One of my fifth-grade students and I have a code regarding practicing. Some time ago, George and I discovered that we had different ideas about what constituted a good practice session. “George Practices,” we decided, were different from “Amy Practices.” George Practices, he told me, were when he didn’t really pay any attention to what he was doing. Amy Practices were those days when he did everything really, really well.

I then suggested that maybe we should strive for only Amy Practices. George shrugged, agreeable. “OK,” he said.

I must confess that I am not much having an “Amy” kind of month. July 28 began four solid consecutive weeks of family visits. I have a lot of family, all of whom I love. But there have been entire days taken up with swimming and popsicles with six-year-old nephews. If family wasn’t enough to disrupt one’s routines and practices, right now we are in the middle of a kitchen renovation. OMG, the dust. My eyes are gritty from the dirt. All of us—Matt and I, the cats, the students—are making footprints in the plaster dust coating every floor and surface. The entire contents of the kitchen are in the dining room. I’m washing dishes in the bathtub. The sunroom has been turned into a workroom for tools. The driveway is littered with boxes and broken-down countertops. Last night I had apples and chocolate for dinner.

In the midst of all this mess, my practices, and I am using that term in the most liberal sense possible, have not been going really, really well. I am cutting corners everywhere. I am not paying close enough attention to anything. This week it’s all I can manage to keep teaching and feed my cats.

A friend and I were talking about just this recently. “Maybe the real issue isn’t how often we get off track, it’s how quickly and gracefully we can resume our work again,” she wondered.

I suspect there is a lot there to mull over.

But in the meantime, we all need to practice. Not “practice” in some vague, abstract way, but literally. Concretely. Specifically. Attention must be paid. As much as I value the general, big-picture practice of showing up and doing our work, day in and day out, there is something to be said for a practice that is tangible, spelled out in great detail.

Practice Sandwich is very concrete. It demands that we come up with specific practice steps, instead of wallowing in multiple mindless repetitions (i.e. George Practices). It is black and white. Do this, then that, then this again.

For example, I have a student working on the Chopin “Ocean Etude.” This was the Practice Sandwich he and I designed for the next week: In sections, work:

1) Hands alone

2) Rhythms with both hands: Long-Short-Short-Short, then Short-Short-Short-Long

3) Metronome Super Slow: eighth-note=88.

4) Rhythms repeat

5) Hands alone again

This creates a sort of Practice Sandwich, where we begin and end with the same steps. This, I realize, is a lot like Metronome Mountain (My husband says I have a strange propensity for naming things. This is true.). Both Practice Sandwich and Metronome Mountain quickly clarify and direct our practicing. They also allow us to retrace our steps, which I find to be helpful and enlightening both. George would tell you that this makes for a much better practice session. Kind of like an “Amy Practice.”