The Dunning-Kruger Effect

The Dunning/Krueger Effect is one of 19 Social Biases (go HERE for a visual guide to many others), also known as superiority bias, the “Lake Woebegon” effect, or superiority bias. We’ve all met someone like this, and may even be like this ourselves if we don’t pay attention. As far as I can tell, it works like this: people who are less able (let’s say a beginning musician), don’t have the skills to make a correct assessment of their ability and tend to overrate their expertise. They think they’re better than they are because they lack the awareness to know any better. I’ve seen this all the time with very young students who finally “get” a simple song and are elated, full of vim and vigor because they think they’re good. And in a sense, they are, they’re better than they once were, they’ve triumphed over something difficult. But they lack the range of experience to clearly understand that they have a loooong way to go. Watch the tryouts for American Idol and you’ll see LOTS of this, some of it quite hilarious or heartbreaking, depending.

The weird thing is another side of the DK effect: those who are competent tend to underrate their expertise. The bashful expert, the sheepish performer, the self-deprecating. Chances are such folks wrongfully assume others have equal understanding and this bleeds them of confidence. They don’t really believe in their greater expertise perhaps also becasue of an awareness of how much there really is to know, and this also makes it difficult to build confidence.

Why you SHOULD demonstrate inability

Attempting the impossible in order to improve is very different than attempting the impossible because you don’t know any better. A few posts ago when I wrote of the useful technique of chaining and backchaining, as an example I told the story of my disastrous high school attempt to play the Hummel Concerto in Eb 25 years ago. This was an example of not knowing any better, and the experience did a fair amount of damage to my teenage psyche and had a temporarily adverse affect on my pursuit of music.

Many years later, as I entered Northwestern University for a graduate degree in music education, I attempted another seemingly impossible music endeavor, but this time I was doing it consciously in order to improve, and was scared spitless.

Book Review: The Musician’s Way, by Gerald Klickstein

I’ve read (and re-read in many cases) most books out there on practice and this is one of the best, hands down. Klickstein is a classical guitarist who performs throughout the U.S. and internationally and is a professor at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts.

My favorite 2 aspects of the book are…

Good In, Good Out: Listening

Sound has an impact on us, a profound one. Whether it’s research showing that musicians can detect pitch difference language better; the discovery by Dana Strait–a friend and musical colleague of mine at Northwestern–that musicians are better at identifying emotion in sound; that trees communicate with sound; or that sound can also affect human development in a negative way as presented by Julian Treasure below in a six minute video.


Planning is an essential part of your practice session. Imagine the planning that went into the video above, and ask yourself how much planning goes into your practice sessions. Every book I’ve read on practice, and every research article that looks into what musicians do when they practice mentions the importance of planning out your practice session. This includes broader plans like goals, as well as more specific things like exactly which pieces or skills you’re going to tackle and how you’re going to tackle them. This planning stage is only one part of a 3-stage process used by most of the people studied by McPherson and Zimmerman in a 2002 study. Here’s what it looks like:

Mental Floss

It’s six AM and I’m sitting in a lifeguard chair as early-bird lap swimmers make their wet way up and down the pool lanes. I try to make the best use of my time while in the chair, but I still have to keep a close watch on the swimmers. So of course, I practice. Even though my trumpet is not in my hands I get a lot of work done and still do my job. Besides, playing trumpet early in the morning won’t make you any friends, even if (especially if?) you’re playing reveille. Today’s post is about a practical technique that all experts use, whether they’re musicians, athletes, or surgeons. You can (and should!) use them to improve, too. I’m talking about mental practice.

Born Stupid: Your Plastic Brain, III

I keep hammering away at the brain’s ability to re-wire itself because 1. It’s so darn fascinating, and 2. To combat the old saw that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” which research is telling us is completely false. Here’s some more evidence of the lifelong plasticity of the brain. To anyone over 18 who is considering doing something new and unfamiliar, the following vid should be required watching.

Talent No Existe!

“A genius! For 37 years I’ve practiced fourteen hours a day, and now they call me a genius!” –Pablo Sarasate (Spanish violinist)
Anders Ericsson’s fantastic work on deliberate practice, as well as the work of many other researchers (see below), has shown that talent is merely disguised practice. In the following video, listen closely to how the teacher frames the girl’s typing skill, and how Makensie herself does. The teacher is flabbergasted, but Makensie gives us a lot more information: she practices, has goals, receives support and encouragement from family and friends, and gets self-esteem from the skill she’s acquired.

It IS about you…

Have you ever been out in the world, going somewhere, sure of the direction you’re headed when in a flash you realize that you’re actually headed in the opposite direction? It’s such an odd and sudden shift of perspective, as if the entire world suddenly snaps to a new orientation. But it’s not the world that shifts, it’s you. Every now and then I get that same feeling from something I read. It could be the first time I read a new author (Bradbury, O’Connor, Vonnegut), or some piece of research, like a study by Carol Dweck, the subject of this post.

Your Plastic Brain (redux)

Learning changes your brain structure. My neurons underwent some serious alteration this weekend, all naturally induced, thank you very much. One of the world’s foremost grand masters of the djembe, Mamady Keita (vid to follow), was in Chicago to give beginning-, intermediate-, and advanced drum workshops. I’ve never had a djembe lesson before. I signed up for the beginner session and would learn very quickly what “beginner” actually meant to this crowd. Good thing I didn’t know that Keita’s definition of “beginner” is most people’s definition of, “I know what I’m doing.” If I’d known this, my stomach would’ve been in even more of a knot about showing up with little to no real djembe experience. Nothing like a good challenge to get you to really pay attention.

Practicing Tempo

I got bored with the old way – it came too easy. I worked until I could play chord changes at any tempo in any key, and then said ‘What else is there?’ Now I’m finding out. — Don Ellis, trumpeter, drummer, composer The tempo is the suitcase. If the suitcase is too small, everything…

Your Plastic Brain

A recent study looked at the growth of white matter in the brains of young adults learning to juggle. Yes, jugglers. After 6 weeks of training, and around 30 minutes of daily practice, their brains were significantly different from non-jugglers.