It was the last day in the last week and month of what had become a long, exhausting semester of online piano lessons. After 17 consecutive weeks of teaching, I was dying for some time off. Of course, that time off under the cloud of COVID-19 would not include travel or long conversations with friends over a glass (or two) of wine at my favorite neighborhood haunts. There would be no day trips to soak in hot springs or afternoons puttering around the Santa Fe Plaza and browsing in bookshops. But still it was 10 days in a row in which I did not have to teach the fine art of playing the piano through a screen. I could hardly wait.

But the seven-year-old in front of me across Zoom was having none of it. “Why do you need a break?” Jake asked me. “You love the piano.”

He was right. I do love the piano. And I love the kids. What I don’t love is the screens. “I need a break from screens,” I told him. “Don’t worry, buddy, I’ll be back.”

“But piano isn’t about screens,” he said. “Piano is just piano.”

That shut me up. For the last two months I have been whining and complaining and gnashing my teeth about my frustrations with technology. I have told anyone that would listen that teaching piano online was frustrating and exhausting in equal measures. I have cursed Zoom and FaceTime. Piano lessons have become screen dominated and I hate it.

But clearly I have missed something important. Piano lessons have become screen dominated for me. Not for the student. For the kid practicing at home every day and filling out their practice charts and filling in their sight-reading pages, piano was just piano. Even the piano lessons themselves weren’t particularly technology-centric for them. The only time a student looked at a screen during a piano lesson was when I was talking. Which, if I did my job right, wasn’t that much.

One conventional gold standard of a good music lesson is the ratio of teacher talking versus student playing. Or another way of saying it, how much time is spent making music versus how much time talking about making music? It is often advised to new teachers in pedagogy classes that they should record the lessons they teach and keep track of how many minutes they spend talking in every lesson. Usually the answer is surprising. Quite simply, we teachers talk too much, basking in the sound of our own wisdom. But in an ideal scenario, the majority of time in lessons should be spent with students engaged with their assignments or trying out new concepts or musical ideas. Or as Jake was trying to tell me: piano should be just piano.

Well that changes my attitude a bit.

Over the recent break between teaching semesters, I read Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport. Newport is not anti-technology, but he adopts new technology cautiously. He is always asking himself the question: Is this app or device or gadget really going to make my life better? He writes, “…the cumulative cost of the noncrucial things we clutter our lives with can far outweigh the small benefits each individual piece of clutter promises.” This book is timely. After three months of screens and being bombarded on every front about all the snazzy tricks and shiny digital tools we should be using, we have never needed a check-in about our relationship with technology more than now.

Actually, if we are honest, this check-in is long overdue. Last year, in a world before Coronavirus, I read an article about how to make piano lessons more relevant for teenagers. The number one piece of advice was to allow students to use their phones whenever possible, because kids like their phones and, by the transitive property, will then like piano lessons more. For example, when a student encountered an unfamiliar musical term, we should encourage them to get out their phones and look it up. Reading this made my head explode.

For folks easily swayed by the latest flashy app guaranteed to change our lives or who like the idea of iPhones beeping and ringing during piano lessons, Newport’s message is some tough love for sure. He advocates a 30-day digital declutter for those who might be interested in rethinking their technology triggers which translates into no optional usage. The problem, of course, is that optional is a messy and non-specific word. Checking your college friends’ activities on Facebook? Clearly optional. Looking at your sister’s baby pictures on Instagram? Maybe a bit trickier to dodge gracefully, but also optional. (You could, Newport suggests, simply call your sister and let her gush about her baby for 30 minutes. Equally attentive behavior and nurtures more connections.) Downloading one more rhythm app? Optional. Using Zoom for piano lessons in a world-wide shutdown? Not optional.

You get the picture. Newport supports technology like texting if it is used to facilitate real connections like coffee dates or meeting up for a walk, but not as a substitute for actual conversations with your sister or your mother or your best friend. He advocates turning off notifications because they are attention-grabbing distractions. Batch the time you spend doing emails or returning texts, he advises, instead of letting the impulse to respond disrupt your focus and routines. Don’t use your phone as a watch because it causes you to look at your phone frequently, which can lead you down a time-sucking rabbit hole. Buy a watch. (This reminds me of something my husband says about why he likes reading on his Kindle versus his iPad or phone. The Kindle, Matt says, is a single use device. True. So is a book.)

Clearly, Cal Newport speaks my language. Recently, it occurred to me that in a COVID-19 world, there might be a new corollary to that old pedagogical rule of thumb about lesson time management, one that Newport would approve of: the amount of time the student spends actually playing the piano during online lessons versus the time teachers spend during online lessons fussing with stubborn and uncooperative technology or even supposedly helpful and friendly technology (not much difference actually). But this is hardly the message we are receiving these days. Instead our pedagogical journals and newsletters are full of well-meaning advice about all the resources out there that will make online lessons better. We should be adjusting or not adjusting—I forget which it is—our microphones and tripods and routers and “original sound” settings. This morning I read about a new app designed to help me organize my students’ assignments and images of their music and even bill the parents all at the same time. It also made popsicles. Watermelon-flavored ones.

I’m so done with it all. You know what would make online piano lessons better? Not being online. In the meantime, I’m taking a page from Newport’s book and eliminating every optional screen or device during lessons. I want online piano lessons to resemble live piano lessons so much that someday—and let it be soon! —when the kids walk back into my studio, our work together changes not at all. “How did you practice this?” I’ll say. We’ll get out the colored pens and pencils for writing assignments. We’ll scribble in a new week of practice boxes in their notebooks, and we’ll begin again without dropping a beat.

In other words, piano will be just piano.