Have you ever crammed for a test? I would be lying if I said I never did. Actually for me the better question would be, “did you ever take a test that you didn’t cram for?” I’m not sure what the answer to that one is. When you cram do you do well? Most teachers and parents tell you not to cram, but it worked for me. Well, it worked for what my goal was. I got good grades on the tests I crammed for. If you were to ask me today to tell you much about what I learned in high school biology, I wouldn’t even know where to start.
Cramming helps if you only need information for a day or so, but learning to play an instrument isn’t the same as memorizing facts to put on a test. Even if it were, you don’t only want to be able to play a piece the next day, you want to learn it well, so you can play it any day.
In order to get to that point you need to understand how to use sleep to your advantage. No more cramming.
Practice to Failure?
Weight lifters often use the phrase “train to failure”. Training to failure means that the person lifting would lift weights in a set until they physically can’t anymore. Your body just can’t handle it. Music practice is different. Musicians (hopefully) aren’t using their muscles in a way that would cause them to be unable to continue playing their instrument.
All musicians, regardless of the instrument they play, use their brain like weight lifters use their muscles.
Have you ever experienced working on one section of a piece of music over and over again until you can’t seem to stop making the same silly mistakes? This is similar to training to failure with our physical muscles. In this case, however, you’ve trained to failure with your brain. Nothing can be accomplished past this failure point.
Stop Before Failure
Practicing until your brain hurts is not the best way to go about it. You don’t want to make mistakes while practicing. It’s better to stop working on a section of music before you get to the point of failure. The more you practice, the more you’ll realize when your failure point is coming. For the most part, less is more. It’s better to practice a section just a little bit and then move on to a new section, than it is to over practice to the point of failure.
Don’t Stop Practicing – Just Stop Working on the Section
Here’s where a lot of people get confused. Can you over practice? Of course you can. If no matter what you do every section of music that you try to practice is at the “failure” point, it’s probably time to stop practicing for the day, or at least take a break. What I’ve found, though, is that I can practice for hours and hours every day and keep focused on my practicing. The key is to not over practice one section.
If you think you’ve practiced a section enough for the day (before the failure point), it’s time to move on to another section of the same music or even to another piece. Over practicing isn’t about spending too much of your day practicing, it’s about spending too much of your practice time working on one section of music.
Sleep On It
Now that you’ve done your repetitions, and actively practiced a lot of music, you need to sleep. Sleep is where your real learning will begin.
It’s Not Just About Time
In one study different groups practiced a “finger tapping” exercise. One group worked on it in the morning and another group practiced the exercise at night. Both groups improved equally well after the actual practice.
Each group was tested again 12 hours later. The group that was tested in the morning and then tested 12 hours later obviously didn’t go to sleep yet. They did not improve when they were tested 12 hours later. The group that was tested at night and then again in the morning after a night’s sleep improved on average by 20%. It wasn’t just about the passage of time. Both groups had 12 hours in between the practice and the test, and yet the group that slept did much better.
So sleep is helpful right? Yes it is. What about naps though? Actually, naps do almost as much for performance improvement as a full night’s sleep does. Practice in the morning, take a nap in the afternoon, and practice again at night may just be a winning recipe for rapid learning.
Should You Practice the Same Section in Multiple Sessions in One Day?
In the same study participants in one group had two training sessions. One practice session was in the morning and one more was in the evening. The group improved during both practice sessions but less so in the second session. Another group was only allowed to practice once. Both groups were measured after a nights sleep. The first group and the second group had statistically the same amount of over night improvement. The first group that added a practice session did not get any extra sleep benefits from practicing twice.
Look at the graph below to see how much sleep actually helped after practice.
The top two graphs are in reference to speed gains. The group that was tested an extra time before sleep did not get much of a gain. After sleep is where the large jump occurs. A similar jump can be seen by group two. The error rate was also reduced after sleep by as much as 39%. Those are some big gains.
Practicing a second time before sleep does improve performance, but no where near as much as sleep does. So how can this actually apply to practice? Let’s make this very simple.
Let’s imagine that we can measure how well you know a section of music by a scale from 1 to 100. 1 would mean that you haven’t looked at the section yet. It’s brand new to you. 100 means that you have mastered it.
What’s the fastest way to learn a bunch of music then?
Scenario 1 – Practice One Section A Lot
Let’s take an extreme example and say that you plan on learning just one section a day. Most of your improvement will come at the beginning of your practice session. Let’s assume you get from a 1 to a 20 on your road towards mastery in your first practice session.
You’re unsatisfied with a 20 (it’s still doesn’t sound good) so you keep at it. You practice for the same amount of time, but this time you only get it to a 23. You practice it some more and get it to 25. Then you don’t practice anymore for the day. You go to sleep and when you wake up it’s at 40. It’s still not perfect, but you’ve made some great progress.
Scenario 2 – Practice Multiple Sections A Little
Instead of working on just one section of music, you decide to work on 3 but you practice for the same amount of time as you did in scenario 1. At the end of the day you get all three sections to a 20. That’s lower than the first section got to by the end of the day, but you’re practicing them less.
You then go to sleep. When you wake up, they’re all at a 35. You had the same benefit from sleep that you had from practicing the one section over and over. Now you have three sections learned at 35 instead of one section at 40. Which would you take?
The key is to not get too hung up practicing one section of music. Obviously this is an extremely simple example, and it’s not going to always be this clear cut, but hopefully the example helps to illustrate the need to practice a lot of music every day. Your goal should be to get as many sections of music to benefit from your sleep as possible. Sleep is where you’re going to see your biggest improvements.
If you practice a lot of music every day, and you make sure each section is small, you’ll find massive improvements to your playing very quickly.