by Kelly Mollnow Wilson
How many hours of sleep are you getting? Most people say “not enough.” We know it’s important to sleep enough, to drink enough water, to exercise, and to eat a healthy diet that consists of more than pizza, coffee, and Red Bull. We know it, but we don’t do it. Reading this book, Why We Sleep (Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams) by Matthew Walker convinced me that I needed to work on my own sleep hygiene. It’s an ongoing project, as lifestyle changes are difficult.
Many of the physical changes that happen to elite athletes when they are sleeping less that come from the more than 750 scientific studies that have investigated the relationship between sleep and human performance are listed in the book. This laundry list of negative stuff that happens to athletes doesn’t directly transfer over to the musicians whom I work with routinely. They do understand that they move for a living, the same way athletes do. In the musician world, it’s usually more refined and smaller movements, and generally, musicians are not sprinting around the performance stage. My students are not impressed with this type of information.
Matthew Walker says that post-performance sleep accelerates physical recovery from common inflammation, stimulates muscle repair, and helps restock cellular energy in the form of glucose and glycogen. My students’ ears perks up … inflammation, muscle repair, more energy. Clearly, good stuff for your body is happening during sleep.
A study done in Wallker’s lab which is referenced in this book involved teaching test subjects to type a random pattern of letters. Each group was tested 12 hours after they practiced the pattern. The first group learned it in the morning and was tested 12 hours later on the same day. The second group learned it in the evening, slept for 8 hours and was tested in the morning. Each group had the same amount of practice time and 12 hours in between the practice and the test. The sleeping group showed a 20 % improvement in performance speed and a 35% increase in accuracy. The takeaway is that offline learning occurs during a period of sleep. Your brain is still working on the tasks you did during that day’s practice session. In the book, Walker writes, “Practice does not make perfect. It is practice, followed by a night of sleep, that leads to perfection.” Increases in speed and accuracy get my students’ attention, as these are areas that they are constantly striving to improve.
What if we structured our practice sessions, rehearsal schedules, and study sessions around a dedicated period of sleep? What if this sleeping time was a priority, not an afterthought? What if we decided to give our bodies and our brains what they need in terms of time to repair and grow? What would happen to our longevity as performing artists? What would happen to the quality of our performances now? What if we bought in to the fact that there is a way to work smarter instead of just working more and it just requires that you get yourself to bed on time? What if???
Sue Enquist is the former Head Softball Coach at UCLA, where she led her team to 11 National Championships! Click here to watch her video “Fear and Failure” from What Drives Winning website. Here’s some stuff that she says:
“Failure and success — they hold hands. Can’t have one without the other. Success has no meaning if we have no context.”
“Failure recovery is the key to sustainable excellence. We have 100% control over it. Build a system, practice it…”
“Excellence does not blink. Excellence does not wait for you to get rid of your junk. Excellence keeps moving.”
Athletes know that it’s very rare to win all of the games. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. Well coached teams understand that sometimes you play the best game that you can possibly play, but the other team is better. In that case, the other team deserves that win. Failure doesn’t always mean that you performed poorly, sometimes you’re simply outclassed by better athletes, better coaching or the combination. This is fundamentally different from making mistake after mistake, mentally shutting down, and not showing up to play your game. In that case, losing is an appropriate result for the overall lack of organized effort.
In the music world, we’re trained in error detection. In aural skills, we don’t get points for every note we write correctly. We lose points for the ones we get incorrect. When we listen or watch recordings of our own performances, our awareness goes right to the things that we didn’t play as well as we wanted to in terms of intonation, phrasing, or style. Many times in lessons and coachings, the first words out of the teacher’s mouth are about things that we didn’t do well enough or things that need to be fixed.
The stakes are high in the music business. One wrong note or rhythm mistake will prevent you from moving on to the next round in an audition or winning the whole thing at the end. Mistakes can and do prevent musicians from advancing to the next round in competitions. I’ve been the musician going home from the audition, failing to advance, and feeling like I’m the worst flutist in the history of the world.
We, as a group, need to rethink the whole idea of failure. When was the last time you learned something new on your first try? Most babies don’t stand up and start to walk until they have fallen on their butts a gazillion times. How many times did you crash your bike when learning to ride without training wheels? How many times did you mess up the skateboard trick or fall on water skis before you figured it out?
What would happen if we considered failure to be not the final destination, but a necessary step along the path to excellence? What would this look like? What if we listened back to recordings, identified the problem spots, spent time figuring out what the specific problem was, designed a strategy (or strategies) to fix the specific problem and then practiced it without that little voice in our heads going off about failing again? What if it was just information?
When things don’t go as well as we hoped in performance, what if we stopped listening to that negative voice in our head and just kept moving forward, staying in the moment? What if we truly embodied the concept that excellence does not wait for us… we have to be in the moment and go after it without the fear of failure? What if we decided that our goal was to deliver an authentic, emotionally invested performance to our audience instead of trying to get every single note correct? What if???
While reading “Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World” by David Epstein, I kept returning to the idea that musicians can and should be consistently looking outside the box of TRADITIONAL MUSIC STUFF for information from other disciplines that can help them flourish as performing artists, students, teachers, and humans. It’s too easy to stay in our little practice rooms, playing the same stuff, listening to the same recordings, moving the same way, and doing the same old thing, day after day. There’s a whole world filled with deep thinkers who have things to share from their work or their life experience. What if we applied some of that stuff to music-making? What if???
As a body mapping instructor, I teach my students that they have choices to make in both their preparation and their performances. They know that they are responsible for making musical choices; for example, what tone color do I want to use here? What shape do I want this phrase to take? Musicians are also responsible for their movement choices. Every sound that they make is a result of some type of movement somewhere. Their job becomes a matter of finding the movement choice that supports their musical choice.