I stopped looking at my calendar weeks ago. There was no reason to. No reason to remember a dental cleaning or a dinner party. Deadlines for sending out publicity emails for a set of house chamber concerts came and went. And then the dates of those originally scheduled programs also passed by. Santa Fe Symphony rehearsals never happened, the piano festival in late April was cancelled, the end of the year choir party in the garden never took place. In the studio, this would be the week of our Spring Studio Recital. Lessons and performance classes would be spent polishing and perfecting phrasing and pedaling. We’d be working on memory spots and performance runs and practicing bows and talking about recital attire. Alas.

The choral world is still reeling from a webinar that took place last week with the heads of a number of national vocal music organizations and several doctors. In a two-hour broadcast, 5000 interested listeners got the discouraging news that, short of a vaccine, mutation or miracle, there is no safe scenario for choral singing in the near future. We are talking something like a year, maybe eighteen months. No public singing, no church choirs, no choral concerts. I live with a choral conductor. We are in deep mourning in this house.

It is generally assumed that the reason musicians practice is to get ready for performances; we perform for audiences and judges and in competitions and festivals; we even get performance degrees. We are extremely fond of sayings like “Life is not a dress rehearsal!” and “Practice makes perfect.” The vocabulary of a musician is, quite simply, very performance-oriented.

Which, in these days of COVID-19, is particularly problematic.

Because not only is singing considered to be a high risk activity, but our audiences have gone away. We have no impending performances, no concerts next week or even next month. The musical festivals have all been cancelled and the competitions postponed. This is unsettling at best, disastrous at worse. Without an external motivator to drive our work, this pandemic begs us to ask the question: Why do we practice?

For a minute, let’s take a wide lens. Practice. The word is everywhere, both a noun and a verb. Lawyers have law practices; doctors medical practices. Kids race from soccer practice to swim practice, while their parents maintain their yoga and meditation practices. Our religions tell us to practice compassion and forgiveness. We practice to develop specific skills or to become proficient at something: our parallel parking, our golf stroke, our handstand.

A practice is also a behavior that becomes a habit. Some people create practices of walking their dogs every morning, drinking coffee while doing the crossword puzzle in The New York Times every afternoon, or eating dinner with their families every night. Holidays and religious services are communal practices, collective rituals that provide a container for our intentions, a place to hang up our beliefs along with our wreaths and mistletoe. We kneel on rugs facing east and chant our prayers; we sit shiva to honor our dead. We roast turkeys and bake pies. We give up chocolate and exchange gifts, mail cards and wave flags, send lighted candles down rivers to illuminate our hopes and grievances, our many ways of infusing the mundane with meaning.

But although practices exist in many forms, the discipline of practicing is almost synonymous with the subject of music. Non-musicians may not know the difference between a quarter note and a half note. They may not be able to distinguish between Baroque and Romantic music. They might not know that Bach came before Beethoven, but they know musicians have to practice. Even if they never studied music, as soon as someone finds out that I am a musician (and a piano teacher to boot) everyone I meet, it seems, has a story they want to tell me about somebody practicing. Or, more often, their tale about not practicing.

As a child attending Catholic schools, my husband studied piano with Sister Devota. Like many children, he hated to practice, and Matt had as many carefully composed excuses for not practicing as my own students today. Once he explained that he couldn’t practice because it had been a busy week at home. His sister had been nominated for Homecoming Queen. This was true, but Mary was in college some distance away. How that might have affected his practicing was puzzling, but as a piano teacher I have heard many creative excuses over the years. “Miss Amy,” one child recently told me, “I couldn’t practice this whole week because I lost my tooth!” He was utterly unapologetic about this announcement. Once, Frederick, a dry-humored high school student, told me with a perfectly straight face, “Poco ate my practice chart.” I am best friends with Frederick’s mother, and I know Poco, their mischievous Basset Hound puppy. This excuse was so unoriginal it might actually be true, but nevertheless I was not buying.

“So, did Sister Devota accept the Homecoming Queen story?” I asked my husband one night over dinner. That afternoon a student had offered a rather complicated narrative to explain her lack of practicing that involved a dead fish and a broken toe (A toe!). Matt shrugged and began describing the pedagogical strategy that Sister Devota employed every Advent to motivate practicing from the reluctant fingers under her watch. For the month of December, Sister Devota would set up a nativity scene with Mary and Joseph, all the shepherds, wise men, and animals. The manger itself would be empty, of course, awaiting the birth of Jesus. If Matt received an “A” on his piano lesson he was allowed to put a piece of felt in the manger. If he didn’t get an “A” on his piano lesson, well, then, clearly the message was that Matt wasn’t doing all he could do to make the Lord and Savior as comfortable as possible when he arrived in the world, forever marrying piano practice with Catholic guilt. He admitted that he could have done more.

In all my years of hearing practicing confessions, not one person has ever said to me, “I play the piano really well and I wish I didn’t.” Not one. Once, backstage after a recital, an audience member came up to me and said, “It must be really fun to be able to do that.” It was true, playing the piano is fun—so fun—my version of skiing a half-pike or surfing a fifteen-foot wave. Being able to play the piano really well is an obvious by-product of practicing, for sure. But that’s hardly the whole story. There must be as many nuances to the subject of practice as there are musicians themselves. For students taking up the piano or the cello, practicing is synonymous with learning. Students learn this skill and that piece, this technique and that scale. They practice hand positions and bow holds; they practice to build breath control and posture. They learn to manage tricky rhythms and to negotiate thorny fingerings; they practice bows and performance etiquette. Practicing is purposeful with tangible benefits and results; day after day, practicing forges new ground in concrete and specific ways.

Many musicians are motivated to practice because of their love of music itself. They fall for certain melodies or rhythms; they seek out a particular style or harmonic language. Their practice is driven by the desire to wrap themselves in a blanket of beloved sound, not necessarily in a fondness for the routines that accompany the work. As a result, their practicing may be random and sporadic, emerging when, and only when, the repertoire inspires them.

And then there are those pragmatic musicians who practice only when there is an immediate goal: an upcoming performance, a rehearsal, a stack of new music that needs to be learned. Without this sense of urgency, these musicians can walk away from the piano, the violin, or the oboe, and not think about it until the phone rings and the next gig calls, at which time they will return to their instruments once again.

These are tough times to be a gig/performance-driven musician. Although external motivators have their place and serve us all from time to time, educational psychologists would be quick to remind us that the longest lasting motivational force is internal. It is not based on this competition or wanting the approval of that teacher. It is not built upon the bi-annual studio recital or the local piano festival that takes place every spring. Instead, the daily discipline of practice becomes a deeper and richer ritual, a sort of emotional and psychological chiropractic adjustment. It is an identity. It is piece of the puzzle that makes up our life’s work and routines; it reflects our priorities of how we choose to spend our time. That we can do this spiritual work and make music too is just, like, wow.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this as I hear colleagues share their struggles—both personal and pedagogical—with practicing in a world devoid of performances. I get it. This situation is genuinely horrible for professional musicians, and not likely to get better any time soon. But I suspect we musicians have partly set ourselves up for this crisis of focus and identity by being overly focused on performance or external goals versus practice/process or internal ones. Or maybe we just have a vocabulary problem. As a case in point, in our common pedagogical language there are Lessons and there are Practices, and according to the conventional wisdom of our profession, never should the two intersect or be confused. In fact, it is considered to be the mark of good teaching to declare that no student of ours would ever engage in anything like “practice” during a lesson. “I will not waste my time and watch a student practice during their lesson,” teachers say to one another and mean every word. We take ourselves awfully seriously. I have always nodded sympathetically to this kind of assertion, but lately I have been wondering, “Isn’t that the best use of our time together? To make sure we know how to practice really well, to literally practice practicing.”

While there may be those who might shudder at that suggestion, parents and piano students confuse to two activities quite often, calling a piano lesson a “practice” as in, “My husband will be dropping off Peter at his practice next week,” as if this were soccer or something. This has always annoyed me, but I’m starting to think this kind of language might be both accurate and honest and, particularly these days, might serve our attitude and thinking much better. Just last week I slipped and called our lesson a “practice” to a Little One who was quick to reprimand me. “This is not a practice. This is a lesson.” He remembered, I have no doubt, our conversation a few weeks back in which he had asked if a lesson could count in his practice chart as a “practice” and I said no.

This pandemic crisis has asked us to consider what is essential. What is essential work? What trips are essentials? What purchases and activities? At the same time, in the music teaching world we are being bombarded with information and tricks and gimmicks that we can acquire and that are guaranteed to make our online teaching shinier, flashier and, of course, more effective. We need this new microphone and that rhythm app. We couldn’t possibly consider teaching without fancy tripods and cameras and high definition speakers. We are doing are students a disservice if we are not offering them ways to play duets with each other through ensemble recording magic or video tracks that can be purchased. Right now!

Please stop. I beg you.

I am overwhelmed by the well-meaning help and resources. I do not think my hours spent editing a student’s homemade video so we can create virtual duets is a good use of my time even if I had the skills, which I don’t. I don’t need one more suggestion about how to use the “Shared Screen” during Zoom piano lessons. I don’t want any of us staring at one more screen for one minute longer than we absolutely have to, however great the educational tool might be.

Keep your eyes on the ball, I gently remind myself when I find myself melting down in the face of it all. Practicing matters. Maybe it is more essential than ever.

So instead of the usual May focus around recital preparation, these days in the studio we simply practice. I listen to multiple repetitions of the B-flat scale. I check in about breakdown steps on their sonatinas. “How did you practice this?” I ask a dozen times a day. I remind them of familiar practice strategies: metronome mountain, ghosting, coldplay, countdown. Collectively, our practice charts fill with dates and times, with scale keys and sight-reading pages, our metaphorical manger overflowing.

Surely even Sister Devota would approve