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Music and the Brain

Dr. Molly Gebrian’s five-part YouTube series, “What Musicians Can Learn About Practicing from Current Brain Research,” offers fascinating insights into the human brain and how to efficiently practice for success. With a Doctor of Musical Arts from Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music, Dr. Gebrian has published numerous papers surrounding her two biggest passions: music and neuroscience.

Photo of Molly GebrianWhat inspired you to go into both music and neuroscience?

When I was an undergraduate student at Oberlin, I knew that I wanted to be a double degree student but had not decided my second area of study as I had so many different interests. During freshman year, I took an introductory neuroscience class and was completely fascinated by it. Coincidentally, an upperclassman in the viola studio was also double majoring in performance and neuroscience, and he reassured my worries. To be completely honest, I completed the neuroscience degree just for my personal interest and had no plans to continue with it professionally. However, when I was completing my masters at NEC, I felt totally unbalanced with just focusing on viola performance. As a result, I continued to take graduate level classes in neuroscience while I was completing my doctorate in viola performance at Rice. Having this neuroscience background has not only changed my practice, but also tremendously affected my teaching style as well.

What advice would you give to music students looking to broaden their interests to other areas of study?

The world will want you to be one thing, and one thing only, but that is not necessarily always the case as people have a variety of different interests. However, if you don’t have another area of interest or are only pursuing some other field because you think it’s safe, don’t do it. You have to truly love both things, or else it will not be worth it. Nonetheless, if you do have two different interests and plan to pursue them, make sure to manage and more importantly prioritize your time. The world will tell you that you can’t do it, but you definitely can.

What inspired you to create this YouTube practice series?

It all started when I was studying for my neuroscience classes at Oberlin. I realized how I could apply these concepts of learning and memory to playing and be much more productive in the practice room. As a result, I delved further into research to help my fellow musicians achieve efficient practice. The outcome of that was a paper you can access on my website. I then turned it into a presentation that I’ve been giving for the last five years as various conferences and schools. People had been asking me for years about turning my presentation into a video series, and when COVID-19 hit last spring, I finally had the chance to film it.

What advice would you give to students implementing these new practice methods?

My presentations contain a lot of information and it can definitely be a little overwhelming. I would encourage students to pick one idea that resonates with them and to implement that to their practice. I can guarantee that students are generally practicing in the worst possible way to get better, and in many cases, they would actually be better off not practicing! Once they are comfortable with that one idea, they should move onto the next and keep adding on. Students may be skeptical at first, but I promise that it will work.

What is the planning process behind each of your video series?

I always start with something I am personally interested in for my own practice. First, I perform a literature search and start reading as much as I can. For any given presentation, I read at least 50 different research papers in order to gain a full understanding of the topic. Then, I package the information in a way that is understandable to a person without a scientific background and also relate it in a practical way to performing. It is one thing to know the information, but it is another to be able to apply it effectively. Then, I organize the presentation in a narrative vein, basically telling the story of the research in the best way possible. After I make the presentation, I often write a paper that goes with it which helps me to clarify my thinking.

Image from Music and the Brain video

What do you hope people take away from your series?

My main hope is that musicians learn more efficient and more effective ways of practicing as we spend so much of our lives in the practice room. Growing up, I thought that practicing was so frustrating and the biggest waste of time. This was because I didn’t understand how the brain learned and what I had to do to practice well. Once you understand the principles of practicing, it can be so fun. Secondly, I have a personal crusade against the world talent. It should be banned in the vocabulary of teachers and students, because it truly doesn’t affect how much success one can have. Based on research, you can literally become successful at anything if you know how to practice.

Can you give a teaser for your upcoming video series?

My upcoming series is about spaced practice. The research shows that you learn faster and retain more information with the more breaks you take. It’s incredibly counterintuitive but this research has been known since the 1880s! When quarantine happened, I finally had the chance to experiment and was not scared in case it backfired since all the concerts were cancelled. It was incredibly successful, and I knew I had to make my next series on this.

Make sure to subscribe to Dr. Gebrian’s channel to stay updated with her latest series!

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