true way to get used to performing is to actually perform (shocking, I know).  But other techniques may be applied to help ease the transition from practice to performance (see Dr. Gebrian's interview for ideas).  The point being made here is that you must first be aware of this issue and knowing is half the battle.

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Interview with Dr. Molly Gebrian on the Neuroscience Behind Block vs. Random Practice

Welcome to Rethinking Genius, Molly! Can you tell us a little about your background in teaching and neuroscience?

Thank you for inviting me to do this, Danielle! I was a Suzuki kid myself (I studied with David Einfeldt at the Hartt Suzuki Institute from the time I started at age 7), and I’ve done some Suzuki teacher training, but these days, I’m a college professor teaching at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. I’ve been teaching for about 15 years, from 4-year old beginners, all the way up through graduate students. As far as neuroscience goes, I was a double-degree student at Oberlin College and Conservatory, majoring in viola performance and neuroscience. I had no plans to continue with neuroscience (it was just something I found fascinating, that I did for fun!), but when I got to New England Conservatory of Music for grad school, something was missing. My roommate at NEC, who had also been at Oberlin with me, participated in a study at Harvard looking at musicians’ versus …