On Wednesday Mark came into his lesson with this announcement. “So I really, really like my duet and I’m really, really good at it. Oh, and I kinda had a bad week. I was in the hospital from Thursday to Saturday.”

Two things you should know about this kid. He tends to understate negative things (I kinda had a bad week.) and overstate positive ones (I’m really really good at it.). Mark also has chronic asthma. When his oxygen levels get too low, he is hospitalized until they get under control. That evening I looked at his practice chart, the five boxes that should account for his piano time at home during the week since his last lesson. They were all filled in, including “Saturday. 5:16-6:03.”

“You practiced on Saturday?” I asked, a bit puzzled. I have tough practice requirements, but I have never expected anyone to practice on the day they were released from the hospital.

“Oh yeah,” he shrugged. “I practiced after I got home. Practicing is a good stress reliever, you know.”

For some reason, this scene made me think of Jane Allen, my college piano teacher. Ms. Allen was formidable and tough. “Well,” she would say after I’d played, gazing at me through the cloud of cigarette smoke that always surrounded her, “that was worse than last week.”

Truth be told, I was a bit scared of Ms. Allen, but in her defense, she never demanded practicing when her students were in the hospital. I know this to be true, because I was in a bad accident a month before my junior recital. When I woke up in neurological ICU the first thing I said was, “Tell Ms. Allen I can still give that recital.”

The nurses and doctors did not care about my recital. Instead, they repeatedly asked me who the president was. The question was confusing. We were days away from Clinton’s first inauguration and, dazed and disoriented, I didn’t know what day of the week it was. “What day is it?” I kept asking, which wasn’t the answer to the nurses’ question at all, a fact they kept pointing out to me.

After I was discharged from the hospital a few days later (the night of Clinton’s inauguration as it turned out), I spent the next six weeks in bed recovering. My junior recital was postponed. I didn’t practice for a long, long time. When I finally returned to my lessons, my practice chart empty, Ms. Allen only acted grateful I was still alive.

From Ms. Allen I learned to face the truth of what was really happening at the piano (That was worse than last week.). But more than that, Ms. Allen was one of the many teachers in my life who taught me not only how to practice well, but about the sacredness of the discipline. She would not have had much interest in the benefits of practicing as a stress reliever, but she was fond of reminding us that no matter who might win a particular competition today, we’d all have to return to the piano bench tomorrow, equal in our need to practice. “Practicing,” she’d tell us, “is just what we do.”

Lately, I have been sitting with this idea of practice, both literally and figuratively, employing what is perhaps my favorite practice technique ever: Fermata Practice.

In some respects, this is the opposite of practicing in rhythms, although the root of the concept is really the same. A fermata is a musical indication to hold a note longer than its normal length. Or, as students like to say: For as long as you want! They say this with a great deal of glee, relishing in the idea that for once they might have a bit of control over something. For as long as you want! never turns out to be all that long, however. We are, each one of us, impatient. We are so easily distracted, our attention spans so short.

Which is why Fermata Practice is such a good idea. Fermata Practice is the technique of inserting fermatas on notes and chords wherever something feels cranky and in need of attention. I do this to solidify leaps, to check in with unsettled places in technical passageworks (the “hinges” I sometimes say, where the patterns turn or shift), to gain comfort in big awkward chords.

This strategy would come in third place right after “Rhythms” and “Ghosting” when students respond to my question: How should you practice this? I always can tell when students have been spending time wallowing in their notes and phrases in this way because their playing sounds grounded, solid, so very centered and secure. It is the musical equivalent of getting a massage, or staring at the clouds all afternoon while lying in a hammock. It’s a lovely way to calm a wandering spirit and to come home on the piano bench.

Fermata Practice has multiple implications for our life at large, of course. It is also lingering over the last sips of wine after dinner instead of rushing to get the dishes done. Fermata Practice is stopping to watch the flickering light of a burning candle make shadows across the walls or bending down to pet a cat rolling in a patch of sunlight. It’s allowing a child to tell the entire plot of a book (…and then the evil wizard put a spell on the wishing well… ) instead of interrupting to redirect the rhythm of the lesson (Hey kid! Sounds like a good book, but let me hear your F major chords.). Fermata Practice is savoring a piece of dark chocolate, reading a poem while drinking a foamy cappuccino, or allowing a moment of silence to settle into the conversation before we speak.

Fermata Practice is a good antidote to both the sugar and the busyness of the season, a way to keep our roots when the rest of the world is spinning out of control and luring us with temptations (Peppermint! Presents! Parties! Oh My!). I need this practice as much as any student, my own restlessness in high gear these days: Oh! There’s the UPS truck! A package just arrived! I must stop what I’m doing and go to the door and see who it’s for!!! Truth be told, I could use a month of Fermata Practice in every area of my life.

Sometimes practicing isn’t about the musical gains, as important as those might be. Sometimes in seasons like this, the real practice is simply maintaining the practice, to keep showing up and faithfully filling in our practice charts and holding on to our fermatas. Because practicing is just what we do.