When Should You Be Practicing?

Practice In The Morning
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I am often asked for tips on how to practice effectively. In my recent post entitled The Best Ways To Practice using the latest brain researchI showed that practice is most effective when we leave time in between our practice sessions for some forgetting to set in. After we forget something or forget parts of something, it feels more difficult to relearn it. And that difficulty makes us learn it better! But does the time of day that we practice matter?  Yes it does!

I have just finished listening to The Great Courses Lecture Series called Memory and the Human Lifespan by Professor Steve Joordens. Professor Joordens asserts:

Our circadian rhythms shift as we age–in adolescence and teen years we are more likely to be night owls, and as we age, we become morning people. We are alert earlier in the day and we get drowsy sooner in the day. Young people don’t start to feel really alert until lunchtime, then school ends just as they are starting to feel cognitively strong.

Dr. Joordens cites research by psychologist Lynn Hasher who studied memory retention in both younger and older people, both early and late in the day. When you compare young to old on memory tasks late in the day, the younger people scored much better. But when you compare young to old on memory tasks earlier in the day, the older people scored higher than the young!

Older adults will retain more information and skills if they practice earlier in the day! It would be great if they could fit in another short practice session just before going to bed, because sleep helps to embed new skills and concepts into long-term memory.

Children will remember more if they practice later in the day, preferably after having a healthy drink and snack (and washing their hands!) If they have the time, they too would benefit from another short practice session right before bed to let the magic powers of sleep do its mighty memory consolidation.

According to the National Sleep Foundation:

Sleep actually triggers changes in the brain that solidify memories—strengthening connections between brain cells and transferring information from one brain region to another.

We tend to focus on WHAT to practice – but as interested music teachers and students we also need to take into account HOW and WHEN to practice most effectively according to the processes of the brain. Have you found these parameters to be true for your practice?

With love and music, Gaili

Author, Upper Hands Piano: A Method for ADULTS 50+ to SPARK the Mind, Heart and Soul

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10 Replies to “When Should You Be Practicing?”

  1. I practice when I first get up in the morning. I grab a cup of coffee, and then I practice for one hour and then off to work I go. By the time I get home of work, the piano is the last thing I want to touch although I have just incorporated a 15-minute session when I get home, but I only play songs I already know.

    1. Wow an hour before work- you are awesome and inspiring Nancy! I think playing songs you already know later in the day is a great idea. We all need time to just sit and enjoy playing.

  2. Incorporating breaks into your learning regimen is sometimes referred to as ‘composting’. It’s akin to the notion of ‘letting the dust settle’. Hence, for most people, do something too rigorously without breaks is not productive. Think about body builders who know that they can’t do the same exercise routine concentrating on the same group of muscles day after day. I have noticed that when I vary my piano lessons, I do better.

    1. Thanks for your comment- I love that term composting! That’s a good analogy with body builders – because we are using muscles and thought processes that should be shaken up a bit. Varying practice is an important concept- I try to keep approaching my practice (and my students’) from different angles. Sometimes singing, clapping, playing forward and backward, playing with eyes closed etc.

  3. thanks for this information. I know practicing early in the day is better but I always go to the piano later. Alas, some people learn good ideas slowly, like me. With this research I am motivated to start earlier as i am a senior! thanks again.

  4. Really interesting reading thank you for sharing. I teach children and adults a variety of
    instruments. Curiously some very diligent students (children) practice very early in the morning.
    Whilst I won’t discourage this, if they do comment that they are tired perhaps I will mention
    this research to their parents and see how a different practice time may fit with family life.
    Thanks again

    1. Thanks Anouska- it is possible that without even feeling tired they just wouldn’t remember what they have practiced as well. However I think we have to consider individual differences. Whatever time they are motivated to practice is a good time!! Thanks for writing 🙂

  5. I improvise freely in the morning after breakfast, and I work on my new releases and the technical aspects later in the day. Sometimes, I skip days, but I was a pianist for 60 years and am now retired. Sometimes I just listen to various favorite artists, and right now it’s Al Green. Whether you play, listen, or use music to heal and de-stress, music itself is a gift we can all share. Learning to play an instrument changed my life. I was attracted to piano at age four, when I found out what one was, and that it responded to me, and me to it. Peabody Conservatory almost succeeded in making music UN-fun, but I was young, with an attitude, a hippie-girl of the 60’s who dug rock and soul music. The classicists taught me fingerings and theory, but jazz answered my needs.
    No matter what kind it is, music completes the human need for self-expression. It’s the only art-form that is immediate and touches the absolute.

    1. I’m so glad to hear that you’re improvising! I think we are the most creative in the morning before all of the day’s thoughts descend upon us. Nice that you return later to focus your practice.

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