The Best Time of Day to Practice

How much we should practice every day is always a popular question. We google, we read books and interviews, and we ask around to find out how much the great artists practiced, how much our teachers practice, and how much our colleagues and fellow students practice.

Meanwhile, there is another question, perhaps even more important, that is rarely (if ever) asked.

When should we practice?

Why when matters

Most would agree that deliberate, thoughtful, and focused practice is a more effective use of our practice time than careless, unorganized, and mindless repetition. Of course, such deliberate practice requires the ability to concentrate and think critically and creatively about what we are doing and working to accomplish. It’s difficult to do this when we are tired, sleepy, or low in energy.

The early bird gets…tired

For instance, there was a time when I got up at 4:30am to practice before school. I’d drag myself out of bed, take out my violin, and sit down in front of my music to slog through scales and other technical exercises so I could get this out of the way first. Of course, I was slouched down in my chair, my mind pretty much still asleep, and I just went through the motions of playing etudes without paying much attention to what was happening. Needless to say, I didn’t keep this up for long, as it soon became apparent that this was a waste of time. I wasn’t getting much out of my morning practice, and I was so tired after school that I wasn’t getting much out of my afternoon and evening practice either. At the time, I just wasn’t built to practice effectively at 4:30am.

Sleep is certainly a critical factor in optimal performance, but this post is not about sleep per se. It’s about figuring out your internal biological clock’s daily schedule, and planning your practice schedule around those times of day when you are naturally more alert. It’s about using an understanding of your body clock to your advantage, so that you can practice more productively and get more done in less time. And no, this is not the same biological clock that Marisa Tomei refers to in My Cousin Vinny.

Our biological clock

Each of us runs on a 24 hour-ish schedule (some research suggests that it might be closer to 25 hours, and while the implications of this are kind of cool, it’s beyond the scope of this post). The various daily cycles of alertness, changes in body temperature, and hormone production are often referred to as circadian rhythms. These rhythms are pretty stable and predictable so long as we don’t mess with them. Things get a little screwy when we cross time zones (i.e. jet lag) or if we go to bed and wake up at irregular and inconsistent times during the week (that’s why it’s good to pick a bedtime, pick a wake-up time, and stick with it even on weekends).

Have you ever noticed that there seem to be certain periods during the day when you tend to be more alert, and others when you tend to be more drowsy? Around 9pm, for instance, is generally a pretty unproductive time for me. Even if I’m not so drowsy that I want to sleep, I just have a harder time getting my brain to work as hard or fast as it can at other times during the day. If I make it to 10:30 or 11pm, things usually kick back into gear and I’m pretty productive.

Two opposing forces

This occurs because there are two different forces at work. Let’s call them Sleepy and Red Bull. Sleepy is constantly trying to make you fall asleep, while Red Bull is always trying to keep you awake. Both Sleepy and Red Bull work all day long, but they each slack off a bit at different times depending on what time of day it is. For most, Sleepy is strongest in mid-afternoon, while Red Bull is stronger in mid-morning and late afternoon to mid-evening.

Chart your day

The key is to figure out when each of these opposing forces is strongest for you and your unique set of biological rhythms. Take a week to chart out when you are most drowsy and when you are most alert. Use a graph similar to the one below for each day of the week, and combine them into a single graph when you get enough data to see a pattern.

alertness graph

(source: Power Sleep, by James Maas)

Take a break from practicing – guilt-free!

Now that you know when your body is primed for practice and when it isn’t, don’t fight your natural biological clock. Practice during the high-alertness periods, and do something else during the low-energy periods completely guilt-free (like mindless chores, errands, reading for pleasure, or hey, take a nap!).

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice,
Why Are Performances Still so Hit or Miss?

It’s not a talent issue. And that rush of adrenaline and emotional roller coaster you experience before performances is totally normal too.

Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill – one that requires specific mental skills, and perhaps a few other tweaks in your approach to practicing too. Elite athletes have been learning these techniques for decades; if nerves and self-doubt have been recurring obstacles in your performances, I’d like to help you do the same.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing – a home-study course where you’ll explore the 6 skills that are characteristic of top performers. And learn how you can develop these into strengths of your own. And begin to see tangible improvements in your playing that transfer to the stage.

Comments

15 Responses

  1. This is excellent advice for me, especially since I have some performances to prepare. It is still important to practice during the more productive times of the day. It is just as important to rest.

    Thanks

  2. Hello!

    I’ve been reading your posts in the last 24 hours and I really like them. Still, didn’t feel like commenting. But, in this post, I only read the very beginning and… what is this about the 25 hours? I am really curious… And now I can come back to read the rest of the post.

    Thank you and congratulations for your work!

    1. Hi Helena,

      This is not a particular area of expertise, but my understanding is that the early research on circadian rhythms in humans suggested our internal clock operated on a schedule that was closer to 25 hours per day than 24. Meaning, if you locked a person in a room and took away their clocks and natural daylight/nighttime cues, they would settle into a routine and sleep/wake cycle based on a 25-hour day. However, more recent research suggests that it might well be closer to 24 hours than 25 (24 hours and 11 minutes, give or take a quarter of an hour or so). Either way, kind of interesting, no?

  3. Thank you very much for the fast response! I read a tiny bit on wikipedia and it also says that electric light affects the circardian rhythms, so… connecting with the day-off post in this site, the day off would be also necessary so we rest from the night-life stimuli (rehearsals till 10.30 pm, concerts at 9pm and dinners after that) and set our internal clocks to the default position.
    I wonder how much it changes with the seasons, because the amout and intensity of day light changes a lot; and what kind of differences (if there is such a thing) that would cause on the productivity of practicing in places closer to the Equator or to the poles (I am originally from Brazil, but am living now in Italy, and I feel differences in a lot of things, since in my hometown summer and winter have not a big difference in light)
    Thank you! And congratulations for you wonderful work!

  4. This is a great idea for those who can just up and practice during their peak times of alertness, but what if you work and your optimal alert times are while you’re away from your instrument? A little unrealistic sorry to say.

  5. At the moment I’m finding that between about 4 pm and about 6 pm is doing very well and then too I love practicing at about between 10pm and 12 midnight, I remember best then, just before I go to sleep (I’m a night owl) and I reckon that my piano isn’t any louder than our TV. Fortunately our houses are not closely spaced as we are on a big property.

    Thank you for you lovely articles.

  6. I tend to want to practice more during the evening and at night. Unfortunately, my parents don’t appreciate me practicing the saxophone around this time. I’m too a night owl!

  7. Hi Noa, looks like somebody may have plagiarized your article. I literally finished reading yours, then went to the next link in my google search, to read a ‘very similar’ blog post. “The Best Time of Day to Practice Music, According to Science” by Anthony Cerullo, on sonicbids blog. Same ideas, same order of ideas. Some sentences exactly the same. I value your work and don’t like seeing others piggyback in a non-ethical way. Just letting you know.

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