Slow Practice

Last week I had a dream. It was the afternoon of a performance with the New Mexico Philharmonic, in which I had to play two concertos. My mother was asking a lot of questions about my dress. The members of Voces8, the British a cappella group, were in my house eating and drinking and making a mess. Suddenly I remembered that on the way to the concert I had to give a TED Talk on “The Life-Changing Magic of Practicing.” I went to get my notes and realized that I had not yet written the talk. Somehow in the midst of this madness, I discovered that I had an appointment with the gynecologist. When I got to the doctor’s office, I ran into my friend in the waiting room. “Laura,” I said, “can I take your appointment so I can get to the concert on time?” “No way, “ she replied, “if I do that I’ll be late to the concert myself.”

What’s really alarming about that dream is that I do, in fact, have every one of those things on my calendar this month. Except the gynecologist appointment. Although I could be wrong about that. I did play two concertos with the New Mexico Philharmonic a couple weeks ago. My mother was indeed worried about my dress. Our dear friends from Voces8 are here this week, and yes, they are often in our house eating and drinking. Saturday I am giving a speech on practicing at a quasi-TED Talk day at the University of New Mexico Prep School. No wonder I am having anxiety dreams.

When life gets too full generally, the harried pace starts to affect the tempo of my waking thoughts and actions from minute to minute, giving me a bad case of ADD. I catch myself interrupting students and beginning my feedback before they have finished playing the last note. My practicing gets scattered and unfocused; I get up and wander aimlessly through the house between musical repetitions without quite realizing what I’m doing. Halfway through returning an email, I find myself randomly watering plants or putting glasses in the dishwasher.

One of the obvious antidotes to this tendency toward ADD behavior is to slow down. Various slow movements—slow living, slow food—have been around for a while now; perhaps it is time for practicing to join the bandwagon. Of course, slow practicing is nothing new; goodness knows that every music teacher on the planet screams, “slow down!” at least ten times a day. That old musician’s standby, the metronome, slows us down to be sure, but often I resist its forced rigidity. After all, sometimes I don’t necessarily simply want slow, I want slow and thoughtful, which doesn’t necessarily mean metronomic. What I really want is slow on steroids, notes and rhythms stretched beyond recognition.

In 1987, John Cage wrote a piece for organ called Organ/ASLSP (As SLow aS Possible). A performance of this piece in Halberstadt, Germany began on September 5, 2001, with a rest lasting 17 months. The whole performance is scheduled to last 639 years, ending in 2640. That’s slow.

Slow practice, or Slo-mo as we call it in the studio, means different things to different students. Usually slo-mo is not really very slow at all, unfortunately, but occasionally a kid will be very taken with the idea. At least for five seconds before he get bored and resumes his previously frantic speed.

Slow Practice is a hard practice and not for the faint of heart. It’s difficult to slow down; our impatience and our busyness rule the day, forcing us into faster and faster modes of thinking and doing. Slow—really slow—is as uncomfortable as it is enlightening, which is probably all the more reason to do it. Taking time, loads of time, many seconds per sound or movement, forces us to really examine what we are doing, builds brain and muscle connections in new ways, blows apart our preconceived expectations. How did I really get from this chord to that one? What happens in between this motive and that one? What is that left hand actually doing during that strange transitional passage? When we slow down and really notice our work, we start to learn the answers to these kinds of questions, changing not just our music or our performances, but our very selves, in subtle and profound ways.

Wandering Around an Albuquerque Airport Terminal

After learning my flight was detained 4 hours,
I heard the announcement:
If anyone in the vicinity of gate 4-A understands any Arabic,
Please come to the gate immediately.

Well—one pauses these days. Gate 4-A was my own gate. I went there.
An older woman in full traditional Palestinian dress,
Just like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing loudly.
Help, said the flight service person. Talk to her. What is her
Problem? we told her the flight was going to be four hours late and she
Did this.

I put my arm around her and spoke to her haltingly.
Shu dow-a, shu- biduck habibti, stani stani schway, min fadlick,
Sho bit se-wee?

The minute she heard any words she knew—however poorly used—
She stopped crying.

She thought our flight had been canceled entirely.
She needed to be in El Paso for some major medical treatment the
Following day. I said no, no, we’re fine, you’ll get there, just late,

Who is picking you up? Let’s call him and tell him.
We called her son and I spoke with him in English.
I told him I would stay with his mother till we got on the plane and
Would ride next to her—Southwest.

She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just for the fun of it.

Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while in Arabic and
Found out of course they had ten shared friends.

Then I thought just for the heck of it why not call some Palestinian
Poets I know and let them chat with her. This all took up about 2 hours.

She was laughing a lot by then. Telling about her life. Answering
Questions.

She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool cookies—little powdered
Sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and nuts—out of her bag—
And was offering them to all the women at the gate.

To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a
Sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the traveler from California,
The lovely woman from Laredo—we were all covered with the same
Powdered sugar. And smiling. There are no better cookies.

And then the airline broke out the free beverages from huge coolers—
Non-alcoholic—and the two little girls for our flight, one African
American, one Mexican American—ran around serving us all apple juice
And lemonade and they were covered with powdered sugar too.

And I noticed my new best friend—by now we were holding hands—
Had a potted plant poking out of her bag, some medicinal thing,

With green furry leaves. Such an old country traveling tradition. Always
Carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere.

And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and thought,
This is the world I want to live in. The shared world.

Not a single person in this gate—once the crying of confusion stopped
—has seemed apprehensive about any other person.

They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women too.
This can still happen anywhere.

Not everything is lost.

-Naomi Shahib Nye

An Addendum

There is an addendum to last week’s post regarding rhythms that I failed to mention. It is so important, in fact, that it deserves a post of its own.

Rhythms are basically a multi-step process: get yourself to the first long note, lallygag (as my mother would say–now there’s a word you don’t hear often enough!) there letting go of all tension and anticipation, then—and here’s the important part—as you are preparing to flip through the next set of short notes to the next long note, you must—YOU MUST!!—mentally think through this process first so that you know very concretely where you are about to land. This sounds obvious, but in my experience, both in my own practicing and when monitoring that of my students, it isn’t obvious at all.

In fact, this is the more common scenario:

We are sitting comfortably on our long note, happy as a clam to be there, and then without any forethought whatsoever (except for perhaps a vague, “the next long note is out there somewhere, I’ll know it when I see it”), we go flailing through in hopes that the next place we are supposed to land will mysteriously rise up to greet us. My friends, it usually doesn’t. Or at least it doesn’t in any kind of way we want to rely upon.

So instead of landing intentionally on our next long note, we overshoot it, or fall painfully short, which is, if nothing else, certainly indicative of how compromised our knowledge is of the passage at hand. When I ask students to name the next long note before they fling themselves at it, they often stutter and stumble, which does give us a good idea about what is about to happen with their negotiation of the next set of notes. When they can confidently name the next long note, they can usually always get there safely.

Really it comes down to finding that delicate balance between staying firmly in the present and thinking ahead, which has plenty of implications outside of piano practice as well. But then most things—good and bad—that we do sitting on the piano bench teach us something about how to live once we walk away from the piano. It’s just the small matter of learning to pay attention to the lessons our practice teaches us, which, of course, is the real challenge. In the end, the rhythms and all the steps involved, well, that is the easy part.

A Very Good Place to Start

My students are convinced that the answer to every practice question I ask is “rhythms.” This is not actually the case, but the “rhythms” that they are referring to do solve a whole host of technical and musical problems. We owe a lot to their magic.

I first encountered rhythms in college when I was studying with the formidable Jane Allen, who was widely recognized for her ability to turn an otherwise sloppy technique into something to be reckoned with. Her favorite way to teach scales was using rhythmic patterns of various kinds. “The ‘Longs’ should be very long, and the ‘Shorts’ very short,” she would lecture, gazing at us with her stern, unforgiving gaze. She was, of course, right. However, after years of work with various teachers, I would add another corollary to the Jane Allen Law of Rhythms: The very long ‘Longs’ should be so long that you are able to completely let go of any physical tension AND any sense of anticipation to the next note. In other words, sitting there wallowing in the long note, you should simply be present to that place, not racing ahead mentally to the next tricky passage. After finding your complete unattachment to whether or not you will ever finish the passage, (or even leave the piano bench) there is a moment of preparation and then you flip through the next short note (or notes, depending) before settling on another long note. There you begin again, repeating the process of letting go. It’s all very organic and deceptively simple. But, like any form of meditation, it isn’t really easy at all.

My teacher and good friend William Westney makes this concept the basis of his “scale exercise,” which is simply Jane Allen’s rhythms with a new and more holistic twist. It’s Jane Allen’s rhythms on steroids, the goal being to massage out every possible kink and awkwardness between every long note by analyzing every segment of the scale with a magnifying glass. It is just like Bill to take the old and make it suddenly not only fresh, but Zen to boot.

My students have plenty of trouble controlling their impatience while sitting on a long note. I must confess, so do I. It feels so much more productive to race on to the next grand thing at top speed, polishing off our practice tasks in record time. When my students demonstrate rhythms for me in their lessons, I have to constantly nag at them, “Longer long notes.” “Longer long notes.” “LONGER LONG NOTES!” and still their idea of long is not the same as mine. I sympathize, but nevertheless together we struggle on, trying to reign in our fast-paced lives. Or at the very least, our fast-paced practicing.

So what, exactly are these mysterious “rhythms”? Rhythms are an imposed pattern of long and short notes that can be used in any technical passage or exercise to help erase tension, to assist in physically learning the patterns of notes, and to stabilize one’s security of a given passage. All that, and they have a built-in savings account, too. Every time I practice rhythms, I feel like I am making a deposit into a musical bank account; every performance is like a withdrawal. Enough rhythmic work and I stay safely in the black. Too many run-throughs without recovery time quickly puts me in the red. No wonder I swear by this practice technique so strongly.

Rhythms can be in patterns of two, three, four (or more), but don’t be in too big a hurry to jump into bigger rhythmic groupings. The smaller the grouping the more challenging it is on one’s patience and stamina, but the better the passage in question gets learned. Depending on the situation, these can be done with either hands alone or hands together (I suggest having great familiarity with the former before rushing into both hands). I have used these with scales and arpeggios in traditional Jane Allen fashion, with LH stride bass passages, and with complicated RH licks. The possible situations in which these might be applicable are endless.

Here’s our studio short hand for rhythms:

Long-Short or Short-Long (LS or SL)
Long-Short-Short or Short-Short-Long (LSS or SSL)
Long-Short-Short-Short or Short-Short-Long (LSSS or SSSL)

The trick is knowing which pattern to use. Groups of sixes are especially tricky–you have to decide if the notes are really in groups of three or two. I can always tell an intermediate student hasn’t yet grasped the concept of rhythms if they suggest a three pattern for what is obviously a two grouping. I know there is a school of thought out there that claims that grouping notes in unnatural rhythmic patterns is helpful to the learning process, but I disagree. I match rhythms with their most natural musical grouping according to situation at hand, and save the bigger challenge for finding my inner breath when practicing them.

Just because you might not be a pianist, doesn’t mean that rhythms won’t work for you. I have used them coaching all kinds of instrumentalists and singers as well. There is nothing like them for cleaning up those long melismas in Handel’s Messiah.

The answer to every practicing question may not be “rhythms,” but as my kids know, it’s not a bad place to start.

Stars

We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.

-Oscar Wilde

Reverse Grab Bag

There is nothing like a really long break to clear one’s head. Thanks to the gods of Albuquerque Public Schools, this has been the longest winter break in recent memory. Three weeks. Three weeks of no lessons or rehearsals. Three weeks of empty days and quiet nights. Three weeks! My heart lifts just saying those two words.

It might have been a perfect holiday all the way around. For once, we managed to exist in that elusive space called Just Enough. We went to cocktail parties and had dinner with friends. We saw three movies in the theater and watched many more at home with our cats curled up next to us. We read stacks of books. I drove up to Colorado for 24 hours to meet a friend. We spent Matt’s birthday at Los Poblanos, a historic inn in the north valley neighborhood of Albuquerque. We went to the gym and to yoga classes. I swam laps in the pool and practiced almost every day. Matt cleaned up his study. We saw former students, now grown-up and visiting for the holidays, for drinks or coffee. We listened to music in the evenings and drank wine with the fireplace full of flickering candles and the twinkling cranberry lights glowing on the mantle.

One day we drove down to Socorro in the late afternoon and watched thousands of cranes and snow geese fly through the reservoirs at the Bosque del Apache at dusk and then again at dawn the following day. The sight of thousands (literally!) of birds taking off at once was magical.

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(Click the link and just listen to the sound of those cranes and geese! Wow!)

Perhaps the most magical thing about the break was that for the first time in memory we reached a place where the holiday had been long enough. We had had enough sleep, we had drunk enough wine, we had eaten enough chocolate. We were ready to go back, back to lessons and rehearsals, meetings and emails of our regular life. Quite simply, I missed my students, my routine, my work. If that isn’t the definition of “Just Enough,” I don’t know what is.

But if holidays are good for the soul, they are often equally good for one’s creative mind. One afternoon while pouring myself a cup of tea, apropos of nothing, I thought, “What about Reverse Grab Bag?”

Grab Bag, as some of you might remember, is that compositional exercise inspired the ideas in Improvisation Games for the Classical Musician by Jeffrey Agrell. It works like this:

On my bookshelf sits a bowl of poker chips. Each chip has a note written on it: A-flat, F-sharp, C, and so on. We use this bowl to draw keys for transpositions, keys for scales or chords, etc. The “chip bowl,” as we call it, takes the blame off me. If students draw B-flat for their scales, it’s not my fault.

For “Grab Bag 5,” students draw 5 chips at random. Let’s say: C, B, G-flat, A, A-sharp. Sometimes they get a “double.” No problem. It has just become “Grab Bag 4.” (A “double” is like D-flat and C-sharp. Good to make students find the double. Even better to have students look for possible chords—major, minor, diminished—out of the mix of chips they have drawn, kinda like a musical Scrabble. This can be tricky, particularly because some chords will be spelled enharmonically: C, E-flat, F-sharp)

Students are then assigned to write a composition using only those 5 notes. Rhythms, style, character, and so on are up for grabs (no pun intended), but the composition is limited to ONLY those notes. The kids think this is great fun.

I’m not sure why a cup of tea inspired Reverse Grab Bag, but there it is. Reverse Grab Bag, as I have imagined it, would be the exercise of doing an improvisation/composition using all notes EXCEPT the 5 (or 4 or 8) drawn out of the chip bowl. This variation on a theme is hardly rocket science, sure, but I suspect as we begin lessons this afternoon this idea is just clever enough.

Christmas Letter 2016

Once, in a rare moment of great confidence or perhaps outright audacity, I said that everyone should have to write an annual holiday letter, because it forces one to make sense of one’s year and world.

Had we written our letter before November 8, what I might have said was that we continue to find our meaning and purpose in the world in much the same way we always have: Matt conducts multiple choirs and the occasional orchestra; I teach piano lessons and perform with orchestras and other musicians. We read and garden, go to yoga classes and the gym. We watched the entire six seasons of Downton Abbey over the course of a few months. We spent almost two weeks in Québec with friends in October. It is, most days, a meaningful and rich life.

And then came November 9, a day when there were many of us questioning whether there was any sense or meaning in the world whatsoever. Matt was, in his own words, despondent. I was, in Matt’s words, non-functional.

“Well, we now have work to do,” we kept hearing in the days after the election as our friends and family tried to console one another. “Time to roll up our sleeves!” My first response to this call-to-action was to wail, “But I was already working!”

And then I started thinking about what it is I really do and how I spend my days. Quite simply, I practice. In the mornings, I practice music for this gig or for that one. In the afternoons and evenings, I teach others to practice. I am always, always practicing.

The more I thought about this the more I realized that, in music, there was another word for practicing: listening. What I am really doing in my various practices is teaching myself and others to listen. To each other. To ourselves.

Okay, so there is work to be done. We can continue to practice listening. We can keep teaching others to practice listening. Because whatever one’s reaction to this season’s politics, what is clear is that we have stopped listening to each other.

The Saturday after the election I planted bulbs. This was hardly a radical act of protest, but it was a tangible way of reminding myself that I can still make my world beautiful. Turns out, if we’re listening, there is still so much beauty to behold.

Oh, Purple Sage

It’s not the students playing Beethoven and Chopin that are challenging when it comes to choosing repertoire for the studio recital. It’s the kids playing, well, nothing much at all.

When students are barely finding middle C and who have only just begun to learn to read simple off-staff notation in their early method books, choosing a piece to play for their first recital can be difficult. The first piece I ever played from a music book was from the infamous John Thompson’s Teaching Little Fingers to Play called “Birthday Party.” There are three notes: C, D, E. The music goes up and down, always by step. It’s very boring, really.

(I much preferred the second piece in the book “Sandman’s Near.” It also uses three notes—C, B, A—but has a nice minor sound. Kids LOVE minor.)

That very first recital is tough all the way around. There is so much to learn: how to walk up to the piano with purpose, how to bow, what to wear. And then there’s the issue of choosing that perfect recital piece when the piano world pretty much consists of C, D, E (or if you’re really lucky, C, B, A). Time for a good rote piece, I say.

Although I spent years in the closet with my rote teaching, those days are over. Everyone, it seems, is talking about the benefits of teaching by rote, particularly in those early beginning years of piano study. Check out this podcast with Dennis Alexander, my co-author of Repertoire By Rote. Dennis is being interviewed by a charming and very smart Austrialian bloke, Tim Topham, on his podcast about creative piano teaching. (Thanks for the fantastic shout-out, guys!)

This fall I have only one beginning student. All my other kids are way beyond the likes of “Birthday Party” and “Sandman’s Near.” While we still use rote pieces in our work, it’s no trouble to pick an interesting recital piece. The trouble is narrowing it down to a single recital piece.

But after only a couple months of piano lessons, five-year-old Nathan doesn’t have a large repertoire to choose from. He is smart and eager to learn, but years away from Chopin and Beethoven. Even Dennis Alexander’s “Giggle Bugs,” a great favorite in the studio, is well out of his reach. “Oh, Purple Sage,” one of Dennis’ and my early rote pieces, is just about right, however.

Nathan loves “Oh, Purple Sage.” Convincing him to play it on our November recital was no problem, but who to play the teacher’s duet part with him?

“Would you like to play it with your dad?” I asked him. “That would be fun, right?” He shook his head. “How about your mom?” No. “Me? Would you like me to play the duet with you at the recital?” Nope. “Someone else?” Nathan is tiny; his legs swing high above the floor when he sits on the piano bench. He is very shy and goes entire lessons without uttering a word to me. Nevertheless, it is clear he has someone specific in mind.

“Jonathon,” he told me.

Jonathon is a sophomore. He is tall and good-looking. He has taken piano with me since he was a little guy just Nathan’s size. Jonathon has a lesson right before Nathan’s and every week the two kids cross paths in the sunroom. Of course, I thought, Jonathon. What little one wouldn’t love to share a bench, not with a boring adult, but with a cool big kid?

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(The pedagogue in me must insert at this point that this plan was equally good for Jonathon. What big kid isn’t helped by taking up a leadership role with a younger person? This is, after all, the whole Montessori concept in action.)

So the following week I brought up the idea to Jonathon. I explained that Nathan needed a partner and had asked specifically for him. “You okay with this?” I asked.

Jonathon had one question, “Would I still play ‘Puck’?”

“Puck” is a popular intermediate-level piece by Grieg. Jonathon had picked this piece some months before and was playing it well. I knew he wasn’t looking to get out of his own performance. What he was really saying was: Okay, I’ll take one for the team here even if I give up my own thing.

In a career of favorite teaching moments, that was another one.

“Nope,” I told him. “You are definitely still playing ‘Puck’.”

And so it came to pass, Nathan and Jonathon and “Oh, Purple Sage” (Written that way it sounds almost biblical, doesn’t it?). You can watch their performance at the studio recital here.

Please note the matching bow ties.

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Penguin Problems

Sometimes it takes a children’s picture book to put everything in perspective.

Several weeks ago I was browsing in a bookstore. Always on the hunt for good books to add to my studio library, I was paging through picture books. One with about a hundred penguins on the cover caught my eye. “Penguins are cute,” I thought to myself as I opened the book.

It is way too early.

The illustration showed a penguin lying on his back, talking to himself.

My beak is cold.

This was clearly a penguin with a lot of complaints.

I understand completely. I have a laundry list of grievances myself these days. But I am hardly alone in my negativity. Everyone I know is whining. We are all too busy. We are fearful about what the future might hold. Our beaks are cold.

…I waddle too much. I look silly when I waddle.

….I wish I could fly, but I can’t.

I have five hours of teaching today and then a three-hour dress rehearsal. I really should call my sister. I have no clean socks.

…I have so many problems!

And nobody even cares!

In the middle of the grouchy penguin’s litany, he is interrupted by a walrus, who proceeds to give him a lecture about paying attention.

I sense that today has been difficult but lo! Look around you, Penguin. Have you noticed the way the mountains are reflected in the ocean like a painting? Have you gazed upon the blue of that cloudless, winter sky, my friend?….

Hmm. Have you noticed that in the middle of a Friday afternoon you have the time to browse in a bookstore? Do you remember that this morning you sat on the couch with two cuddly cats and read a book and drank a cup of coffee? Did you see that yellow rose next to the sunroom door that has insisted on blooming in November?

The Walrus continues:

…Yes, some things are challenging out here….But hear me now, my new friend: I wouldn’t trade my life for any other, and I am quite sure you wouldn’t, either. I am certain that when you think about it, you’ll realize that you are exactly where you need to be.

Well, then.

The self-pitying penguin has three quite predictable responses.

1) Who the heck was that guy?
2) Okay, maybe that walrus has a point. I do love the mountains.
3) My beak is cold.

How quickly we forget the important lessons we learn. Which is why we need to read a lot of wise children’s books these days.

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My beak is cold.

Penguin Problems by Jory John. Illustrated by Lane Smith.

Okay

Once when I was going through a particular rough period I got through it by asking myself over and over again the simple question: “Amy, right now are you okay?”

At the time I was faced with a normal garden variety of stresses, just coming at me too quickly from every direction. There were some family concerns and some friends in trouble. I had too many notes to learn and a worrisome situation with a student. I had a migraine I couldn’t shake. Matt was under a lot of pressure at work as well, which added to the strain at home. It was life, with all its messiness, just too much of it all at once.

But the worst part of the whole thing wasn’t any particular situation. It was my unhelpful and self-destructive thinking, spinning off into the future, imagining the end of the world as I knew it. I discovered, almost by accident, that stopping long enough to check in with myself—Amy, right now, at this very minute, are you okay?—was enough to halt my mental madness. Because this is what I quickly figured out: I may have been unhappy, I may have been worried or sad or angry or frustrated or stressed, I may have had a headache, but in the big picture, I was okay.

Some days I had to remind myself of this about twenty-seven times.

I have been asking myself this same question a lot in the week since the election. Roughly thirty-nine times a day, in fact. It has been too easy to get caught up in the general doomsday thinking, most of which I manage to think up without any outside assistance. I don’t need the 24-hour news cycle, or the New York Times, or my bewildered friends and family to make me feel any more vulnerable. I am, after all, a musician. If the economy goes south, my livelihood could easily go south with it. Nor do I need any help imagining a world in which I and all the people I love might be on a life raft in the ocean drifting west. Or where there’s an increase in violence and hatred and intolerance in this country, and a new casualness about sexual assault and racial discrimination. I can come up with these kind of dark scenarios all on my own.

This kind of thinking does not improve the quality of my life or my work, however. Quite the opposite. Hence the return of my mantra: Amy, right now, right at this very moment, are you okay?

Well, yes.

Having said that, let’s make sure we clearly define what isn’t okay: sexual assault, bigotry, racism, hatred. Nope, those things are not okay and never will be.

And I realize that the great lesson of last week is that much of the world is not okay. There is too much of the above lurking around out there. There are too many people on life rafts. There are too many people on the street corners begging for food and money. There are too many people without meaningful work or a purpose in this world. We’ve all been shaken out of our little okay worlds. We must start listening to one another now.

But here’s the thing: I listen better when I’m okay, when I have both feet on the ground, when I am not getting caught up in a future I can neither predict or control. I listen better both to the people I struggle with and with those whom it is easy for me to love. I listen better to my students and colleagues needing both my musical ears and my rooted self. I listen, ultimately, better to myself, to the voice that nudges at me, “Yep, Amy. More to do. Keep listening.”

Staying okay for me these days means lots of laps in the swimming pool, plenty of yoga classes and loads of time on the mediation cushion and the piano bench. It means taking time to tend my garden both literally and figuratively, having breakfast with my mother, lunch with my father, calling my brother on his birthday. It means setting aside time to have coffee or tea, drinks or dinner with friends who are as confused and searching as I am. It means protecting quiet night with Matt in order to spend an entire evening drinking a bottle of wine and petting our cats.

Last Thursday I asked a friend who teaches at a local private school how she was holding up. “It’s been a hard week at school,” she said. “Turns out it only takes a couple of gloating teenage boys to make an entire classroom of sixteen-year-old girls cry.” Well, I thought, if that isn’t a microcosm of the whole thing I don’t know what is.

Whatever one’s politics, there are likely to be tough times and plenty of tears ahead. I personally am not equipped with the skills or the power or the influence to solve the problems to come. But that doesn’t let me off the hook. At the very least, there are children all around me who, more than ever, need sane, kind, compassionate, okay adults in their lives.

Spoiler alert: it’s not going to be easy. As a friend said to me over lunch today, “How do we stay vigilant and okay at the same time?” It’s a good question, but if I’m really listening I think I’ll hear the answer.

Today’s okay guarantees nothing about tomorrow. But right here, right now, right this very moment, okay is an honest place to take a deep breath and start listening.