A Common Mistake that Ruins Your Practice

There’s a common mistake that ruins otherwise great practice.

If you make it, you can practice every day with perfect execution—and still get nowhere.

You can work with the best teachers in the world—and you’ll barely make progress.

You can isolate small chunks, slow them down, use your metronome slavishly, and put in hundreds or even thousands of accurate reps.  

Make this common mistake, and you might as well have spent the time watching TV.

So what is it?

Failing to take care of yourself.

Practice and learning seem like abstract concepts, but in reality they are etched in muscles and neurons as truly as if they were chiseled in stone.  And if we want our practice to last, we need to make sure that the material we’re carving is of good quality.  Michaelangelo’s David might have been just as beautiful if it were carved from wax or ice, but he chose marble so it would last.

If you want your hard work to last, the physical materials and tools you work with (your body and mind) are just as important as the work you do.

The key material in learning and practice is called myelin.  It’s the white matter in your brain, and it insulates your neurons in a special way that allows them to fire with more speed and accuracy.  

So how can we make sure we’ve got plenty of myelin?  How can we keep our practice from melting away?

The food you eat becomes proteins and amino acids.  They build everything in your body, from your muscle tissue to the white matter in your brain.  One interesting recent finding  shows that a diet high in lipids (fat)—when combined with exercise—provides the best boost to myelin production.  Vitamin C, Zinc, and Iron also play an important role.  But most important is to keep a varied diet rich in vitamins and minerals, including omega-3 fatty acids.

Getting oxygen deep into the nervous system helps produce new myelin—and stops the natural degeneration of myelin over time.  Vigorous exercise is the best way to get lots of blood—and the oxygen it carries—into your tissues.  It has a number of positive side effects, like stimulating the vagus nerve (lowering stress for those auditions and performances), supporting the mitochondria (which helps to stimulate new myelin production), and increases the brain’s growth hormone.


Good sleep has a number of benefits, and it’s no surprise that myelin production is one of them.  In fact, one study at a major conservatory found that the only difference between the best musicians and the next tier down was that the best musicians got about one hour of additional sleep each night.  Like nutrition and exercise, it works on multiple fronts: it increases growth hormone and melatonin, lowers stress and inflammation, and improves the mitochondria.

I know what you’re thinking—“But I don’t have time to exercise and sleep more!”

You might be surprised.  A better functioning brain means you will focus better, allowing you to get more done in less time.   And even if you need to practice a little less, you’ll learn more and retain it longer.  Besides, doesn’t a nap just sound good?

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