A million years and at least ten lifetimes ago, when the world went into shutdown and schools went online, teachers trying to negotiate this strange new reality were told “the most important thing is to connect with your students.” Forget content and standardized achievement goals; only connect.

This was reassuring pedagogical advice when faced with the challenges of a classroom of Zoom boxes. It was also an important reminder to all of us that we fragile human beings crave connection above all. And, although we may be locked down and locked away, that need has not gone away.

At the beginning of the shutdown, I had my own version of this educational theme: only practice. If I could just keep my students practicing, I thought, we could get on the other side of this and pick up where we left off with little drama or fuss. I wouldn’t try to teach new concepts across a screen, I would simply keep kids practicing the skills they already had. We wouldn’t tackle minor scales, but rather we’d focus on creative variations for the major ones they already knew. I wouldn’t attempt to explain chord progressions through the fuzzy pixels of FaceTime, we’d just tread water with interesting five-finger positions. I wouldn’t assign pieces with complicated rhythmic subdivisions they had never seen before; I would avoid repertoire with nuanced flutter pedaling requirements for kids who had never gotten beyond a blunt up-down foot technique. Only practice, I told myself repeatedly in the blurry first weeks of shutdown as I tried to keep my attention focused on the goal at hand. Only practice.

Earlier in the summer, a friend and I were hiking in the East Mountains. Laura is an English teacher at an independent high school here in Albuquerque. We were swapping stories and challenges of online teaching when she said, “I’m starting to wonder how content ever fits into an educational scheme. I mean is it ever really about chemistry or King Lear or calculus, or is the subject, the content, simply a means to an end? Is the goal to learn in the abstract sense or is it the ability to reproduce the periodic table?”

I think Laura is onto something, something that has become crystallized with the limitations of online teaching: education was never merely about the content.

Yet is it not enough to say to teachers, only connect. As important as connection might be, it alone does not produce enough rigor or substance to stimulate intellectual and creative growth day after day, week after week. We cannot help nurture students’ development if we offer them nothing on which to flex their muscles. We need the multiplication tables or the 1066 Battle of Hastings to encourage the work and discipline, the skills and practice demanded of the process of learning itself. A well-developed mind can learn anything—philosophy, minor scales, Greek—but it first must learn how to learn. While the specific subject might be negotiable, content, it turns out, does matter.

And therein lies the challenge for all of us—teachers, parents, lost people in a pandemic— as we stare at another screen. The beginning of the school year has always felt like a brand-new start, full of energy and good intentions, all of those blank notebooks just waiting to be filled. But this year I feel fresh out of inspiration and worthwhile intentions. I’m tired of resourcefully recreating what my work looks like in a desperate attempt to keep pushing that rock—no, that boulder—up the hill. With no gigs on the horizon, for the first time in my adult life, I find myself uninspired at the piano. The latest heat wave has scorched the garden; it is survival of the fittest out there. I absolutely support the mandates to wear face masks, but living at 5000 feet, my brain is already struggling for oxygen. “My soul is weary of my life,” said Job. Yep. I’m feeling it.

In equal measure, I’m tired of the whining, my own and everyone else’s. None of us signed up for this, but I wonder: if all of us were willing to take on a bit of risk, would it help lessen the load for us all?

This afternoon, I begin another fall semester of piano lessons. Although the majority of my lessons will remain online, the studio will be experimenting with a hybrid schedule of in-person and remote lessons in the upcoming weeks. The COVID-protection protocols required to pull this off safely are demanding. There is so much handwashing necessary. I will be teaching through a face mask on a Clavinova digital keyboard six-plus feet away from the masked students confined to their own protected space on my (sanitized between every lesson) grand piano. “I think it will be hard for you to teach six feet away,” my mother said. True, but not nearly as hard as teaching six miles away. Gone are the days of students hanging out in the sunroom chatting between lessons; only one family will be allowed in the house at any given time. There will be no in-person performance classes. No fall recital.

We have to be ready to change systems on a dime, I’ve told my studio. One day remote, the next in-person depending upon the student and the comfort level of all of us. But the in-person musical benefits (content, again, finally!) are so great and, with proper vigilant precautions, the risks so minimal, it feels time to connect face-to-masked-face once more. “Courage doesn’t always soar,” I read somewhere years ago. “Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, ‘I will try again tomorrow.’”

And so, here we are. Under the cloud of the pandemic weeks have now disappeared; the pause button on our lives and routines remains depressed; face masks firmly in place, we fight to keep our heads above water. But the world spins on the precarious balance of Content and Connection. Practice, we have discovered, is the glue.