Daily practice punctuated by weekly lessons are time-honored traditions when learning to play the piano or any other musical instrument. Recent findings in neuroscience regarding motor learning and sleep support the wisdom of these traditions. It also helps us to understand a common experience. This experience is as follows. We sit down to practice a difficult section of music and employ appropriate practice methods. At the end of our practice session, we find we have made progress but have not achieved the desired coordination. The next day coming back to this section and to our surprise, we find that we are able to play it better than anything we could do the day before. What is going on here?
Motor Learning and Sleep
By employing technologies like fMRI, researchers have determined that sleep enhances motor learning. This process involves three steps. The first step is the initial learning and the second is a rest period (or wake period) of at least 5 hours which is essential for stabilizing the motor skill. The final step involves the enhancement of motor learning during sleep. Certain sleep associated processes enhance local neural connectivity. There is a restructuring of motor memory representations in a more proficient way compared to their state on the day before. During sleep, the speed and accuracy of finger movement sequences can improve as much as 30 %.
In light of this understanding, we can come to two conclusions about piano practice. First of all, it is more productive to practice earlier in the day because not only is our mind fresh but this allows time for the wake period mentioned above. Secondly, it is clear that practice spread over several days or even weeks renders better results. In other words, distribution of practice in more important than the sheer volume. We are deceiving ourselves if we think we can make up for not practicing during a busy week, by cramming our practice in on the weekend.
Weekly vs Bi-Weekly Lessons
Adult students sometimes ask if they could have bi-weekly lessons instead of weekly. Although this does not anything for my charm, I inform them that I do not give bi-weekly lessons. To justify this, let us look at this from the point of view of the probable impact this would have on practice. For most of us, we practice for lessons. If our lessons are bi-weekly then so will our practice. This will result in the slowing of progress and an increase in the levels of frustration. In other words the beginning of the end.
Quality of Sleep
In light of this relationship between motor learning and sleep, and verified by research, it is clear that disturbed sleep or sleep deprivation negatively impact on the ability to acquire keyboard skills.