Today, like every other day, we wake up empty and frightened,
Don’t open the door to the study and begin reading.
Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
-Rumi

This week I was teaching a pre-Impressionist piece to Sophie. It is a little early intermediate piece that makes use of the five-note pentatonic scale. I began my spiel by talking a bit about Impressionist art. We looked at a couple of paintings by Monet in an art book. I explained the link to Impressionist music, how these composers were enthralled with Asian culture, and how they began imitating this sound by using modalities like the pentatonic scale. We improvised a bit on the black keys, familiarizing ourselves with this distinct sound color. I reminded Sophie that at this time in history it was difficult to travel from Europe to the Far East and so composers had a fairly limited knowledge of this part of the world. Confident that I had done my background work thoroughly, I was ready to direct our attention to the actual piece that I was assigning Sophie, when she blurted out, “Couldn’t they just go through the Panama Canal?”

Of course not, I thought impatiently, my eyes on the clock. Don’t they teach you anything at school? This was already taking far longer than I had anticipated or planned. In fact, this whole exercise might be the pedagogical parallel to going through the Panama Canal on the way to the Far East.

Time—and how we choose to spend it—has been very much on my mind lately.

For a short while, some years ago, I taught a high school student named George. He had taken a few years of piano with another teacher before coming to me, but George was rather undisciplined and unfocused about the piano, about practicing, about lessons. He was, however, a funny kid. And although I was unimpressed with his work habits, he made me laugh.

One day as he was leaving his lesson, I asked him what his plans for the upcoming weekend were. “Oh, you know,” he said, “All piano all the time.”

And right then, a studio catchphrase was born, for although he was not a stellar piano student, George was a natural leader among the other kids. Soon other students began adopting this phrase—All Piano All the Time. They said it to one another in performance classes and as a greeting as they passed in the sunroom. Even today, that generation of students still signs off, “APATT” when they text or email me from their now-grownup lives and adventures.

None of this, I should hasten to say, did anything for George’s practice habits, which remained abysmal at best. But I’ve been thinking about George and APATT lately and wondering in my quest for All Piano All the Time if I’ve missed a more generous and liberal interpretation of the idea: All Practice All the Time. Sometimes I fear in my hunger for efficiency both in my own practicing and in my teaching, if I have become rigid, narrowly focused on some abstract performance or achievement goal, and have lost sight of the real meaning behind the work: to become creative, musical and compassionate human beings.

There is no right answer as to how to spend our time on this planet, of course, nor is there a perfect way to divvy up the allotted time in piano lessons. Often we need to work deeply on a few things, like an upcoming recital piece, but I can’t ignore the regular tasks of technique work, sight-reading, new repertoire, and so on. If I do, the students will be certain to ignore these things as well. This juggling act of time management is a constant negotiation. Sometimes I divide and conquer well, balancing pedagogical tasks with poise. More often I’m afraid that I push through hurriedly, and probably squash some natural curiosity that might have arisen if I had only allowed a bit more space and breath in our work together.

To make matters more tangled, my spiritual practice—first and foremost—is the piano. It is not easy to tease apart the two—the practice and the piano—to rest in the work and trust the process, instead of throwing myself and my to-do lists at some performance goal. And oh! how I love my lists: my to-do lists and my ta-da lists (AKA: achievement lists, to borrow a phrase from the creativity guru Julia Cameron).

But when I stop and embrace the idea that the discipline of practice might be more than the time spent on the piano bench, then I often fall into a more graceful way to move through the world. I find that the days and hours are organized more organically. I follow my curiosity from moment to moment instead of imposing a top-down agenda on my schedule. There is more time sitting in the rocking chair working on a needlepoint project while listening to some unfamiliar piece I read about yesterday. More minutes spent looking up the background of that obscure composer Matt mentioned at dinner. More time devoted to analyzing that Bach fugue I am learning, rather than just ripping through it multiple times as I try to force it into my hands. More soup, less sugar. More conversations, less texts. More candles, less screens. In these dark over-busy December days as we race frantically towards the deadline of the holidays, our scribbled to-do lists growing ever longer and longer, it feels countercultural to simply practice, with no goal in sight.

Tuesday afternoon, in a rare moment of understanding and perspective, I decided not to brush off Sophie’s innocent question. Instead, we got out the atlas and examined the map to understand why the Panama Canal was totally unhelpful to the French trying to get to the Far East.

Total time from beginning to end: 43.5 minutes.  All Practice All the Time. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.