, , , , , , ,


Image by loudtiger via Flickr

Last week during a shopping trip to CVS, I looked for Band-aids.  You wouldn’t expect to encounter problems shopping for Band-aids, would you?  Think again!  CVS was sold out of the plain ones.

I found myself faced with an entire aisle of choices:  medicated, sport, extra-wide, fingertip, waterproof, super adhesive, sheer, cloth, and so on.  By the time I had looked at everything on the shelves, I was ready to leave the store without purchasing anything else on my list.

There is a wonderful article by John Tierney in The New York Times Sunday Magazine, “To Choose Is To Lose.”  In it, Tierney begins by examining the odds of a prisoner being given parole, depending on what time of day he meets with the parole board (and how recently the board has had a snack break).  After that, he includes several experiments conducted on a variety of ideas from different disciplines.

What I encountered at CVS is called “decision fatigue.”  We are faced with so many choices every day, we are constantly making decisions.  Our grandparents had far fewer decisions to make because they had fewer options.  Cars, for instance, came in only a few different colors.  And all phone calls were made on land lines.  (Last night, I made the following calls in an attempt to reach one person:  cell to cell; land to cell; land to land.  Success!  Score:  3 options tried out of 4 possibilities.)

In one experiment discussed in the article, subjects who were asked to make all their choices online about a car they were going to purchase experienced decision fatigue the quickest when asked to decide among 50 colors at the beginning of the process.  After all that brain work, subjects would continue by making only default choices.  (Oh, just put hubcaps on the car.  Click…)  But if fewer choices were presented at the beginning of the process (i.e. 3 types of gear shift knobs rather than 50 color choices), the subjects would keep deciding among them for a longer period of time.

How does this affect us? 

When we practice, we need to take on the most difficult music or tasks at the beginning of the practice session.  When we are deciding on fingerings, dynamics, tempi, balance, and many other things, each decision makes our brains more fatigued, making it less capable of making such decisions further into our practice session.

I experienced this over a 6-week period when practicing a recital program at night after work.  Since I normally practice in the daytime, it was obvious right away that my energy level was much lower at night.  In addition, the program was all music of Messiaen!  There were so many accidentals, I needed all the focus I could muster just to play the notes correctly.  Somehow I managed to talk myself through the music with good phrasing, under tempo.  Weekends were the only time I could actually play the program!

Why is timing important? 

Parole boards are more alert when their glucose levels are high, so they tend to be more lenient by a huge percentage just after a snack.  According to the article, a prisoner would have about a 70% chance of being granted parole if he met with the board first thing in the morning, but only about a 10% chance later in the day.

If you have ever taught a lesson immediately after school, you know how much better things are when the student has time for a snack first.

When we audition, there is usually a panel of judges hearing many people.  The best times to schedule an audition are first thing, immediately after a break, or right after lunch.  Of course, there are many other factors influencing music judges’ decisions, as there are more factors affecting a performance than staying in jail or getting parole.  I have blogged about factors affecting auditions here.  But even though we can’t control everything, optimal timing will help our chances.

Sometimes we call music directors to gain information, get on their list, or arrange performances.  The kind of response we receive can depend on when we call.  Best times:  Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday from 10 a.m.-2 p.m.

Why?  On Mondays, people are wishing they were still enjoying their weekend.  On Fridays, everyone is thinking about leaving for the next one.  At 9 a.m., people are just arriving at work.  A phone call might annoy them.  Give them time to have their coffee.  After 2 p.m., people are tired and thinking about picking up their kids from school, what to have for dinner, or what they need to wrap up today and organize for tomorrow.

And of course you wouldn’t want to call someone just before lunch!  They don’t want to talk to you then, they want to get out of there!  (It’s not you.  They don’t want to talk to their best friend, either.)

Give them a few minutes to settle in after they’re due back at work, too.  If they have to run for the phone, you may not get the positive response you were hoping for.

Gail Fischler has written a similar post based on the same article at Piano Addict!

Have you been aware of decision fatigue?  Do you consider glucose levels and time of day when you look t0 optimize an outcome?

Please share your thoughts in the comment section below!


Learning a new piece? New program? Heading back to school? Looking for teaching ideas? Then this is the perfect time to read “Goal-oriented Practice: How to Avoid Traps and Become a Confident Performer!”

Goal-oriented Practice

August 2011 review by pianist Robert W. Oliver

When You Buy a Piano

How to Maintain Your Piano

Back to top