Have you ever woken and been able to play a section that frustrated you the day before? While the purpose of sleep is still a mystery, its positive effects on how we create memories are undeniable. This article focuses on how musicians can best couple practice with sleep.
Practicing is hard, especially when first learning an instrument. In a 2014 study of 2000 students, 63% of them saw practice as the biggest barrier to progress. While practice is always needed to play an instrument, sleep can be a powerful tool to make it easier.
Practicing an instrument is cognitively different than learning math. Procedural tasks- like playing piano - are analogous to walking or riding a bike. They takes a lot of practice to learn the first time. Yet after, they can be done without thinking while you have your eyes closed. These tasks are best learned through moments of trial and error, making small corrections along the way.
Knowing the difference between procedural and declarative tasks sets the stage to say, they have different points of optimization. When sitting down to practice, focus small and be okay with getting up on an unfinished note. One of the superpowers of our brain is it keeps working on tasks after you stop practicing. This effect is most powerful while we sleep. Sleep specialists concluded that the best time to practice music an hour before you go to bed compared to 3 hours for your schoolwork. This finding shows that procedural tasks are encoded in the REM sleep while math is solidified during deep sleep.
So finally, how good can sleep really be? Well, a study by Walker and colleagues (2002) showed how much sleep can advance performance. The different colored columns signify trials done after the test subject slept. Walker concluded that one’s performance can increase by 20% from just a good night's rest.
Sleep is a powerful tool that helps us learn new information while we’re not practicing. Something important to remember is sleeping without practice will get you nowhere. The first step towards learning will always begin with practice!