Much of the time what my students really need from me is not great pedagogy or complicated techniques, but simply a reminder of what honest work habits look like, and the faith to keep practicing.

Research indicates that focusing on practice techniques and strategies in the early stages of learning a musical instrument, rather than only mastering repertoire, is a more successful and holistic approach to music education. Students who acquire meta-cognitive skills and strong practice habits go on to achieve a higher level of skill on their instruments and even stay active in music lessons and ensembles longer. Win-win, says music teachers everywhere.

And yet, too often, time pressed by the next recital, we teachers forget this. We cram towards the next performance and lose sight of the sacred routines behind the musical phrases. We teach notes and gestures at the expense of teaching the practice, and as a result, students learn repertoire, but don’t discover the joy in the work.

I was reminded of this just yesterday when faced with a young child who, once again, had fallen off the practice wagon. “Do you know what accountability means?” I asked him, after discovering that he had done (and rather proudly too, I’m afraid) a very abridged form of his assignments. If I wrote, “Play 3x” he played once. Or maybe, if he liked the piece, twice. He did half his sight-reading assignment, and a third of his workbook page. “Peter,” I scolded him, “If you don’t do all the steps of every assignment, it doesn’t count as a full practice session. You can’t tell me you did ‘all’ your practicing if you didn’t. You have to be accountable for everything, not just what you feel like doing.” I was on a roll. “Tell me, what does being accountable mean?”

“Accountable means….” he stopped uncertain. “It means that I have to count all of my assignments, right?” Right, kid, I thought, and wondered why it was after nearly three years of lessons, we still had to have this conversation. Once again, I was reminded that for all the weeks we get to focus on learning music, most days the most important lesson I teach is simply how to practice, and how to keep trudging forward patiently.

Truth be told, I’ve needed plenty of nudging lately myself. Summer is at the height of her power. The farmer’s markets are bursting with colorful and tempting fruits and vegetables, but the garden is wilting, burning up from the intensity of our high-altitude sun. For two weeks now, the temperatures have been in the mid-to-upper nineties. The highly anticipated monsoon season eludes us. Clouds gather every afternoon; thunder rumbles in the distance; there is not a drop of rain. The cats lie against the baseboards under the swamp cooler trying to stay cool. I have an upcoming season of big repertoire to learn and all I want to do is lie on the couch and eat popsicles.

Quite literally, our practices teach us discipline. In a world that tells us we should follow our bliss at all times, it’s not sexy to talk about discipline, but it’s the muscle and the power behind our work. It is pure, unadulterated discipline that pushes us to return over and over again to the bench—or the yoga mat or the blank computer screen or the meditation cushion. It is discipline that teaches us accountability: to “count” our repetitions until we find the rhythm behind our work again. When the rubber meets the road, I am reminded that this is why I practice—because I believe there is meaning in the doing, even when I have lost all sight of reason and logic. While I can recite different practice strategies forever, sometimes the most sacred technique is simply repetition: to show up and do it again, and again, and yet again.