Nap Your Way to Excellence

Cat Napping
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Set aside half an hour every day to do all your worrying; then take a nap during this period.
~Anonymous

There is more refreshment and stimulation in a nap, even of the briefest, than in all the alcohol ever distilled.
~Publius Ovidius Naso (Ovid: 43 BC – 18 AD)

Sleep is one of the key strategies the brain uses for learning. It’s called consolidation in the research literature. Basically put, your brain needs down time in order to process all that you’ve taken in during the day. Naps can perform the same function. In the seminal study by Ericcsson, Krampe, and Tesch-Römer, a 44-page monster entitled The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance, the researchers found that, among professional and pre-professional classical musicians, most of themtook naps in the afternoon, usually near the beginning of the week. Turns out there is a good deal of solid scientific evidence that that shows why this is such a great idea.

Consolidation is one of the things the brain does during REM sleep, and what this means is that the brain re-processes earlier, waking experiences, encoding them into long-term memory. A great study (freely available at PLOSone) focuses specifically on motor memory, a crucial aspect of music practice no matter what instrument you play. Sleep takes all that learning you’ve been doing and encodes it in the brain so that it “sticks.”  A study in Nature, said, “… converging evidence, from the molecular to the phenomenological, leaves little doubt that offline memory reprocessing during sleep is an important component of how our memories are formed and ultimately shaped.”

There’s direct evidence of a connection in music, too.  A 2006 study by Simmons &  Duke in the Journal of Research in Music Education is the first that I know of to find this consolidation effect in music. Simmons & Dukeexamined piano players learning a short melody. After the musicians learned the melody initially, they were tested at 12- and 24-hour intervals; some got sleep, and some didn’t. They found that sleep made a significant difference in performance accuracy. Now remember, we’re talking statistically significant differences, so these are tightly controlled, measured differences, not just somebody’s opinion. To quote exactly, they said “We found significant sleep-dependent improvements in performance accuracy in the retests that followed intervals of sleep, and no significant improvements following intervals that did not include sleep” (p. 257).

So, if you have the luxury of time, consider a nap after that intense practice session (it can be any kind of practice). It will help with your improvement. And if you get caught napping, now you have a great excuse!

Sweet dreams, and good luck with your practice.

Related Articles

references

Maquet, P. (2000). Sleep on it! Nature Neuroscience 3, 1235 – 1236 (2000) doi:10.1038/81750

Nishida M, & Walker MP (2007). Daytime Naps, Motor Memory Consolidation and Regionally Specific Sleep Spindles. PLoS ONE 2(4): e341.doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0000341

Simmons, A. L. & Duke, R. A. (2006). Effects of sleep on performance of a keyboard melody.  Journal of Research in Music Education, 54(3), 257-269.

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