Learn Music Faster… By Doing LESS?! (with Dr. Molly Gebrian)

What if you could learn music faster – by practicing LESS? It sounds crazy… but it’s actually possible.

In this section from Dr. Molly Gebrian’s recent Musical U masterclass, you’ll hear exactly how to take some of the most mind-boggling breakthrough ideas from the world of neuroscience, and use them in a practical way to dramatically accelerate your music learning.

Watch the episode:

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What if you could learn music faster – by practicing LESS? It sounds crazy… but it’s actually possible.

In this section from Dr. Molly Gebrian’s recent Musical U masterclass, you’ll hear exactly how to take some of the most mind-boggling breakthrough ideas from the world of neuroscience, and use them in a practical way to dramatically accelerate your music learning.

Watch the episode:

Enjoying the show? Please consider rating and reviewing it!

Links and Resources

Enjoying Musicality Now? Please support the show by rating and reviewing it!

Rate and Review!


Christopher: What if you could learn music faster by practicing less? It sounds crazy, I know! But it is actually possible.

This is one of the most mind boggling discoveries from the world of neuroscience. And I want to share with you a clip from our recent masterclass with Dr. Molly Gebrian, where she shared some of the research findings and then exactly how you can apply them in your musical life to start learning faster, improving better, and retaining what you learn more resiliently – with LESS total practice time.

So in our last episode, we had our mini-interview with Dr. Molly Gebrian. And if you missed that, definitely go back and check it out to hear about her background and some of these ideas from the world of neuroscience. She shared two of the biggest findings, and it’s the area which we at Musical U refer to as “superlearning”.

These accelerated learning techniques that scientific research has discovered and then proven, but is rarely actually brought into the world of music learning, let alone for the average music learner.

And so she was sharing two of these powerful principles from the world of superlearning: the power of breaks and the idea of “random” or “interleaved” practice. And in her masterclass, she covered both of those, as well as a whole host of other gems, and did a fantastic Q&A with our members who were there live to go deeper as well.

Today, I want to share with you a short section from that masterclass focusing on the power of taking breaks and particularly so called micro-breaks.

If you’ve never heard about this, just know that this one thing alone can have a massive impact – IF you actually do it!

So, for a bit of context, Molly had just talked through some of the most common traditional practice methods we’ve inherited over the centuries as the right way to practice and some of the beliefs people have about effective music practice.

And funnily enough, because the people who come to our monthly masterclass live are among our keenest, most devoted members of Musical U, actually a lot of them were familiar with these as common myths and misconceptions. And so Molly found a very receptive audience, eager to hear more about all the details!

So when you hear her say in a moment that “it sounds like you guys already know about this” that’s what she’s referring to. Our gang were, like, eager and raring to go and ready to have some myths busted!

So here then, is Dr. Molly Gebrian explaining the power of micro-breaks for your music learning.


Molly: So we’ll start with the idea of breaks. So I think especially in the classical music world, which is where I come from, there’s this idea that we should be practicing all the time, all the time, all the time. Right?

Like, every single day, as many hours as possible. Big blocks of time, no breaks. Just like, do as much as you can that fits into the day – or sometimes it doesn’t fit into the day!

But what research says is that we do a lot better, a lot better when we take breaks. And it sounds like you guys already know about the power of breaks, which is fantastic. Makes me so happy when people are familiar with this information.

So I wanted to share a couple of studies with you that come from surgical training. So training surgeons and how to do what they do, because there’s a lot of great research in that realm and I think it’s really relevant to us as musicians, because what we have to do is very similar to what surgeons have to do, right?

We have to be very precise, it’s very intricate physical skills, but there’s also a significant cognitive component to it. Right?

So the first study that I wanna share with you took surgical students, and they divided them into two groups.

The first group did all of their surgical training, all the different training modules, all in one day, back-to-back. So that’s gonna be called the “massed” group. Their practice was in a mass, all back to back.

The other group of surgeons learned these surgical skills, and they had their training once per week. So they’d have one module per week, so, say, every Monday until they had also done all of the surgical training modules. What they were measuring in this study was the percentage of students in each group who reached “proficiency”.

I’m going to put some numbers up here now that show you this. This is pretty astounding. So again, the “massed” group is the group that did all of their surgical training all in one block.

The spaced group is the group that had one training module per week until they had done all of the training as well. These numbers are percentage of students in each group who reached proficiency. And you can see there’s a very large difference between the groups, right? 39% versus 90%, 11% versus 70%.

This is pretty stark – and kind of concerning to me! If massed practice is how surgeons are trained, right, that’s kind of not a good thing.

So this was very convincing to me when I started really looking into this research that taking breaks is a lot better. They did this exactly the same amount of training, but the group that took breaks did a heck of a lot better.

Another study that I want to share with you from the surgical training realm, again had a similar setup in terms of groups of two groups. One group did all of their training all at once in a mass. The other group did one training module per week until they had also done all of the trainings.

In this next study that I’m going to share, they were specifically looking at the transfer of skills. So they learned these surgical skills in a surgical skills lab, and then they had to transfer these skills to a more “real world” situation. They were doing surgery on rats, I believe, versus in a skills lab.

And so what they were looking at was, was there any difference in skill transfer between these two groups? And again, the difference is pretty stark. So let me explain what you’re looking at here.

The white boxes are the performance of the spaced group, the group that got breaks, so they did one module per week. The gray boxes are the performance of the massed group, so they did all their training all in one day.

In each pair of graphs, the graph on the left is showing how they did on a pretest before they did any training whatsoever. The graphs on the right in each pair are showing how they did on this transfer test. So they did their training and then they had to transfer that training to a rat that was undergoing surgery.

I want to highlight two things in this. The first up here is global rating. That’s sort of their overall rating on how they did on everything that they were tested on. And you can see that the massed group, the group that took no breaks, is not any better after training as they were before training! So they were exactly the same on the pretest and on the transfer test.

That means they did all this training in between and nothing transferred. That’s really annoying, right? And again, scary if this is how surgeons are trained!

Another one I want to draw attention to is their competency score down here. And again, again, you can see this group that took no breaks. There is no difference between their pretest and their transfer test.

So they got nothing out of the training that transferred. If you look at the white boxes, the group that got the breaks in those two that I highlighted, they do a lot better, right, on the transfer test? So their training, they benefited from the training, and they were actually able to transfer that to another situation.

For us as musicians, I think this is very relevant, right? We spend time practicing scales and etudes and arpeggios and technical things like this. And we do that because we hope to apply those technical skills to our actual music that we’re playing. So we really want those skills to transfer. We also want the skills we learn in one piece of music to transfer to another piece of music.

This research suggests that the best way to get that to happen is to take breaks while you’re practicing.

I want to share one more study before we get into, well, why does this happen? And also, how can I actually use this?

This study came out in summer 2021, and it created a lot of excitement in the field.

So in this study, they took people, these were not surgeons, they were just everyday people. And they had to learn a button press sequence on a computer keyboard, and they had to learn to do this as quickly and accurately as possible. They practiced this button press sequence for 10 seconds, and then they took a ten second “micro-break”, they called it, and then they practiced for ten more seconds, ten second micro-break.

What you’re seeing in this graph is they’re practicing. So the gray and black squiggles, that’s how they’re doing during the little ten second practice. The gap between the squiggles is the little ten second micro-break.

And if you look at this, I’m going to go right here because I think it’s really easy to see. You can see for each of these, actually, that their performance at the end of their ten second practice session, they end in one place, and then after the micro break, they start again at a higher level after the break. And if you look at all of these, you can see that that’s the case, like, all the way through this, that there’s a huge jump after the micro-break compared to where they were at the end of their practice session.

And when the scientists in this study analyzed the results, they found that the vast majority of the improvement people made took place during the breaks. Not while they were practicing, but while they were taking a break, which is like the most counterintuitive thing ever!

The reason this happened: they also had people hooked up to a brain scanner that was looking at what their brain was doing while they were practicing and while they were taking a break. What they found was that during the break, the brain would replay the sequence they were learning 20 times faster.

So they did a super-fast-forward replay and was essentially continuing to practice while they were taking the break. The brain actually also played the sequence backwards during the break, which, the scientists didn’t know what the deal was with that. They just reported it. I think that’s fascinating.

But the takeaway is that during the breaks, the brain is continuing to practice. So hopefully, this little introduction to the idea of taking breaks and the power of taking breaks has convinced you that if you’re not already taking breaks, it’s worth doing.

I want to delve a little bit more into why.

So we just saw that, okay, the brain continues to practice while you’re taking a break. The surgical studies we were looking at, the break was a week, right? They have about a week between training modules. Does the brain continue to practice for all that time? What’s going on?

What scientists have found is that while the brain is taking a break, not only does it continue to practice like we just saw in the micro-break study, but it also does physical reconstruction.

So in order to learn anything at all, in order to get better at anything at all, your brain has to physically change to support that higher level of skill. And in order to physically change, the brain has to do construction and reconstruction. And in order to do that construction, the brain needs you to take a break so it can do it.

The analogy that I use for this is road construction. So any time they need to fix the road, because there’s a bunch of potholes or whatever, they have to shut down the road, do their work, and then reopen the road, right?

You can’t have people driving on a road while they’re trying to do the repair. Our brain is exactly the same.

And so the brain cannot do the physical reconstruction it needs to do to support this higher level of learning if you are also using it at the same time. So it needs you to take a break, so it can do what it needs to do. And then when you come back, it feels much easier to you. You can do it much better because you’ve given the brain a chance to do that reconstruction.

So I said it just a minute ago, but I’m going to say it again now, because it’s very counterintuitive:

We make the most progress while we are taking a break, not while we’re actually practicing!

Which is so hard to wrap your mind around, right? It feels like while you’re practicing, that’s when you’re making the improvement. But actually, if we measure improvement as changes to the brain, that happens when you’re not practicing.

Okay, so some ideas for how to apply this.

Within a practice session, take micro breaks.

So I think probably we all know about the importance of doing repetitions on things to solidify the way you want to do something, not just doing it right once and moving on.

When you’re doing any sort of repetitions, you want to take breaks within that.

So the way that I do this with myself is if I’m trying to really nail some, let’s say, a difficult shift, I will try to play it three times in a row without any mistakes, and then I’ll take a little micro-break. I don’t put on a timer for 10 seconds or whatever, I usually get a sip of water, I look out the window and see what’s going on in the streets, spy on my neighbors or whatever animals are running around out there.

And then I come back and I try to do three more, in a row. Sometimes I will do a single repetition and then, you know, space out, get a drink of water, whatever, and then do another repetition. But it’s really important when, especially when you’re doing repetitions, to take breaks within that and not just do them over and over and over.

Related to this, come back to the same thing multiple times during a practice session.

So before I knew about this research, the way I used to practice years and years ago was I would work on one thing until I felt good about it, and then I would not revisit it until usually, like the next day when it was time to practice that thing again.

Now I will practice something for a little bit, and then I’ll go work on some other things, take breaks, then come back and practice that thing again, go work on some other things, take breaks, come back and work on that thing again. So I’m constantly shifting between things to give my brain a chance to take a break.

I also come back to the same thing several times throughout the day. So maybe I’ll work on something in the morning and then come back to it a little bit in the afternoon, and then come back to it again after dinner or something like that. That’s also very different than how I used to practice years ago where it was like a set time for this one thing, and I practiced that thing, and then I didn’t revisit it.

Now I take breaks, and it works a lot better.

The better you get at something, the longer the break you want to take. So I used to try to practice by trying to practice everything every day, which obviously doesn’t work because there’s only so many hours in the day.

Now, as I get better at playing something, I will take entire days and entire weeks off from even thinking about that passage or piece of music or whatever. And what I’ve noticed is that when I come back to it, say, two weeks later, not only have I not lost anything, I can play it much better than I did before the break because my brain has had a chance to do that reconstruction that I was talking about. And in the interim, when I wasn’t practicing it, I had time to practice other stuff.

And then finally, and we won’t really have time to talk about sleep today, but sleep is the ultimate break. Our brains do so much while we are sleeping to help consolidate our learning and to just make everything work better in our brains. And so getting enough sleep every night really enhances our ability to learn things and get better at things.

So sleep is the ultimate break that you definitely want to prioritize.


Christopher: Awesome. Isn’t Molly amazing?

I loved that masterclass, and I hope that little segment from it brought a lot of new ideas, maybe turned some lightbulbs on for you.

Really, whether it’s the bigger breaks of hours, days, or even weeks, or that ten-second micro-break, when you start factoring these things into your music learning, your progress can accelerate dramatically. Even though it’s kind of mind-boggling!

You just need to get past that voice in your head that’s telling you “it won’t work” or those ingrained practice habits that tell you to practice more and more, and the more you do, the better you’ll get.

It really does require a bit of a mindset shift and a willingness to do things in a slightly odd way. But the payoff is huge.

I actually shared an example during that masterclass of my own recent life where I’ve got these five-minute drum lessons we squeeze in in the morning with one of my daughters. She’s six. And it feels like we really need to make the most of every minute because we’ve only got five minutes! And actually introducing these micro-breaks has had a huge positive effect.

So when she starts to fumble on the drumkit or she’s clearly getting in a muddle, I just stop, I distract her with something for five or 10 seconds, we come back to it. And not only is she kind of past the fumble, she’s better than she was before. And you really see the power of these micro-breaks in practice.

So this is definitely a super cool technique that you can start using in your music practice right away, and I would encourage you to do so.

After this bit of the masterclass Molly went on to explain “interleaved practice” or “random” practice, as well as actually a leveled-up version of that, which is even more powerful.

And again, just kind of backed by the research showing the graphs and everything from the studies. Super cool. As well as a whole bunch of other things.

If you’re a member of Musical U, that full masterclass replay will be going up inside the site today, so I definitely encourage you to check that out, as well as all of our other superlearning material. It’s packed with these kinds of weird and counterintuitive things that actually really work.

If you’re not yet a member, I just urge you to not listen and think “oh, that’s interesting”, and move on.

Really grab one of these ideas, whether it’s, you know, working on a piece and then taking a break for a few hours, a few days and coming back to it, or this powerful micro-breaks idea where you factor in these short, distracted pauses to give your brain a chance to do that ultra-fast replay learning. And I think you’ll be amazed and really pleased with the impact it has on how fast you get better.

Until next time, cheers!

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