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Sleep On It


I have a brilliant former student named Brendan Cohn-Sheehy with whom I consult on my music and the brain research. Brendan is an amazing musician. At his high school senior recital he played the opening clarinet glissando for Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue with the orchestra. Then he put down his clarinet and played the rest of the piece (about 25 minutes) on the piano, from memory. (Of course I was in tears throughout the whole performance.) After graduation he studied neuroscience and music at UC Berkeley. While he still plays the piano, he is in medical school pursuing a joint PhD in Neuroscience with an MD in Neurology. This kid has got it going on!

A couple days ago our blog friend Aimee expressed her frustration at playing a piece well one day, then making many mistakes the next. And yesterday my student Anita complained of the same predicament. This is such a universal problem amongst all instrumentalists, I thought I would run it by Brendan to see what he had to say about it.

Here’s what I asked Brendan:

I was wondering if you have an answer to the question of, “Why could I  play this piece of music yesterday, but today I’m making so many mistakes?” Assuming it’s not fatigue or an emotional problem or any other external distractions, what causes the brain to suddenly forget one day? I’m guessing this is unanswerable, but I’m wondering if you have any insights.

Here’s what Brendan answered:

In memory literature this would fall in the realm of “consolidation,” the part of memory processing that involves the mind deciding which items to preserve or forget  after a memory has initially been “encoded.”  It’s not an instantaneous thing.Many researchers agree that more sleep means more consolidation, so an extra night seems to do the trick.  One phenomenon you may have noticed in your own practice (as I’ve noticed in mine) is that if a piece doesn’t feel so good one day, the very next day it may play very well.  That could be explained by an optimal period of time for the brain to put the pieces together, so to speak.  I would tell that person to trying playing it an extra day later and see if that does it for them.

My take on this: After you play a piece, the brain connects with certain aspects of your music that day, and remembers those passages the best. The aspects of the piece that your brain did not particularly connect to or make note of may be temporarily lost the next day. If you want to remember better, practice your troublesome musical passages right before you go to bed and get a good night’s sleep. You will probably find that you will play the piece much better the next day.

As I wrote in my TIPS FOR STUDENTS page on my website,

Sleep helps the brain to consolidate (organize and store) new skills.

Aimee’s comment from yesterday also bears this out:

Today, after a good night sleep, I went back to the piano and lo and behold, I actually played my Etude by Chopin in F minor, without mistakes. It’s funny how, when I visualize the piece before going to sleep, how much I remember the next day.

I guess that when our moms told us to “sleep on it,” they were onto something!

Remember, as Brendan said, “it’s not an instantaneous thing”. Until your brain really makes sense of what’s going on in your music, you might have to keep reviewing it. Before bed. For 10 minutes. Every day 🙂

Thanks Brendon, Anita and Aimee for your feedback!  With love and music, Gaili

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