Generally I believe that it’s a good idea to work on more than one piece of music at a time. Working on a lot of music helps to vary your practice and keep your attention focused. It increases enjoyment, and it’s also very helpful for learning many different styles. With that being said, there comes a time for most musicians where a deadline is coming up and they just need to learn one piece as quickly as possible.
Typically you don’t want to rush learning music, but sometimes you just don’t have a choice. If you had just a couple of weeks to learn a piece of music that normally takes you months, what can you do to maximize your practice time and still have the piece learned well at your deadline?
I’m serious. This is probably the best thing you can possibly do if you have a deadline to learn one piece. Sleep is the most important part of practice. Schedule a practice session before a nap. Practice for as long as you can where you’re actually progressing, and then take a nap. It doesn’t have to be immediately after practice, it just has to happen. The nap will have improved your performance similarly to what a full night’s sleep would have done.
How Long Should the Nap Be and When to Take It
One study showed that naps should take place at most 4 hours after you practice. If possible, take your nap no longer than 4 hours after you practice. Don’t worry about the timing too much though. It’s more important that a nap happens than when it is actually taken. The study that linked motor skill and memory achievement with daytime naps used a 60-90 minute nap in the middle of the day. It’s possible that a shorter nap could have similar affects, but there doesn’t seem to be any research comparing the length of naps on learning. In a study in infants a 30 minute nap seemed to have the same affect.
NREM sleep are the stages of sleep that affect learning the most. NREM is the first three stages of sleep collectively. REM sleep usually starts about 90 minutes after you fall asleep. You shouldn’t worry about getting to REM during your daytime nap.
Practice before your nap. You can practice everything in one sitting or space them out over multiple practice sessions. Multiple practice sessions may be better for concentration. Within four hours of your last practice session take a nap. It can be right after your session too, this actually may be the best way to do it. Before you go to bed that night you need to have at least one more practice session. Practice the same parts that you practiced before your nap.
Simple right? Just practice, sleep, and then practice again.
Should You Take Multiple Naps?
If naps are so helpful why not take two or three right? When you start to take more than one nap throughout the day you’re moving to the realm of polyphasic sleep. Polyphasic sleep is sleeping multiple times throughout the day instead of sleeping for one long stretch at night. There haven’t been a lot of studies done on if polyphasic sleep is healthy or not. It’s an interesting topic.
Although there hasn’t been a lot of studies done on polyphasic sleep, there have been a lot or research done on the importance of a long nights sleep. It’s healthy to get a full night’s sleep, and a nap in the middle of the day is just fine too. If you start taking 4 naps during the day and only sleep 3-4 hours at night, who knows what will happen to your health. It may be better not to risk it.
Practice a lot of Material
Do not over practice any one section. You need to practice as many sections as possible before you nap. This is because the only music that gets benefits from your sleep is the music you practice. It’s therefore better to practice a lot of the music a little bit than it is to practice a small section a lot.
Start with Technique
There are some things you can’t cram. Technique is one of them. Memory should be learned over multiple days as well, but usually 2-3 days is all you need to memorize a section of music. Technique on the other hand may take a couple weeks of practice before you feel comfortable.
You absolutely must practice technical sections deliberately for many days before your body figures it out. The problem is that a lot of musicians will practice a piece from the beginning, memorizing as they go. If you have a deadline coming up soon, it’s possible that you don’t get to some of the most technically demanding parts of the piece until just a day or two before your deadline. At that point you’re done. You don’t have enough days to practice the technically demanding sections and sleep on them.
The first thing you should do is go straight to parts of the piece that you notice will be technically demanding and mark them. Try to be as specific as possible. It’s ok if this takes you a few hours. It’s time that is well worth it.
Make any mark that helps you remember that those are the sections you need to work on. Keep the sections small. You shouldn’t be marking phrases, you should be marking body movements. Remember, technique is motor skill learning. Find those body movements that will be difficult and mark them. You can find them by trying to play small sections of music at the correct tempo. If you can’t do it, then you’ll need some technical help with those sections. If you can, don’t mark them at all.
Work on Your Marks
Make sure that both before and after your nap you work on all of your markings for technique. Go straight to them. There’s no need to “test” anything because you can go directly to the parts that need work. There’s no need to practice from the beginning, or an entire phrase either. Remember, you’re practicing body movements. Repeat them just a few times throughout your practice session and move on to the next one.
Depending on the length of the piece, and how many technical sections there are, practicing these technically difficult sections usually doesn’t take too long. It may take you less than 15 minutes to practice through everything. This leaves you plenty of time to work on memorization and other parts of the piece as well.
It’s one thing to have a good schedule for your practice, but if the time you spend practicing is wasted, then it’s still going to take a while to learn anything. I’ve already written quite a bit on practice that you should read. So here’s your reading assignments:
- How to Memorize Music 5 Times Faster
- The Four Types of Musical Memory
- Muscle Memory is a Requirement for All Musicians
- Avoid Mistakes
- Don’t Make Mistakes While Practicing – The Million Dollar Challenge
- Don’t Just Learn the Notes – Practice Correctly from the Beginning
- Efficient Practice
If you have an option, working on a lot of music may be the best idea when it comes to practice. If you’re working on a lot of music, you’ll have plenty of music to practice throughout the day without repeating anything. If that’s the case, there’s really no need for the daytime nap because you’re not going to work on the same sections of music again after your nap anyways.
If you have to learn one piece of music very quickly, though, your approach to your practice schedule should change. Cherish your naps, not only are they the best thing you can do for your practice, they’re also rejuvenating! Don’t feel guilt for taking that afternoon nap. It’s helping!
Do you have any other strategies for learning one piece of music very quickly? Let us know what they are in the comments!