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Wanna learn something new? Sleep on it.

There's no way around it. Sleep is essential for life.

And the quality of your sleep can directly affect how well some of your life processes work. Honestly, I think that's a bit of a bummer, because I could get SO MUCH MORE DONE if I didn't have to stop and sleep every day. But there it is.

Sleep also seems to be a necessary component for learning, especially for things that are meant to be in long term memory. While there is a great deal about the brain we are still exploring, one thing is pretty certain: your brain functions best in all aspects when it has enough rest to work from.

Let me say that again in another way. We work from our rest, rather than resting from our work. If your rest quality is poor, chances are much higher that your work quality will also be poor.

Now, hear me clearly, that I know there are times in every person's life, and sometimes extended periods of time, when sleep quality is disrupted for reasons that are completely outside of your control. For the last couple of years before my dog passed away, he was an elderly gentleman with a bladder to match, and sometimes his medications meant that he needed trips outside in the middle of the night. Several times in the middle of the night. Those days were hard on my body and my brain. I'm certain you could tell me of times when you've had to muddle through with less sleep than you'd like. It's hard.

But it's also true that while you and I are doing the best we can when our sleep is less than the best, it doesn't change the fact that brains do work best when they are well-rested.

There is good evidence in neuroscience that during sleep, particularly during the phase of sleep known as slow-wave sleep or non-rapid eye movement (NREM), the brain moves memories from the hippocampus to longer term storage.

You might consider the hippocampus to be kind of like the brain's file cabinet. Stuff we're using is stuck in there, and can be recalled as needed, but it can also be thrown out if it's not used often enough. We have other parts of the brain that are more like a safe deposit box or a vault full of banker's boxes. Those things have been used so much that we don't need to look them up all the time, but they do need to stay locked up tight in the brain for safe keeping. These are things like songs that you've known since you were a kid, even if you haven't sung them for years. "On Top of Spaghetti" is a song like that for me. I learned it in kindergarten, and I've sung it so many times that I can remember every single word without having to look it up. Or maybe you still remember your childhood phone number or address. Or you remember how to tie your shoes. All kinds of things that are automatically reproducible are in the memory vault, and after you spent enough time to learn them and repeated them often enough, while you were sleeping those things became secure in the vault. They're in there for good!

For sure singing is one of those processes that we can spend so much time on that we just know how to do it. The coordination we learned to sing in tune, the way to breathe that supports your phrasing, how to sing loudly, how to sing softly, and on and on and on. Each one of those automatic singing processes have been learned to the point that you can do it without having to think too much about it. While you certainly put in the time while awake learning those skills, the sleep that happened afterward was an unsung hero in the process, pun intended.

Part of our job as voice teachers is to help our clients achieve their singing goals by looking at the factors outside of the lesson that can influence their success. Sleep is an aspect that perhaps we don't touch on enough. Of course, it's not a fun topic because I don't know many people who wouldn't want to have better sleep RIGHT NOW, but we can encourage our clients to take advantage of the way their brains work and make sleep habits a part of their voice care. Anything that can improve a person's quality of life is almost guaranteed to make singing easier and more enjoyable, too.

In the interest of full transparency, sleep is a habit that I have struggled with for years. One of my biggest issues that I've identified is revenge procrastination. I'm working on rebuilding habits that will serve me better, especially as my perimenopausal body is finding sleep harder than it used to be because of hormone changes. It's no fun, but I know it's going to be worth it. I'd appreciate any encouragement or tips you could send my way!

I'd like to encourage you to identify a habit this week that you can try. If you need some ideas, here are a few from the Sleep Foundation:

  • try gradual adjustments rather than fixing everything all at once

  • dim lights in the evenings

  • develop a wind-down routine before bed

  • use calming scents in sleep spaces

Perhaps you can do a sleep challenge for your studio. If you do, let me know about it!

I hope this week you can get great sleep, and have great times of singing and teaching. Nighty night!


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