For me, 2 months was the sweet spot. That was the point in my competition or audition preparations where the repertoire was more or less in my fingers, and I was filled with hope and optimism about where my playing would be on the big day. After all, 2 months always seemed like more than enough time to hone and refine every little detail.

Of course, that’s also right about the point where time somehow shifts into warp speed (but very sneakily) and before you know it, there’s only 4 weeks left. Then 10 days. Then 7. And thaaat’s when reality set in and I’d realize my playing wasn’t anywhere close to where I had hoped to be at that stage of my countdown.

So I would crank everything up to 11 in every way possible, practicing my rear off and doing everything I could to squeeze every last moment out of my final week of preparations. This didn’t make for a very fun week, but it helped me to feel more prepared; like I had pulled out all the stops and done everything I could do to be in the best shape possible.

Of course, that’s the classic procrastinator’s rationalization, because there was also a cost to this frenzied week of practice. Instead of feeling fresh and rested on the day of the performance, I often felt drained and fatigued – physically, mentally, and emotionally. In fact, I was usually just looking forward to getting it all over with. Which is probably why one of the more commonly dispensed bits of advice in regards to audition preparation is “don’t overpractice.”

In the long run, yes, overpracticing is undoubtedly a recipe for injury and burnout, but in the short term, is it really so bad to put in an intense last week of woodshedding even if it leaves us feeling a bit fatigued? I mean, if we really put our heart and soul into preparations, aren’t we supposed to feel pretty beat at that point in the preparation process?

I always figured there was plenty of time to catch up on rest after the audition, and that the benefits of additional practice far outweighed the cost of a bit of fatigue.

But what does the research actually say?

What we know…and don’t know

Previous studies have established that fatigue doesn’t have a significant effect on strength, power, and explosive movements requiring maximal force like dunking a basketball (ha! I wish), or the kind of lifts you see Olympic weightlifters doing. Which is probably not so relevant to most musicians’ on-stage activities, unless maybe the score of some contemporary piece asks that you overhead press1 a bass…

Slightly more relevant is the finding that being fatigued increases our perception of effort, so our endurance is diminished and we tend to call it quits sooner than we ordinarily would.

But what about fine motor skills? What sort of effect would fatigue have in performance domains like music where success requires not only accurate, but quick movements?

Fatigue in the lab

A recent French study set out to answer this exact question.

The setup was pretty straightforward; take a group of participants, have them perform a task emphasizing fine motor skills2, then have them either a) watch a “non-emotional” 90-minute documentary or b) engage in a mentally demanding task for 90 minutes (a modified version of the Stroop test, which would probably tick me off more than it’d tax my brain if I had to do it for 90 minutes. Try it, you’ll see.), and see how their performance changes.

So did anything change?

What happened?

Watching a documentary for 90 minutes had no effect on performance. Participants performed as quickly and accurately after watching the film as they did before the film.

The mentally challenging task, on the other hand, did have an impact. The participants’ fatigue levels increased, and their performance suffered. Specifically, it took them 4.1% longer to complete the task. Why?

It seems like they slowed down in order to maintain a high level of accuracy. But even then, they still struggled with accuracy, making more errors (1.6 errors before 90 minutes of Stroop test hell vs. 2.7 errors after) and having to restart the task more frequently (because if they fell below a certain level of accuracy, they had to start over).

Hmm…intriguing. But does this still apply to real people performing real skills outside the lab?

Fatigue on the field

Another recent study studied the effect of fatigue on 14 soccer players3.

They either read “leisurely” from a selection of “emotionally-neutral” magazines (i.e. sport, cars, and travel) for 30 min or engaged in a Stroop task for 30 min.

Then they took a passing skills test, which involved making 16 passes to specific targets in 43 seconds. Time was gained by hitting targets, and penalty time was assessed if they took too long to complete the test, missed targets, or hit obstacles by mistake.

Then they took a shooting skills test, which required demonstrating a variety of soccer-related skills (sprinting, agility, ball control, passing, and more4) in taking 10 shots on goal. The athletes were scored on shot accuracy, the velocity of each shot, and the time it took to complete the drill from the time they received the ball to the time they took their shot on goal.

Gooooooal!!!

Much like the other study, the non-mentally-taxing task (reading) had no impact on the athletes’ passing or shooting performance.

There were, however, changes in performance after the mentally taxing Stroop task. When fatigued, their performance in the passing test dropped quite a bit. Participants made significantly more errors, getting almost double the penalty time (5.2 seconds after reading vs 9.9 seconds after the Stroop task).

In the shooting test, fatigued participants not only shot more poorly (2 points per shot after reading vs 1.3 points per shot after the Stroop task), but their shots were also slower (85 km/h after reading vs 81.8 km/h after the Stroop task).

Take action

It’s tempting to practice more in the last week before a big audition or performance. Especially in the last 24-48 hours. But while somewhat counterintuitive, the smarter move is probably to rest up and ensure you’re not mentally drained and fatigued on the day of your audition.

Because you know those inexplicable misses and the sluggish fingers? Maybe it’s not just physical fatigue we must be concerned with, but mental fatigue that’s also to blame.

So this is not just about getting good sleep, but speaks to the importance of avoiding stressful conversations, people, or tasks on the day of (and day before) the audition. Also, to the value of planning ahead and taking care of travel arrangements, packing, etc. well in advance.

And though it goes beyond the scope of this article, “tapering” is a proven strategy in sports, and one that I know some musicians have also used successfully in staying fresh while preparing for auditions. Here’s an article that will give you a good idea of what this looks like in the context of running:

It’s Taper Time @Runner’s World

Footnotes

  1. Not technically an Olympic lift of course, but to the uninitiated, the names of Olympic lifts sound vaguely inappropriate…
  2. The task involved tapping quickly between two different targets with a pencil. Which sounds easy enough, but they made it challenging by varying the distances between targets (15 or 25 cm) and the size of the targets themselves (from .5cm to 2.5cm). Imagine sitting down with a piece of paper in front of you, with tiny boxes in the upper left hand corner and in the bottom right hand corner. Then imagine taking a pencil and taping back and forth between the two boxes as quickly as you can without missing either target (because if you miss more than two in a row you would have to start the task over). That’s the gist.
  3. All male, with an average age of 19.6, and 13.6 years of playing experience
  4. They had to sprint from the ball to strategically placed cones, return to the ball, pass against a bench, receive the ball, control it, turn, and then shoot the ball as hard as they could