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Have you ever found yourself spacing out while practicing? Where you suddenly “come to” and realize that your fingers have been moving, but you have no idea what you’ve been working on?

Maintaining focus and concentration is a common challenge in the practice room.

When asked, my advice has generally been something along the lines of making sure you have clear goals for each practice session and for each repetition. Or, practicing at a more personally optimal time of day, taking a nap, or making the most of your practice breaks.

But as useful as these strategies can be, they all take some time, planning, or effort. Meanwhile, there’s one pretty obvious thing that has been conspicuously absent from my list of suggestions. So obvious, in fact, that once you find out what it is, you may be tempted to stop reading.

But this should probably be the first thing we try if our mind starts feeling fuzzy and we’re having difficulty staying on-task.

What is this thing exactly?

A drink of water.

Yeah, I know. Totally boring. But here’s the thing. We all know how much of an impact hydration can have on physical performance, but we tend not to think of its impact on mental performance.

And research suggests that being slightly dehydrated could have a more noticeable impact on our ability to concentrate, make decisions, and problem-solve than you’d think.

How much of a difference, you ask?

A meta-analysis

A pair of researchers scoured the literature for all the studies they could find related to cognitive performance and hydration. Altogether, there were 33 that met their criteria (e.g. healthy adult subjects, measured before/after changes, etc.).

After combining all the data from these studies, they found that being mildly dehydrated (which is probably where you’re at if you’re thirsty) had a significant impact on some aspects of cognitive performance.

Lower-order processes, like reaction time, weren’t affected all that much. But higher-order processes like attention, executive function, and motor coordination – the kinds of processes that are needed for effective practice – did take a hit.

Ok, but how meaningful of a difference was there? Are we talking about a tiny, statistically-significant-but-practically-trivial difference? Or a difference that’s meaningful enough to affect our productivity in the practice room?

A couple clues

There aren’t any studies (that I’m aware of) that have looked specifically at the impact of hydration on practice room effectiveness or on-stage performance. But there are a couple in some other areas of performance that could give us some inkling of the potential impact.

Card games

One study had a dozen participants engage in a variety of card-game-like challenges ranging from easy to difficult.

They were first tested on a typical day, asked only to make a note of whenever they drank water.

Then, weeks later, they were tested again – but while deprived of water.

Some weeks later, they were tested a third and final time – but with water provided to make sure they were properly hydrated1.

As expected, being dehydrated led to a significant drop in performance. Specifically, they made about 12% more errors. But when they were properly hydrated on the final test, their performance went back to normal.

Exam performance

In another study, this time of 447 university psychology students, researchers found that those who brought water to an exam scored about 5% higher (i.e. half a letter grade) than those who didn’t.

It’s possible, of course, that it wasn’t necessarily the water that was directly responsible for the grade difference (here’s a fun website that illustrates the danger of relying too heavily on correlational data), even though the researchers did control for students’ academic performance in previous coursework. Nevertheless, the finding is consistent with what other researchers have found in similar studies.

Take action

So how much water is enough? And how often should we be hydrating?

Well, the NCAA’s recommendations for athletes are:

2-3 hours before workout: drink 16oz (a regular bottle of water is usually about 20 ounces)
15 minutes before workout: drink 8oz (~half a bottle of water)
During workout: drink 4oz every 15 to 20 minutes (~a few large gulps)

Source: NCAA Performance Hydration Fact Sheet

I’m not sure what adaptations would have to be made for musicians. But a friend once experimented with drinking a glass or two of water a couple hours before performing, and then a few sips shortly before. It’s hard to quantify the difference, but they reported feeling much better on stage, and thought it was an important element to add to their day-of-performance gameplan.

Everyone’s ideal hydration “formula” will obviously be a bit different, but I’d be curious to hear if you’ve ever followed a hydration plan for performances, rehearsals, or practicing. What have you found most helpful for you?

Or, perhaps more intriguingly, has anyone experimented with having a student drink some water before a lesson to see how that might affect their level of concentration and focus? Especially if they’re coming from a long day of school, after which their brain is already a little fried?

Footnotes

  1. Based on the European Food Safety Authority’s recommended 2.5L per day