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.
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 school
- 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 school
- 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
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.
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)
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.
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?