Max does not like to miss piano lessons.

This has less to do with the lessons per se as it does to do with the 10 days of practicing a two-week gap between lessons requires. When I reminded him recently that we’d be taking Spring Break off, he grew concerned. Max thinks managing 10 practice boxes in a two-week stretch is hard. I think he might be right about this. “OK, Amy,” Max said. “I’ll try really hard, but I just don’t know.” He shook his head, the weight of the world upon him.

Last year, we pushed right through Spring Break and kept showing up for what was then brand-new, on-line piano lessons. The world had just shut down. I was utterly convinced that we’d all be getting sick, so while we were still well, we should continue piano lessons. After all, I argued to the kids who actually didn’t require much persuading, who knows when we might need to take some extra time off lessons? All of our worlds were turned upside down, the constancy of piano lessons and practicing seemed a small, manageable thing we could do to right ourselves.

So while we have remained faithful to weekly piano lessons throughout the last twelve months, what the past year has also brought is freedom from the pressures of recitals, festivals and standardized testing of all kinds. When I realized last spring that there would be no May recital, my first thought was “Woo-hoo! I can teach without interruption.”

Because what I know, and the kids do too if you question them hard enough, is that the recital was never the point of our work together anyway. The recital is merely the punctuation on weeks and months of careful practice and preparation. The work to get to the recital is where the real growth takes place: the moment we realize we don’t really know the B section of our piece; the stumbles that humble us when we play for our peers in performance class; the corner we turn when we go from merely playing at the music to owning it. One spring during a pre-recital performance class, I witnessed this exchange: “I know why we have performance class,” one kid announced to his class of eight-and-nine-year-old pianists. “Because in performance class we all mess up sometimes and we know that no one is going to laugh at us or make fun of us.” Another kid followed up this comment with: “I know why performance classes are required.” (The kids are, and rightly so, very impressed with the idea of required classes.) “Because we play better at the recital when we have to play in performance classes. Like, the recital isn’t the first time we have ever played our piece for someone.” Yet another Little One had this advice for his young classmates: “When you have a memory problem—I know because I have lots of them!—you should just think like Nemo. Instead of ‘Keep swimming’ you should think ‘Keep playing.’” Ah, these kids are so smart.

Really, it’s all I can do to keep up with them. Recently, one precocious seven-year-old walked into his lesson and before I could open my mouth said, “Miss Amy, I need to tell you about sharps and flats,” as if this was a world he had just discovered and he thought he better let me in on it. OK, kid, I thought to myself. Bring it on.

In normal years, spring brings not only studio recitals, but also for festivals and talent shows and other events where someone will judge our work. Once one young girl sheepishly admitted, “I just don’t like being judged” when I encouraged her to participate in a local festival. Later I wondered if that wasn’t the smartest, most intuitive thing I had heard all week. I don’t like being judged either, and breathe a big sigh of relief when talent show auditions and festivals and contests are behind us for another year. It’s not that I worry too much about how the kids will do; they will do fine, perhaps even show moments of greatness. My favorite example of this was the small child who played his entire audition with his tongue stuck out in concentration, completely unaware of the chocolate on his pants, and still walked away with a proud ‘I’ rating from a tough judge. We can be judged and hold up well under the scrutiny. We just don’t necessarily like it.

I wonder if we had known a year ago that this lockdown of our lives would last approximately 12 months, would it have changed things? Would we have viewed the time with more grace and patience or handled the anxiety better? Would we have chosen to spend the days and weeks and months differently, more creatively, more resourcefully? Would we have stopped dealing in absolutes? Stopped building our castles in the air of plans and expectations only to watch them come crashing down with the next Covid surge? I’m finding, as we pass the year anniversary of the shutdown, that these are the questions rolling around my head.

It’s a moot point, of course. We didn’t know, and we never do know what the future holds. But in a year when there seemed to be a cupcake on the finish line just right up ahead and then the damn cupcake kept moving, I wonder how the knowledge of exactly where that finish line was might have changed our perspective. Would we have settled in better to the year with all of its challenges if we had understood the container of time we had before us? It’s a bit like the old practice timer: knowing we are sitting down for 30 minutes—or two hours or whatever—shuts down the inner negotiation and we can simply do the work in front of us. It is like the black-robed priest who watches the clock for us during meditation, or the teacher in yoga class who sets the pace for the hour session. We can let go of expectations and the need to manage the time. All we have to do is practice.

I think of the 9-year-old student who last summer told me, “Amy, you know what is getting me through this? Music, bike riding and LEGOs.” I was grateful that music made the list, understood completely about the need for exercise and fresh air, and had to smile about the LEGOs. What have been my LEGOs the last year? I look around me. Books, for sure. My garden. Time in the rocking chair with a needlepoint project. Long phone conversations with friends as I walk the familiar streets of the neighborhood every evening. Hikes in the foothills and along the river. Dinners with Matt.

This year has changed us, no doubt about it. When we first went into lockdown, I offered the hope that we’d come out of hibernation different, that our cloistering time would mark us, make us different people. It has, no question. We are both more fearful and more courageous. We are both meaner and kinder than we knew. We are more resilient and more fragile. We are changed, for sure.

Last week I asked Mr. LEGOs what he thought we should do to acknowledge the one-year anniversary of the shutdown. “Make a COVID pinata and smash it,” he suggested. Not a bad idea.

The world is cracking open, and that means required recitals, festivals and performance classes will once again enter the routines and schedules of the piano studio. In spite of the welcomed respite the lack of judges in the past months has given us, I’m ready for the next chapter. Even so, I find myself pausing, wanting to savor this moment before we rush ahead. There is power in a threshold, the liminal space between this and that. We have ten thousand choices before us; we get to decide what we are bringing forward into the future. The judges? The requirements? The pressures and deadlines? The too busy schedules and chockablock calendars? Maybe. Or maybe not. We are standing on a precipice. Anything is possible.

Meanwhile, the season has turned a corner; the days grow longer. The first flowers bloom in the garden: tulips, and daffodils and hyacinths. The viburnum is in full flower; the lilac bush heavy with buds. There is a green in the air, as if someone said, I would like spring with a twist of lime, please. The truth is Max is right: it is hard to manage the future, even with all our little practice boxes, our good intentions, our LEGOs. For if there is anything we have learned the last year, we have so little control. But take courage, friends. There is nothing but light up ahead.

 

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