Before leaving the country in September, I tried to leave behind a trail of breadcrumbs so I could—without much effort or difficulty—find my way back into my work and practices when I returned. I didn’t leave a single to-do list waiting back on my desk at home, I left multiple to-do lists with enough instructions and maps and directions that even Hansel and Gretel couldn’t get lost. Or at least that was the idea.

The truth is that I write to-do lists compulsively, scribbling them on whatever random scrap of paper I can find. None of these lists are categorized, the boundaries between work and play forever obscured. I make lists of people to email, errands I need to run, tasks I need to do in the garden or around the house. I jot down entire sentences that come to me while I’m practicing, sentences that should be inserted into some paragraph somewhere: an email to the parents in my studio, an article I’m writing for a music journal, an idea for an essay that has not yet taken shape or form. I make notes of music I need to listen to, music I need to order, music I need to practice. This week my lists include seasonal tasks: shopping for food, making pies, pulling out the cranberry strands interwoven with white lights for the mantle. There is paper to buy and holiday letters to write, Christmas pop-up books to put on the studio shelves in the sunroom, twinkling lights to hang around the front doors and paperwhite bulbs to start forcing in time for the annual Christmas Tea later next month. With every item I write down, scratch out, revise, I am leaving tracks in the snow: this is where I have been and what I’ve done. This is how I’ve spent my time.

Lists are also lifelines. When the sheer repetition and sameness of my routines has me staring blankly at the crossroads in front of me, uncertain which direction to turn, lists allow me to simply fill in the form of another day, saving me from the mental angst of having to make another decision. They light the path ahead like lanterns when I have not the stamina or energy to chart the course of the next hour, let alone the rest of my life: Do this. Now this. And then this.

There are lists and then there are practice notes. Same thing, really. Practice notes start with the question: How did you practice this? The answer is always enlightening, a way of teasing apart the inflated hype of what we intended to do from the hard truth of what we actually did (I practiced it a lot versus I played through it once.). After all, details force us to be honest. Setting the metronome “somewhere” between 80 beats per minute and a 100 beats per minute is vague; 88 beats per minute has a real meaning. Making a recording of a practice session is equally meaningful, a sometimes rather excruciating reality check of what is really happening. Practicing thirty minutes is very different than practicing three hours. Doing something once has far less potential for change and improvement than doing something three times. So much of what a pianist is doing is physical work, building muscular patterns. It is like Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid instructing Daniel to paint fences and scrub floors as a way of building stamina and internalizing basic physical gestures. Wax on, wax off. Time and repetitions count. So do specifics.

Which is why practice notes, lists of what worked and didn’t, ideas about what to try the next time, matter. “Know what you are going to do before you sit down at the piano,” I can imagine my high school piano teacher saying. “Don’t just ‘practice.’ Practice something specific.” This is good advice pedagogically. Telling a student to “practice the Haydn” is asking for not much to happen during the week in between lessons. Instructing a student to “Alternate three metronome repetitions at quarter note = 112 with practicing hands alone” gives structure to the time at the piano. It is concrete information, a tangible list of steps to check off. Once. Twice. Three times. Check. And detailed information is reassuring. It feels safe in much the same way that dogs that are crate trained are often happier in their crates when their owners are away for a few hours. Roaming aimlessly through the house or through one’s practicing can provoke anxiety, a sort of restless agitation that’s hard to soothe. Specifics provide a container for our efforts: four walls, a ceiling and a floor. Look! Here’s a plan, a blueprint for our work. A practice session takes shape right before our very eyes. A day clicks into place, and then the next. Check. Check. Check.

Musical markings are a composer’s way of communicating their to-do lists to the performer. Composers vary greatly on much information they put in the score, however, the more modern the composer the more information they often dictate. Bach’s manuscripts provide little instruction about style, tempo or musical expression. Musicians in the Baroque era would have understood the performance practices of the day and played his music accordingly. Debussy was a composer who wrote highly detailed instructions, leaving little to chance. There is so much information on the page for a musician playing Debussy to interpret, it is as if the Impressionist composer is looking over one’s shoulder steering each phrase and musical gesture (Do this. Now this. And then this.). And yet, even with so much direction, Debussy’s music still allows for plenty of room for a performer to assert one’s own musical footprint. Such is the magic behind a masterpiece.

Most composers are somewhere in between micromanaging every musical nuance and providing no guidance whatsoever. Sempre dolcissimo or “Always sweetly” might be written in one place. Con tutta forza, “with great force,” indicated in another. But entire pages often go by with nothing more than a few dynamic markings. It is both liberating to be given so much interpretive license and rather nerve-racking as well. It is like being handed keys to your father’s Jaguar. You think, maybe this isn’t such a good idea, even as you walk out the door.

Years ago, I had a student who, no matter what practice steps I assigned him, would nod and say, “Okay Amy, I will try really hard.” For some students this statement might have signaled something that I should watch out for, the act of “trying really hard” becoming an obsession. But not this happy freckled kid. This was the same child who one day announced to me, “When I grow up I am going to be a lifeguard, a house cleaner, or a pianist,” thereby setting himself up for lifetime of financial security. “And I think I am going to the moon once,” he added. “Only once?” I asked.

When we talked about how he should practice I could almost hear him thinking: Okay Amy. I will try really hard. And then I will walk away and not think about it again until the next time. I envied this child, the lightness he so casually wore, recognizing all too well my own tendency to grip my practices as if my life depended upon it. Somehow this six-year-old kid had found the perfect balance of mindful effort and complete detachment. I will do this. And then this. And maybe this too. Who knows?

As I stare at my practice notes from yesterday, I am secretly hoping my scribbles might sort out more than my piano practicing. This week has not been a productive march through any to-do list. Check. Check. Check. Quite the contrary. Instead, it has been one of those weeks full of minor, but time-consuming, interruptions. It was a struggle to triage enough of any given day to save even a minimum amount of practice time at the piano. I find myself holding a new appreciation for my mother’s habit of requiring me to practice first thing in the morning before school or homework, play dates or girl scouts. She believed strongly that children learned better in the morning, but more than that, she knew that life interrupts. If I did my practicing in the morning, my practicing got done. That, in a nutshell, is what didn’t happen this week.

There was an unexpected trip to the dentist on Monday that required a long follow-up phone call to the insurance company on Tuesday. Then a parent called and asked if I could please write a letter of recommendation for her child applying for a spot in a summer music program. Due by noon the next day. On Wednesday, my computer crashed. When I called tech support the automated voice on the other end said, “Your phone call is important to us. The next technician will be available to take your call in forty-four minutes.” As I was waiting in automated voicemail limbo, Matt texted that his accompanist was sick. Could I play his choir rehearsal that evening? On Thursday afternoon what should have been a two-hour meeting stretched into three and a half hours I couldn’t afford to spare. I slept through my alarm on Friday and woke up with a migraine, a double insult. First world problems, as they say, but this didn’t stop me from complaining plenty loudly when I ran into a friend at the grocery store. “Perhaps the real test of one’s practices isn’t how often things get derailed, but how gracefully you can get back on track,” Patti said when she heard my list of annoyances. “The practice, which is not constant, is the constant, right?” she said and then turned away. As I watched her walk down the frozen food aisle, I felt like I had just been handed a Zen koan.

My hands-down favorite musical marking is tornando al tempo: Return to the tempo. I love this marking because if I squint just a little when reading this it looks exactly like I feel when trying to get my world back on track: like I am wrestling a tornado. This marking may follow an extended passage of pressing forward or accelerando. This direction may end a period of relaxation or slowing down, a rallentando or ritard. These changes of tempo and character are like ignoring, even for a bit, one’s to-do list. They allow one to wander down a creative tangent for a moment, to take time off to bake pies and mash potatoes, to explore the answer to an unspoken question. They give one permission to wallow in time and sound, or to rush madly towards a passionate climax. And then: tornando al tempo. It is as if the composer is saying, Time to come back now. By all means, slow down, speed up, go to the moon now and again, but remember to come back home. The meaning is in the doing, not the done. Return to the practice. Tornando al tempo.