SCIENCE ANSWERS: Effective Practice of Scales & Technique...

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

This article originally appeared on Bulletproof Musician.

Most of us don't remember the day when we first laid eyes on that scale book, but eventually it went from one of those books that collected dust on the shelf to one which took up permanent residence on our music stand. Until that time, scales are a mostly neglected part of a practice regimen. A chore, that (mistakenly) gets thought of as just for beginners.

Many music teachers insist that students begin devoting some time to scales every day. And to make sure students follow through, the teacher spends a good bit of the lessons teaching players how to practice scales – what to listen for, what to work on, fingerings, technique, and variations galore. It was to be the very first thing a guitarist would do each day, like taking your vitamins.

Starting off each day with technical exercises eventually becomes a habit, and the idea of beginning with technique is a recommendation that gets repeated to student after student through the years as other teachers add additional technical exercises to the players daily routine.

But, is it better to do technique first, before we work on our other pieces? Is there something about doing this in the morning that leads to better technique over time? Or is time of day irrelevant, and it only matters that we do our scales and technical pieces 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.

They collected information from 257 young musicians between the ages of 8 and 18 who were classified into five different categories:

Group 1: Students who gained admission to a selective music school (it sounds to me like this was a pre-college program of some kind)

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 (again, presumably a pre-college program)

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' practice 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. (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…)

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 (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 percent (or 36.1 minutes) of their total practice time on scales, while Group 3 and 4 spent 32 percent (or 12.1 minutes) and 28 percent (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 percent of their scales practice in the morning vs. 25 percent for Group 3 and 4.

Groups 3 and 4 seemed to favor doing scales in the evening, doing 60 percent and 53 percent, respectively, of their scales work at night. Conversely, only 27 percent 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 minutes (morning); 57.5 miutes. (afternoon); 117.2 minutes (evening)
Group 4: 20.3 minutes (morning); 34.8 minutes (afternoon); 58.4 minutes (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 students. (For more specifics, check out this article on creating a morning routine.)

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 that suggest that working on technique in the morning really does leads to greater gains than working on technique in the evening? Let me know in the comments below.


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