Music Tip #1 | Sleep on It

My friend Phil and I are both past our college days, yet still continue our education: himself with Spanish, and myself with music. As a result, we can sympathize on the difficulties of internalizing language, be it Spanish grammar or musical vocabulary.

A few weeks back, he cracked a joke about falling asleep on an open textbook, and soaking up information into your brain that way; while we shared a laugh, I couldn’t help but recall a related truth I experienced when I was in music school.


My Experience

Around a year ago (March 2017), I graduated from LACM in Pasadena, CA. One of the last classes was “Three Horn Band,” and it featured difficult repertoire; Coltrane’s “Moment’s Notice” and “Lazy Bird” were two such jazz standards.

The week we played “Lazy Bird,” outside church and music work limited practice time earlier in the week; I set aside 3-4 hours the day of class to practice. The result? I passed, but my confidence was lacking, and the chord changes caught me off guard.

The next week, I resolved to prepare earlier, for a similarly difficult tune. Again, outside work prevented me from shedding ahead of time. I got 30-40 minutes in the night before, going to bed worried. If I couldn’t execute well with 3-4 hours of practice, then how would I fare with a mere 30 – 40 minutes?

The result? oddly enough, the chords didn’t catch me off guard, but my confidence did; I had practiced less, and did extremely well. While testing this for the remaining weeks of school – despite drops in practice duration – I found that practicing ahead of time, and sleeping on what I’d learned, drastically improved efficiency and retention.

While YMMV (your mileage may vary), and there were surely other factors contributing to my improvement (genre familiarity or raw skill, for example), there is research that backs this up.



The Science

The last time I took a class in biology was five or six years ago. So rather than listening to me, read this article, describing an experiment on the hippocampus of mice…

I’ll let professor and lead study author Susumu Tonegawa summarize: “Our work demonstrates the molecular link between post-experience sleep and the establishment of long-term memory of that experience… The sleeping brain must replay experiences like video clips before they are transformed from short-term into long-term memories.”

University of Texas professor Alison Preston calls this “memory consolidation,” and explains it in further detail in this Scientific American article…

In summary, sleeping after we learn and practice allows our brain to consolidate short-term memory into long-term memory.


(Source: Pixabay)


Some Applications

If you’re a musician, you know how much there is to learn. We have to keep track, and keep up, with everything from technique to memorizing pieces and standards. Furthermore, these concepts need to be deeply consolidated.

For example, just because I understand “playing in time” does not mean that my body and mind will follow; it requires a whole shift, and a new mindset ingrained enough to persevere under live performance pressure. I can verbally explain how to blow over chord changes, but if I have even slight misconceptions – or a small fraction of a second of hesitation – it’s easy to get lost. In the moment of improvising or executing music, we need to be fully present, with what we’ve practiced at instant recall: in other words, as fluent as we would speak a language.

While it’s a more obvious fact that adequate sleep gives us strength for the day, scheduling practice time days in advance gives your body and mind time to absorb information efficiently, by consolidating new information overnight. And being efficient with our time is especially vital in freelance-oriented careers like music!

On the flip side, musicians – and many other kinds of professionals – often glorify a lifestyle of incessant work at the expense of physical/mental/emotional/spiritual health. But according to what we’ve been discussing, it’ll take a few days and nights to truly understand and embody what we practice. Don’t beat yourself up if it isn’t instantaneous. Trust practice, and practice diligently. But live a balanced life, and get some sleep!

In conclusion, though sleeping on a textbook isn’t a realistic study method, sleeping on what you’ve learned is essential to learning well.

P.S. My friend Phil blogs about books and movies! Go visit his website here.