Is It More Effective to Practice Scales and Etudes in the Morning?

I don’t remember the day when I first laid eyes on the glossy burgundy cover of the Carl Flesch scale book, but I do remember that summer when it went from one of those books that collected dust on the shelf to one which took up permanent residence on my music stand.

Until that time, scales were a mostly neglected part of my practice regimen. A chore, that I (mistakenly) thought was just for beginners.

I was working with a new teacher that summer, and he insisted that I begin devoting some time to scales every morning. And to make sure I would follow through, he spent a good bit of my lessons teaching me how to practice scales – what to listen for, what to work on, fingerings, bowing, and variations galore.

It was to be the very first thing I did each day, like taking my Flintstones vitamins.

Starting off each day with technical exercises eventually became a habit, and the idea of beginning with technique was a recommendation that was repeated to me through the years as other teachers added additional technical exercises to my morning routine, from Schradieck to Yost to the evil Korguof.1

But is it really better to do technique first, before we work on our pieces? Is there something about doing this in the morning that leads to better technique? Or is time of day irrelevant, and it only matters that we do our scales and etudes at some point during the day?

257 musicians. 42 weeks.

A team of researchers in the UK conducted an ambitious 42-week study some years ago to learn more about the practice behaviors that differentiated top young players from the rest. So, they collected information from 257 young musicians between the ages of 8-18, who were classified into five different categories:

  • Group 1: Students who gained admission to a selective music school2
  • Group 2: Students who applied, but who were not accepted at the music school
  • Group 3: Students who inquired about the application process, but did not submit a formal application
  • Group 4: Students who studied music at a less prestigious school3
  • Group 5: Students who studied at the same school as those in Group 4, but who had quit at least a year or more ago

Practice diary

To learn more about how the students’ ractice behaviors might differ, researchers asked participants to complete a daily practice diary. 94 of these students obliged, logging what they spent time on, when they engaged in this activity, and for how long.

Unfortunately, due to some logistical factors in the study, they were not able to include the unsuccessful applicants (i.e. Group 2) in the data collection.4

Nevertheless, there were some interesting group differences between those who were admitted (Group 1), those who inquired, but did not apply for the selective music school (Group 3), and those who did not inquire, did not apply, and studied at a less prestigious program (i.e. Group 4).

Focus on technique

As you might expect, students in Group 1 practiced more than those in the other groups. However, they also appeared to spend a greater proportion of their practice time devoted to scales and other technical exercises. It’s not clear from the paper if this is a statistically significant difference or not, but Group 1 spent 37% (or 36.1 minutes) of their total practice time on scales , while Group 3 and 4 spent 32% (or 12.1 minutes) and 28% (or 4.5 minutes), respectively.

Morning, afternoon, or evening?

But getting back to our question of when the optimal time for technique practice might be, there were indeed some interesting differences between the students.

There were day-to-day variations of course, but over the course of an average week, Group 1 did 44% of their scales practice in the morning vs. 25% for Group 3 and 4.

Groups 3 and 4 seemed to favor doing scales in the evening, doing 60% and 53% respectively, of their scales work at night. Conversely, only 27% of Group 1’s scales practice happened so late in the day.

Group 1 also tended to do more practicing in the morning in general, and less practicing as the day went on, whereas for Group 3 and 4 it was the opposite:

Minutes of practice per week

  • Group 1: 265.1 minutes (morning); 210.4 minutes (afternoon); 194.9 minutes (evening)
  • Group 3: 57 min. (morning); 57.5 min. (afternoon); 117.2 minutes (evening)
  • Group 4: 20.3 min. (morning); 34.8 min. (afternoon); 58.4 (evening)

Take action

It’s important to note that these numbers, while interesting, don’t necessarily prove that there is something magical about doing our scales and etudes in the morning. Or that by doing our technique work in the morning we will be transformed into dramatically better players. The researchers note, for instance, that the students in Group 1 had greater access to practice facilities during the day.

However, doing our most important and mentally challenging work in the morning does seem to be a common recommendation amongst successful folks.5

Just this morning in fact, my 7-year old was encouraging her older brother to “do boring stuff first, then do fun stuff last” in response to his grumbling about having to do his dreaded writing homework.

There’s probably a lot to be said for ensuring that we do the essentials while our minds are freshest. And making sure we put the horse before the cart – like going to the gym to get into better shape, so we can play better tennis vs. playing tennis to get into better shape.

But what do you think? Do you know of any studies, or have any anecdotes or advice from well-known musicians or teachers which suggest that working on technique in the morning really does leads to greater gains than working on technique in the evening?

Footnotes

  1. A Mr. Vamos rite of passage – and truly helpful exercise, frustrating though it was at times.
  2. It sounds to me like this was a pre-college program of some kind.
  3. Again, presumably a pre-college program.
  4. Which is a huge bummer, because comparing those who were successfully admitted to the selective program vs. those who were not, would have been the most interesting comparison to make…sigh…
  5. For more specifics, check out this article on creating a morning routine.

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Comments

21 Responses

  1. This study seems flawed. The Group 1 students seem to have practiced much, much more than the other groups.
    I can’t help but wonder if the time of day has nearly as much to do with their results as the total weekly time spent practicing in general.

    Did the researchers look at different practice methods at all or just the time of day? It seems like there are other things that could account for these results beyond time of day that the students practiced their scales.

    1. Hi Brad,

      Good point – Group 1 did practice way, way more than the others. Though, interestingly, it seemed to take about as much time (on average) for each group to get to each level. As in, Group 1 didn’t get to advanced levels with fewer hours of practice than did students in the other groups. They just practiced more, on average, per day/week than others did. That being said, there was also quite a lot of variation between individuals within each group. Some students in each group required much fewer hours of practice to advance to each grade level than others. Some students needed as much as 4 times as much practice as those who required relatively little practice. The question of different practice methods is a good one too – this might speak to some of these individual variations.

      I should probably say too that in all fairness to the researchers, the timing of scales practice wasn’t a primary part of their study – it just was one element that emerged from the data that I thought was interesting to dissect a bit.

      1. I agree with Brad. Additionally, I wonder if practicing more in the morning couldn’t just be another indication of a more serious approach in group 1? (since this is a study about children, morning practice probably means they get up early before school, and that probably requires more effort from them and their parents).

        Your conclusion that practicing harder tasks when one’s concentration is at its best is probably true, but I see no real support to this claim from the study.

        1. I don’t think the research nor Dr. Kageyama conclude that practicing harder tasks or doing technical exercises in the morning leads to better practicing and improvement. I think that they are just bringing attention to an interesting relationship found between successful musicians and their practicing habits.

  2. Dear Noa, Here’s something you should practice every morning: making pancakes! The pancakes shown at the top of today’s post look awful! And that syrup?!? Ugh! We live in Vermont, the maple syrup capital of the world. My wife is an expert pancake maker and that’s what we’re having for breakfast this morning! I’ll share her recipe with you at the BSO Academy this summer. Now I must go practice my scales. 🙂

    1. Ha, yes, those are some very thin and weak-looking pancakes and syrup indeed. I will look forward to seeing your wife’s pancake recipe – am always on the lookout for a good pancake/waffle/coffee cake recipe!

  3. I believe it, at least it is true for me. I’ve recognized for years that my brain is the sharpest in the morning, but then that may only be true for ‘morning’ people. How about folks that are ‘evening’ people, do they learn better later in the day?

    1. Hi Larry,

      That’s a good question. I suspect that we probably learn best whenever we are most alert and able to process information most effectively, but there’s some interesting stuff out there on what time of day we are most effective physically – based on whether we are morning people or evening people. I think you might find it interesting, though it doesn’t answer this question directly.

      Are you an early bird or a night owl? Why this could affect how well you play in your next audition.

  4. The overlap between practicing technique and meditation is huge. There’s a ton of data on the benefits of meditation, and–at least anecdotally–high performers in all fields meditate more than the general populace.

    So it doesn’t surprise me that morning technique practice appears to be beneficial. Those benefits might even extend beyond the musical realm.

    Anyone else want to run a little self experiment with this?

  5. Dr. Noa,
    Thanks for the article. Interesting study. I agree with your 7 year old daughter. My main “instrument” is the voice and I have developed a habit of doing a 15-20 minute vocal warm-up every morning with trills and scales. I do another practice of about 10 minutes mid-day, and then a less technical, singing/performing practice of 2-3 hours in the evening.
    I find that some of my best gains, or “breakthroughs” happen when I take one or two weeks off, while still do the 20 minute morning practice every day. Thanks again for your consistent education and insights.

  6. interesting! i’ve always experienced higher levels of focus shortly after i wake up.

    …however, i’d have a follow-up for the researchers. when they say ‘morning,’ does that refer to the time of day or the length of time since the student wakes up in the morning? to me, practicing in the morning means interrupting sleep and feeling drowsy. but if i allow myself to ‘wake up when i wake up’ at 11 or 12, a practice session an hour after that is unbelievable.

    1. It was based on time of day – they had three boxes (morning, afternoon, evening) where students would fill in the amount of time they spent on various activities. That being said, their days were also structured around a school day, at ages where their parents probably dragged them out of bed by 7 or 8am, so like it or not, they were up bright and early!

  7. I think they may have missed a variable here. All of us have different “peak times”. I have noticed that if I want to deal with something particularly difficult, the best time for me to do that is between 6 and 10 AM, provided I got a decent night’s sleep. The last time I want to do that is between 1-4 PM, when I am just not sharp. I usually rebound a bit in the evening. Fostering an awareness of your body’s natural rhythms and doing your best to coordinate your practice times with those would, I suspect, be more helpful. Bob Kachur

  8. I’d kind of like to expand on what Rob said. I am NOT a morning person, far from my physical and mental best until I’ve been up for a while, had some breakfast and coffee etc. I could not be one of these guys who get up at 5:00 and put in an hour or two practicing. I do sometimes practice at say. 10:00 am and not uncommonly start of doing some scale work, technical exercises, and etudes.

    On the other hand, I am just as likely to do some practicing late at night, being a night owl type. Whatever time I do practice, if I do scales etc., I will do those first of all. Sometimes, that may be all I do.

  9. Noa,

    As someone very intrigued by the similarities between athletics and musicians, I love reading your blog. At times it is a little technical for me, but I appreciate the thought and science behind everything you post.
    I thought this post was very interesting. I believe practicing technique first thing in the morning versus any other time of day can be viewed much like exercising first thing in the morning versus any other time of the day. What works for one person, may not work for another. Personally, I like to get my workouts in in the morning, usually followed by my daily practice session. As far as doing technique (scales and exudes)first, I personally use it to warm up my brain and fingers. Preparing for a good solid hour or two of practice. But, this may not work for someone who is not a morning person. I think about a trumpet player I knew years ago who would wake up every morning and the first thing he would do is warm up on the trumpet. Even if he didn’t get a solid practice session in, he at least spent 20-30 minutes warming up, starting with long tones and gradually moving towards more technical studies. This was essential to him to start his day not to mention good for his chops!
    Anyway, thank you for your post. Very interesting read!

  10. Some amazing advice here! I’d definitely say that people should experiment and find a time that works with them best, and then STICK to it. Turning practicing into a habit is really the key I think. Thanks for sharing!

  11. My teacher told me once that [the instrument I play] was a lot of digestion.
    Personnally I reflected upon his remark and thought inside us, it’s like the septic tank.
    By that I mean that I intentionnally try to do things to sound really bad in the practice room.
    Why should music be the expression of the perfection of the mankind ? Why shouldn’t music be the expression of us–the humanity is not noble today, it is violent, and has always been, why specific emotions? why the noblest emotions?

    The children in the shanty towns of Cairo assembled cans together that collided and they made music with Soeur Emanuelle–that’s a humble way of playing music too.

    How to play human, not perfect music?

    Human at home, “perfect” in front of others?

  12. As a private teacher, I always encourage my students to practice everyday and routinize their practice experience. Whether that means that practice sessions become an “appointment” of sorts with the piano that you long in or that time changes everyday is up to the student. The most important thing is frequency of practice to ‘program’ your fingers. Daily practice encourages muscle memory to development

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