Are You an Early Bird or a Night Owl? Why This Could Affect How Well You Play in Your Next Audition.

If you had a choice, what time slot should you select for your next big audition?

9am? Noon? 3pm?

Or 6pm, even 9pm?

Put another way, at what time of day are you most likely to perform your very best?

Larks and owls (and otters)

Researchers at the University of Birmingham recruited 121 competitive athletes to complete a comprehensive inventory of their daily activities, ranging from sleep/wake patterns to food intake, training schedules, and more.

The results were used to categorize the athletes as morning “larks,” intermediate folks, or evening “owls.” (Why didn’t the athletes in the middle get a bird nickname? I don’t know, so I’m just going to call them “otters.” Because otters are awesome . And do cute human-y things, like hold hands ).

From that pool of athletes, the researchers selected 20, who were all field hockey players at approximately the same age and fitness level (1/4th were larks, 1/2 were otters, and 1/4th were owls).

The 20 participants then completed the standard “bleep” fitness test at six different times of day – 7am, 10am, 1pm, 4pm, 7pm, and 10pm – to see at what time of day they would perform their best.

Overall results

Overall, performance was worst at 7am, and best at 4pm and 7pm. Performance at 10am, 1pm, and 10pm was somewhere in the middle.

So at first glance, it would seem that the best time for us to schedule an audition or performance is somewhere in the 4pm-7pm range.

However, the story gets a little more nuanced and interesting when you look at the larks, otters, and owls separately.

Individual variations

When separated by their circadian phenotype (or internal “body clock”), the researchers found that athletes’ performances varied quite a bit during the course of a day.

  • Early larks performed their best on the bleep test around mid-day.
  • Intermediate otters performed their best around mid-afternoon.
  • Evening owls performed their best in the evening.

Furthermore, the consistency of each group’s performances varied quite a lot too. Larks’ and otters’ best and worst performances varied by about 7-10% on average. Meanwhile, the owls’ performances varied pretty wildly, with an average difference of 26% between their best and worst performances.

Sure, 7% may not seem like much, but as the authors note, a 1% gain/loss in performance is easily the difference between medaling and not medaling in the Olympics, and in some events, can even be the difference between 4th place and 1st place.

What time do you wake up?

The researchers also looked at athletes’ performances relative to their “entrained” wake-up time, or the time athletes reported waking up naturally without an alarm clock.

Because even if an early riser and late riser are both up and about during most of the same parts of a day, they do keep very different hours and have different biological days.

For instance, studies have found that larks have higher levels of cortisol in the morning (a hormone, too much of which isn’t good, but is essential for muscle function), and a particular pattern of cortisol levels during the day, relative to owls who have lower cortisol in the morning and also a distinctly different pattern of cortisol levels during the day.

So consider the 10am bleep test. The early larks’ average natural wake-up time was ~7am, giving them 3 hours to clear their heads and get revved up a bit. The otters’ entrained wake-up time was ~8am, so their body clocks would have been up for 2 hours before the test. The owls’ natural wake-up time, on the other hand, was 9:45am – only 15 minutes before their 10am bleep test! So it’s not surprising that the owls would perform more poorly in the morning/early afternoon bleep tests – their body clocks were still just getting out of bed, in a manner of speaking.

Using the athletes’ natural wake-up time (or the biological start of their day), and the time at which they had their best performances, the researchers then calculated the athletes’ average time to peak performance. For the larks, the average time from entrained wake-up to peak performance was 5.5 hours. For the otters, it was 6 hours. For the owls, on the other hand, it took 11 hours from their biological start of the day to get to peak performance levels. So on average, it took the night owls much longer to get to an optimal level of performance – great if you have a performance in the evening, but not so terrific if you have to perform during the daytime.

Take action

A few things to consider, before you turn your sleep schedule upside down. For one, this study used cardiovascular fitness as a measure of performance. Though the results are pretty interesting, and probably jibe with your own experience of jet-lagged performances or early morning vs. afternoon/evening auditions, the results may or may not translate directly to musicians in the same way. Plus, there are probably going to be differences between, say, a cellist and a trumpet player, which have very different physical demands.

Also, the study doesn’t necessarily prove that simply changing our entrained wakeup time will improve performance. There might be more to it than that.

But at the end of the day, it does seem like it’s better to be a lark or an otter than an owl when it comes to daytime performances. So with audition season right around the corner (and the inevitable morning auditions times that someone is going to get stuck with), it wouldn’t hurt to get into the habit of going to bed a bit earlier. After all, you can always use the latest Facebook meme as an excuse to get out of bed in the morning, rather than getting sucked into the internet black hole at night when our willpower is waning and microwave pasta cookers and kitchen knives that can cut through beer cans, nails, and logs seem like the best thing ever.

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

For most of my life, I assumed that it was because I wasn’t practicing enough. And that eventually, if I performed enough, the nerves would just go away and everything would take care of itself.

But in the same way that “practice, practice, practice” wasn’t the answer, “perform, perform, perform” wasn’t the answer either. In fact, simply performing more, without the tools to facilitate more positive performance experiences, just led to more negative performance experiences!

Eventually, I discovered that elite athletes are successful in shrinking this gap between practice and performance, because their training looks fundamentally different. In that it includes specialized mental and physical practice strategies that are oriented around the retrieval of skills under pressure.

It was a very different approach to practice, that not only made performing a more positive experience, but practicing a more enjoyable experience too (which I certainly didn’t expect!).

If you’ve been wanting to perform more consistently and get more out of your daily practice, I’d love to share these research-based skills and strategies that can help you beat nerves and play more like yourself when it counts.

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3 Responses

  1. I play the Horn which is a lip reed instrument, where no matter what time I play I need about 45 minutes of warm up time to fully limber my lip up. Then my lip needs about one to two hours of rest to deliver a tone I am happy with. That’s when I use a keyboard to go over my parts. I know with out the proper warm-up time I feel a lot less confident in my playing.

  2. I enjoyed this article-as a sleep researcher and clinician, it’s almost impossible to changes someone’s innate circadian rhythm. However, exposure to bright light soon after arising can promote wakefulness and help you entrain to waking up at an earlier hour.

    Watching TV, playing on the computer, reading with an ipad or Kindle, as well as exposure to the light from a phone screen can increase arousal at night and make it more difficult to go to sleep.

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