What is calling out for this?


At a recent lesson I noticed the above statements at the top of my student’s assignment. I remembered writing these words, but a week later stared at them as my student warmed up, startled by how directly they spoke to my own practice. My approach to practice is changing because it needs to as I get older, and as my playing changes so does my teaching.

My practice needs to change because I seem to be more nervous about performing these days. My fingers are likely to feel anxious and unsure with material that I haven’t prepared exceedingly well, whereas in the past they would have more confidently sailed through. My current theory is that a loss of innocence that comes with maturity is the increased awareness of what we don’t know.

These three ideas help me focus my attempts to override nerves. First idea: It’s surprisingly easy to do things we are accomplished at without thinking, and we need to counter this tendency to be comfortable in performance. If I’m not mindful of what the positions look like on the keyboard under my hands, what they feel like as my hands and fingers fit in their hundreds of unique places within a given piece, and what the music sounds like…well, I’m sunk. I need to notice these things with a high degree of consciousness when I’m playing alone to be secure with the material when under the pressure of others listening.

Second idea: If I’m not paying attention to what in the music is calling out for repetition, I’m sunk again. It all needs lots of repetition to be secure, but there are sections, some very small, that need an absurd amount of repetition to be really known, especially in nervous conditions.

The third idea is more elusive, referencing a phrase I remember from my childhood. When my family lived in Kingston, Jamaica, we sometimes took “mini-buses” (large vans) as public transportation. A mini-bus would typically look impossibly full as it approached the bus stop, but the driver’s assistant hanging out the door gestured for us to climb on and would holler, “Small up yourselves!” to those already in the seats and in the aisles. Sure enough, more room could be made.

At the piano it’s easy to let tension settle in the hands, and some of the demands of the music require the hand to linger in an awkward stretch. The natural state of the hands when we shake them out and let fall at our sides is quite supple and compact, and the more we maintain this as we play, the better. Reminding myself and my students to “small up the hand” is now a familiar technical point of reference.

It amazes me how much I keep learning about playing and teaching piano, after some 20+ years of active work in the field. This month most of my individual practice has been for a temporary job at a church that integrates the keyboard into its service in a way I find very rewarding. When I think back on big pieces I played in my twenties, the shorter form classical works and hymn arrangements I’m practicing now can make me feel apologetic. I scold myself when I feel this way, because this music contains the essence of all I have learned to do – evenness, clarity, voicing, phrasing, articulation, characterization – and deserves my best effort.

Now in my mid-forties, these pieces that aren’t as difficult as the big pieces I played more than two decades ago can still be plenty demanding. At the piano it’s maddeningly easy to crash into a wrong chord or to stumble through a run. I have to ask myself more honestly where the music is calling out for repetition. And I have to pay better attention to my body, to keep it relaxed and to find the fingerings and maneuvers that allow my hands to stay in their naturally small and relaxed state.

Since the blog started as a project about Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier Book One, I’ll close by verifying that I’m still working on this. On a good day I am obedient to the daily plan I have for the Bach, which is to review a set of four preludes/fugues assigned for that day. They are all in my fingers now to varying degrees of comfort. They need a lot of time to settle and develop, more time for mindfulness, more repetition where it is called for, and more discovery of how a small and relaxed hand can make the work of playing Bach look, feel and sound easier than it is.


I love it and I’m grateful to have it

Something exciting happened the other day. In one fell swoop, as my spouse notes, I exceeded his expenditures over 20 years on his classic car restoration hobby, though not by much. I’m slightly skeptical of the math on this, but the one fell swoop part is true.

I bought a piano. It’s a rebuilt 1926 Steinway L, from the “golden age” of the Steinway grands. It’s beautiful and so fun to play.

We’re freaking out about it when we’re not rejoicing over it. It was delivered Friday but we forgot to call our home insurance company. Lying awake in bed that night Dale said, “What if we have a fire and lose it?” I said, “I could care less about the piano if we have a fire, as long as we are all safe. Also, I promise we won’t have a fire before Monday when we’ll call the insurance folks.”

We’re feeling some guilt about going big on this, bigger than first intended. To keep things in perspective we remind ourselves of our modest spending elsewhere. We tell the children, “It’s an investment. We got a favorable rate on the loan, and these Steinways appreciate so much that it’s like putting money in savings each month.”

I worry about being judged. I judge myself. This purchase demonstrates our privilege and access. I may need a piano, but this one exceeds my need. There would be much more responsible and just ways to use our money.

I make more excuses. I’ve been thinking about doing this for a while. We’re supporting a local craftsman and business. I want to have several decades to enjoy the last piano I’ll ever buy. It will get played. A lot. We’ll be good stewards of a historic instrument.

These moments of panic, guilt, and justification are deeply rooted in how I think about money. It’s probably healthy to work through this with any large purchase, a process that could lead to positive new commitments and priorities.

No one is asking me to justify, and it may be most elegant to simply say, “I love it and I’m grateful to have it.” I guess I’m not doing the elegant thing with these reflections, but I’ll try in future conversations. I love it and I’m grateful to have it. And now I’ll go play it.

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Making the awkward not awkward

Photo for Blog

I’ve been thinking about the idea of awkwardness lately. “Awkward” is common in the lexicon of my daughters’ generation, and not necessarily seen as a negative.  “It was so awkward,” my older daughter once said with delight after finding herself on a dorm floor full of college boys as she and her friend looked for her friend’s older brother. Some of our best stories come from initially awkward encounters.  I wonder if what makes the outcome of these stories ultimately positive is that we were able to push through the awkwardness to something better on the other side.

A memory from over a year ago, captured in the photo above, points to this – with a college class in September 2013 I found myself spending the day volunteering at the nursing care facility at our local retirement center.  Our tasks were simple – to sing songs, play games, take walks, and generally interact with the residents – but felt anything but simple as the 20 of us stood in that initially awkward space. As a collective shyness permeated the room, one young woman moved towards an old woman, grasped her hands, and began a conversation. Claire’s model empowered the rest of us to spring into action.  There was more awkwardness throughout the day, to be sure, but we now had more trust in ourselves to push through it.

This memory helps me identify two ways of thinking about awkwardness.  First, we can embrace rather than avoid awkwardness, whether the awkward moment is humorous or just difficult on the way to something better. Second, we can be confident in our ability to make the awkward not awkward. In my piano practice and teaching I think about this when there is a technical quandary – a part under the fingers that doesn’t feel, look or sound right (or usually all three at the same time).  In my own playing my first tendency is to deny or avoid this awkwardness and keep playing without addressing the issue, with a foolish hope that it will eventually take care of itself.  My teaching requires me to be more mature, which in turn strengthens my practice.  Identifying the awkward and exploring how to ease it leads to a time of experimentation at the keyboard – with hand placement and fingering, with gesture, with phrasing, with repetition and drill – until that beautiful moment when the awkward no longer feels awkward and has emerged into something smooth and authentic.

Finish What You Have Started In Me

Storytelling at Assembly Mennonite Church, August 3, 2014

Now that I have it on paper in front of me, my temptation is to post this story on Facebook, and invite you all to just go read it there.  Speaking in this space feels a lot more scary and I’d love to go hide behind one of my keyboards — piano or computer — right now.  But, I am also grateful to be in front of you today with this story and a few thoughts for Assembly as we approach 40 years as a congregation.

Mothering God gave me birth and a childhood home among the rolling hills of southeastern Pennsylvania.  When I was in grade school my family moved to the home on Allentown Road that my paternal grandparents built and raised nine children in.  My roots extend three hours further west to near Harrisburg where Phares and Emma Longenecker ran a farm and butcher shop with the help of their seven children, including my mother.

My childhood years, mostly spent in Lansdale, the final stop on the north regional rail line from Philadelphia, tell a story of being both blessed by many advantages and challenged to do better and be better. This story relates to my experiences among you at this 40-year old congregation, and to my hopes and dreams for our future.

When I was nine years old my family went to Jamaica for a term with Mennonite Central Committee.  I was a below average elementary piano student up until this point, but in Kingston my parents found a teacher who demanded new levels of courage from me, from passing the two very large dogs on her front porch to grappling with the difficult pieces she assigned.  In addition to spending many hours at the piano, my wide eyes took in both the rich culture and devastating poverty of the island.  My values were greatly shaped by our Jamaican friends, as well as by the MCC and other relief and development workers we spent so much time with. I was nearly 12 when we came home, and by then my fingers could play pretty fast.  Returning to wealthy, suburban Montgomery County was strange and full of culture shock.  I felt really different from other adolescents in this context, a difference that felt like a great imperfection at the time.

We settled back in to my home church, Plains Mennonite in Hatfield, which will celebrate its 250 year anniversary next summer.  It was at the Plains church and surrounding community that my musical abilities continued to be nurtured.  I remember a particularly low point in early high school years, when it seemed clear to me that my academic and athletic gifts were not as stellar as those of so many exceptional high achievers all around me.  Over time I would learn that the status of our abilities, perceived or real, in any one moment, should not define us.  But at that moment, when I was wallowing in what seems now like adolescent self-pity, a desperate phone call came in at home.  The accompanist had backed out of a community musical theater production.  Rumor was that I could sight read music well; would I be willing to step in?  That evening’s rehearsal was a busy, thrilling blur as my eyes and hands labored hard at the keyboard, but I could do it — I could play this music I had not even practiced, and I was being useful.  During a rehearsal break the director came to the piano and gushed over my skills.  I escaped to an empty Sunday School room and felt a strange, visceral need to say out loud between tears of relief and joy, “Thank you.  Thank you.  Thank you.” Like David in Psalm 138 I was so grateful.  I had a gift. In the psalmist’s words, “The moment I called out, you stepped in; you made my life large with strength….finish what you have started in me, God.”

This was turning point on my journey as a musician and person of faith, though not a sharp turn. My musical work gradually took on more seriousness of purpose.  In college and grad school I learned how to really practice, but my naive ability to perform with ease was threatened as I learned more and more what I didn’t know and how I did not measure up.  I wanted more excellence and perfection from myself all the time, and yet it was increasingly difficult to achieve.  Moments of failure were important and good, all the more so because I was given opportunity, time, and grace to improve.

A paradox emerges with maturity — some gifts fade, while others are strengthened.  I’m learning, though I still need hard lessons now and then, that process matters more than perfection and relationships matter more than accomplishments.  What a gift, that we are not finished individuals and that we can keep growing.

I Peter chapter one suggests a Christian journey that embraces effort and strives to something good, and that this results ultimately in love.  The writer urges us to make every effort to add goodness to faith, knowledge to goodness, self-control to knowledge, and perseverance to self-control. Add godliness, and then mutual affection.  And finally, add love.  Love is the ultimate part of this long formula for faith.  The first four attributes — goodness, knowledge, self-control, perseverance — seem certain to take us on a path that ends in some state of perfection or at least excellence.  But instead, we are pulled back to God, to affection for each other, and ultimately, to Love.  Faith, we are reminded, is not about perfection.  It’s about Love.

As my formal piano studies came to a close and I realized just how many classical pianists there are in the world, and how many very good ones, a life of piano teaching began to seem like a respectable way to move forward.  Moving to Chicago for my first teaching role, and to check out living close to this guy Dale I had met, brought me into some new and exciting company: a quirky group of friends connected to the Mennonite Volunteer Service Unit and Catholic Worker Movement, who worked in public health, social work, education, and community development. We worshipped in a house church, shared lots of meals, and played hours of ultimate frisbee in city parks.  By the time the Chicago friends accomplished their goal of getting me to join them on a dumpster dive, I was learning that being different was ok.  More than ok.

We moved to Goshen in 1995, at the beginning of Assembly’s third decade. Here I found people who were also a little bit different, a high achieving group that was ok with imperfection. Here we found a warm and welcoming community that thrilled us with strong singing and would not let us forget about the unjust ways of the world around us.  It is here that I learn so much from all of you.  Just as experiences and people in Lansdale, Kingston, Goshen, Princeton, and Chicago challenged me to do better and be better, so has this Assembly the past 20 years.

And yet, here I am, approaching the mid-40’s.  Here we are, approaching 40 years as a congregation.  I confess I don’t always know how to be better, just as we as Assembly seek each other’s vision and wisdom about who and how to be in the future.  In a world full of so much hurt, what is the goodness we should be pursuing and creating, the kind of goodness that aims for Love as its ultimate message?  My childhood experiences set me on an unexpected path to strengthen a craft that happens in a small, confined place. And while I’m blessed to have found a professional home at Goshen College that both includes and expands opportunities beyond this small space of the piano, I am, like Assembly, wondering how to use my gifts to more meaningfully serve my community here and the world beyond.  God has not finished what was started in me.  God has not finished what was started in us.

What synergy might we find between our individual moments of restlessness about how we are living out the gospel of love, and the collective wondering of this body of believers?  We are, after all, ideally each other’s best resources for spiritual direction and inspiration.  I offer three possible points of vision for us.  These are interrelated commitments Assembly began 40 years ago, but God is not finished with us yet.

First, my hope is that Assembly always believes in the place of rejuvenation and beauty that church can be.  Although church comes with much baggage for many of us, including me, we make a commitment of attendance and involvement because the moments of finding strength in worship and fellowship are so real. Flashes of imperfect beauty in music, words, visuals, preaching, sharing, and responding make me breathless every week.  This precious space we have together will not become any less important as our confusing world careens towards more uncertain outcomes all the time.  Let our worship and the teaching we offer and receive here always be a refuge that both heals and transforms.

Second, I hope we will continue to find new ways to extend the love we experience in this place of refuge beyond these walls.  Assembly’s budget priorities are one critical way we extend love.  But I know that I find it too easy sometimes to use my money and my politics as cover for not doing more with my time, which I guard too closely.  With your help, I can do better. With each other’s help, perhaps our 40’s can be a time of greater personal connections with our local community.  When I think of some of you, I know that in your teaching, your counseling, your medical practice, your community organizing, and in so many other ways, you are regularly moving in and among a hurting world.  Others of us may easily become stuck in bubbles of academia or business or technology.  As we approach our fifth decade, how can we challenge and encourage each other to be personally connected to those who are suffering in our communities, in our country, and in our world?  What new project or initiative might have us relate to a school, prison, social service agency, or group of immigrants?  How can our individual and collective gifts and passions be used to extend the strength of this faith community, and how might we be transformed in doing so?

Third, let’s not forget to pray.  Here I speak with extra humility as I so poorly live out the spiritual discipline of prayer.  But, I believe we pray in many different ways — in words, in song, in art, in craft, in nature, and in silence.  We pray together and we pray alone. Indeed, when our good effort, our activism, politics, money, and relationships are not enough to transcend and transform the moaning of the earth, we must remember to call out, to ask God to step in.

At a recent Lapp family reunion, I came across a newspaper article about my grandfather John E. Lapp.  The caption of a photo of Grandpa working at his desk, probably in the mid 70’s, reads, “After years of preaching peace and lobbying for conscientious objection to war, the Rev. John E. Lapp…can now devote time to studying and developing his skills at the Pennsylvania Dutch art of fraktur. The problems of war are worse than ever, he maintains, and it is the grace of God, rather than political systems, that will get the world through its civil disorders.” When I read this a few weeks ago, I wished I could argue with Grandpa — no, we can’t give up.  We cannot give up fighting unjust political systems; we can’t only rely on faith!  We can’t simply make art, after all, when the world is in such great need.


How often the arguments we have with others are really about ourselves.  I don’t think Grandpa Lapp was actually giving up.  Perhaps he was in a moment of not being able to comprehend how it all ends, just as we are in this moment now.  How does this devastation in Gaza, Syria, Ukraine, Central America, West Africa, in our own communities, end?

Grandpa slowed down his political advocacy but turned to art, with words, as a form of prayer, summoning the grace of God.  He made more than 500 frakturs in his retirement.  The one for my high school graduation, #491, uses the words of Revelations 14:2:  “And I heard a sound from heaven like the roar of rushing waters and like a loud peal of thunder.  The sound I heard was like that of harpists playing their harps.”  This affirmation from Bishop John E. Lapp, who for a time led Franconia Mennonite Conference in a landscape that was still not so sure about instrumental music, was a great gift to me.

10580806_10204540559095419_4418473099409566900_o 2Words and prayer, in and with art, help us stay rooted in faith and grace, without which seeking justice can be a lonely effort.

May our worship, our extension of love in relationships with a hurting world, and our many ways of praying, help God finish what has been started in us.

I seal this time with cloth of the colors of the Jamaican flag, a place that gave me the gift of music, a place that introduced me to a hurting but beautiful world, and a place that so powerfully connected me to people seeking justice.

And I also seal this time with a song written in 1966, by Sister Miriam Therese Winter, who I understand visited Assembly in the early 1990’s.  Last weekend the Chicago friends gathered for a reunion at Camp Friedenswald, and as we sang from the Rise Up Singing songbook together, I came across this song. It became the soundtrack of my week preceding this sharing.  My family may be a little tired of it.

May these words, with one verse re-written, be our collective prayer.  As events in our world remain incomprehensible, may God’s Spirit blow in us, may God use our gifts and our efforts to fill the earth and bring it to birth.

Please join me on the refrain.

Spirit of God in the clear running water

Blowing to greatness the trees on the hill

Spirit of God in the finger of morning



Fill the earth, bring it to birth

And blow where you will

Blow, blow, blow ‘till I be

But breathe of the spirit blowing in me


I saw the scar of a year that lay dying

Heard the lament of a lone whippoorwill

Spirit of God, see that cloud crying  (Refrain)


Over in Gaza the people are moaning

Rebels in Ukraine, they cannot lie still

Coming from south, the children are groaning (Refrain)


Spirit of God, everyone’s heart is lonely

Watching and waiting and hungry until

Spirit of God, we long that you only (Refrain)


Why do we do this?


The Seven Teen Quartet at Goshen Middle School

This article, Art Makes You Smarter, reminds me of the questions being asked of various disciplines in schools and colleges these days: Why do you think your subject is worth studying?  If it doesn’t directly lead to desired academic and vocational outcomes, how does it indirectly support those aims?  In public school settings the “specials” such as music, art and physical education increasingly need to justify their existence, and are the first cut when budgets are tight.

It is therefore good to see the mounting evidence that art makes you smarter, though too often we forget its other value. I readily fall into this myself, telling the prospective music college student who wants to be a doctor that med schools love undergraduate music majors, or preaching to my daughter that piano is a part of her education because of what it does her for mental acuity, and for how it develops good discipline and fine motor skills.  I believe in these rationales, but I wish it was enough to say, or that at least I would remember to also say, “Because it will bring you great joy and because the world needs art.”

Two recent conversations reinforced this wish.  A few weeks ago my daughter Greta was describing the experience of sight-reading through a new piece with her 60-member 8th grade orchestra.  It was an exciting work with a rich sound and perpetually moving parts, and the reading of it for the first time felt both dangerous and thrilling as they rallied on, determined not to fall apart. When they made it to the end, the silence of the room felt amplified. “It was so satisfying.  It was like we all took a big sigh together when we were done and just wanted to stay in that moment.”

My other daughter, Naomi, is in 5th grade and part of a traveling soccer team. The spring season recently started and I wondered how she would handle the additional demands on her time. One evening practice fell during a cold and damp day and I assumed it would be drudgery. But on our way home from the field, she said with a sweaty glow, “Mom, I am exhilarated right now. It feels so good to move.”

This is why we do this.  Yes, kids should have more recess and physical education at school because it will help them learn better. Yes, there should be more arts exposure and experience because of the great academic outcomes. Yes, in today’s world it’s naive to think we won’t need to defend our place in the educational system with proven outcomes.  But more than this and beyond this, we need movement and we need the arts because they uniquely satisfy and exhilarate something within us. This is enough.

A Boston detour on the way home from D.C.

Last night I returned home from the AAC&U (American Academy of Colleges and Universities) annual meeting in Washington, D.C.. I was on a professional high after four intensive days of sessions on general education, learning communities, assessment, and some favorite buzz acronyms:  SLOs (student learning outcomes) and HIPs (high impact practices). The conference was humming with a recent report about how, in the long term, liberal arts graduates do better on the career path. The seminars and workshops allowed me to network with people from a diverse range of higher ed institutions and I learned about struggles both university-particular and higher ed-universal. I was fed and inspired, ready to return to meaningful work at my college.

As I settled on my second flight from Detroit to South Bend, I decided to pull out one of the books I had taken along on this trip, one we are having all of the Goshen first year students read in their Learning Community: Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads by Greenwald and Curran. I was in the mood for this book of stories about the career paths of liberal arts grads.

But then Boston appeared at my side. A gregarious young man, he began asking me about my trip the minute he sat next to me. I said I was returning to Goshen following a work conference and returned the question. He had been visiting his father in Raleigh, North Carolina, but was heading home to St. Joseph, Michigan. I asked him if he was in high school or college and he said, “No I graduated high school a couple years ago. I’m designing my own education. I don’t want to build up debt by getting a college degree. I’m studying only what I’m interested in.” As he began to tell me about attending trade school for audio engineering, I quietly slid the book back in my bag. We talked about his current efforts to make contacts and find opportunities in audio production while he works in food services. He also hopes to expand on his own musicianship and plays electric guitar in a couple bands.  His next educational goal is to study with a luthier he has heard about in Savannah, Georgia.  We talked for a while about his interest in understanding how instruments are crafted and how too many musicians, including me, are disconnected from the inner workings of their instrument.

I gently nudged at the possibility of a college degree, even stepping outside my Goshen-centric role and telling him about the music technology program at Ball State, but he was firm — no way is he taking on that debt and taking classes that don’t directly teach him what he needs to know for his goals in audio engineering and guitar-making.  I let it go and affirmed his seeking out of experiences, telling him that career experts talk about how important it is to “stay in motion” with your goals even if it takes a while to get there.

I wonder how it will work out for him.  Probably just fine, if he can keep getting the training he needs and find plenty of opportunities to put what he learns into practice.   College isn’t for everyone, and sometimes college lacks the best of Boston’s apprenticeship-oriented approach to being educated.  But I’m also thinking about all those learning outcomes of a liberal arts education the conference affirmed for me — inquiry/analysis, critical and creative thinking, communication skills, information literacy, civic engagement, ethical reasoning, global awareness and more.  Will his self-design of education give him these skills?  I wish Boston’s inquisitive mind and outgoing spirit could find a home for a while in a college setting.  That he doesn’t think it makes sense for him is something I respect, but it leaves me pondering how many young people don’t even consider college because of the cost and debt crisis in higher education.  This was a topic at the AAC&U conference, but not one that seemed to be receiving as much energy on the research and policy front as other concerns.

I’m glad this detour stopped me in my lofty tracks for a while. Thanks, Boston.

From half to full knowing

There is a story I heard about Vladimir Horowitz that may or may not be true — I cannot recall who told me, or find verification. Horowitz, one of the most famous concert pianists of the 20th century, was practicing in his Manhattan apartment in a relaxed state, free from the stress of a critical audience, when he heard shuffling feet in the next room. The sound of his cleaning woman was enough to bring on the nerves and an awakened awareness of passages where his fingers were not as comfortable as he thought they were.  He shifted into high gear and practiced with more care than when he thought he was entirely alone.

The idea of this acclaimed artist feeling nervous when his cleaning woman was close enough to listen is both comforting and revealing to me. It suggests how universal this being human business is and how important it is to practice the heightened consciousness that comes with the pressure of an audience. When practicing in my childhood home I experienced this state of consciousness when my Dad would briefly stand by the piano watching me me practice. My Dad is not a pianist nor someone I felt undue pressure from to impress at the piano, but his attentive listening and watching was enough to make me focus differently and help me recognize where my fingers lacked confidence.

My students feel the same way when they play in my studio and experience the frustration of the performance not going as well as it did in the practice room. I used to respond by focusing almost entirely on strategies to address performance anxiety until I observed a masterclass at the Goshen College Piano Workshop a few years ago. The performer, a wonderful pianist, had several memory slips that she struggled to recover from. Her stress and exhaustion when finished was evident as she said, “I KNOW this. Why can’t I play it better under pressure?” The masterclass teacher kindly observed that when this happens we need to acknowledge that the main issue at hand is that we may not actually know the music as well as we think we do. Nervousness, a real issue for all who perform, is much tougher to overcome if we have any doubt about our preparation. He then shared various techniques for ensuring and testing our knowing to such an extent that we are able to stare performance anxiety in the face and say with true honesty, “I see you and feel you, but I conquer you because I KNOW this material.” Supplemental practices such as breathing and meditation exercises also help, but perhaps the ultimate way to overcome nerves is to be supremely confident with what we have prepared.

Even though I was taught this same message by my own teachers and experiences (see this earlier post), the masterclass mentioned above was an important turning point for me as a teacher and musician. For many years I explained away any trouble in performance as all about nerves, not recognizing my own lack of knowing. This is easy to do when skill level sometimes camouflages reality.  In my piano practice there is an exciting breakthrough point with difficult material when the music is finally “in the fingers” after lots of hard work — I’ll call this half knowing.  This stage is where I have problems recognizing the limits of what I know. In moving from half knowing to full knowing, I now try to engage in lots of testing by trying to capture a good unedited recording the piece.  For less unforgiving testing than a recording device I’ll ask someone nearby to sit by me and watch my hands closely while I play. In practice I make sure I can start at any measure of the piece and that my hands are as comfortable playing alone as they are together.  I practice the piece and listen for evenness at different speeds: very slow, very fast, and at its ideal tempo. If I am working on memorizing, I depart from the piano and close my eyes and imagine my hands playing every single note of the work.  Finding out where I lose it as I think my way through the piece sends me back to practice until I feel ready to test again for fully confident knowing.

There are times when an ideal level of knowing is not possible — if I’m asked to accompany a student in performance at the last minute, I have to rely on my sight reading skills and take a different kind of musical journey, one with high adrenaline at the somewhat terrifying thrill of playing something I haven’t fully prepared. Expertise allows the privilege of winging it from time to time. But too much of this puts me at risk of a lazy arrogance that usually comes before an unfortunate fall.

I don’t want to diminish the reality of debilitating performance anxiety. Indeed, Horowitz himself struggled with this to a great extent, with various extenuating circumstances.  There are times when we do the work, only to find the fear cannot be conquered. Other responses and strategies are necessary in these situations. However, without an honest accounting of what we do and do not know, we may too easily explain away what happened and lose the opportunity to achieve fully confident knowing the next time.  While I cannot confirm the veracity of the Horowitz story above, I love the concept behind it because it reminds me that any listening ear can help us know what we really know.


hyggeI was intrigued this past week by this article about the Dutch concept of hygge.  The happiness of the Dutch during their long winter months is attributed to hygge, a type of cozy and focused intimacy one can experience alone or with others.  The idea of hygge seems distant from what I experience as the incongruity of the longest nights of the year merging with the pressures of Christmas.  Last night I said out loud what I often feel, especially on weekends: “I am scattered!  All day I rotate between cleaning up the kitchen, working on laundry, wrapping presents, checking email and facebook, and running around town.  I want to focus on something and forget everything else but until the house is in order I can’t seem to do that.”

After my mini-tantrum, I drifted to the piano. As I practiced I experienced some precious moments of focus and bliss, even with the messes and unfinished work in the background.  It was possibly a taste of hygge, as was the moment my husband and child cuddled and giggled on the couch while reading “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Ugly Truth” together, and the late afternoon visit we had today with friends from Pennsylvania over spiced cider and Christmas cookies.

Tomorrow we leave for a trip to south central PA to a cottage we’re renting with my parents, siblings and their families.  Being away from the responsibilities of our own homes may help bring on the hygge.  One of my goals for the New Year will be to find the peace of mind that comes from hygge, this concept I do not fully understand but want to learn to know better through experience.

The Power of Hands

Reprinted from Timbrel Magazine, Summer 2013

After more than 35 years of playing the piano I still experience moments of amazement at what my hands can do.  I feel the same sense of wonder watching my friend weave an intricate pattern on cloth, my spouse maneuver small parts inside the engine of a classic automobile, or my colleague take the computer mouse and keyboard on an elegant dance to design a gorgeous website.  Our hands, informed by our intellect and trained by experience, can do remarkable things.

My own story with my hands began with piano lessons at the age of seven in southeastern Pennsylvania.  When I was nine, my family moved to Kingston, Jamaica for a two-year term of service with Mennonite Central Committee.  I was ambivalent about my piano studies when we arrived in Jamaica but I soon landed in the studio of the highly regarded and nearly blind Mrs. Foster-Davis.  Once I was past her foreboding gated entrance and two large guard dogs, I settled at one of her two grand pianos and she pulled out a magnifying glass to inspect my hands.  I was assigned new music that seemed far too difficult for me, but also had more time to practice in the slower culture we found in Kingston.  School ended before lunch at home and the afternoons loomed large, pulling me towards the piano to play.  The convergence of time, strong teaching, and parental support took me to a very different level of facility and sight reading ability by the time we returned to Pennsylvania.   I was no longer ambivalent; my hands were good at playing the piano.

During a teenage period in which I questioned my future direction in life there was a critical moment of recognizing piano in my identity.  A community group was preparing a production of the musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.  A piano accompanist was unavailable at an early rehearsal and I received a desperate call to fill in at the last minute.  The sight-reading and technical tasks of the evening’s rehearsal were daunting for a sixteen-year old, but to my surprise I was able to meet the demands.  I felt alive with awareness as my hands followed the music and during a break the director approached me with enthusiastic affirmation.  Her kind words led me to a quiet corner in the church building where I could succumb to tears of gratitude.  I thanked God for a gift to call my own and more fully embraced the possibility that the movement of my hands at the keyboard would in some way shape my future.

Over time my naïve ideas of a gift bestowed upon my hands evolved into a mature understanding of what the gift actually was.  In college I learned how to practice more strategically and as I was educated to be a piano teacher my appreciation for the concept of training took hold.  It was tempting to fall into habits of envy and comparison when observing what seemed to be superior hands in a classmate or colleague.  But every practice session brought me back to the role of training in talent development.  It was those hours invested at the piano, all the better if my mind was focused and engaged, that empowered my hands.  God’s gift to me was time and opportunity.  Every child and adult deserves this same gift of time and opportunity for talent to emerge in his or her hands, whatever the craft may be.

My hands have been through dormant stages in recent years and I worry they will lose their abilities at the keyboard.  I am reassured as a slow and steady return to the instrument wakes up my hands to find the sublime in a simple melody and the playfulness of a sprinting scale passage.  Some of the strength and agility of my teenage and young adult years is lost but I have gained more of the same with a technique that better integrates my hands, wrists, arms, shoulders, and whole body.  Some of the brash confidence of my youthful sight-reading and memorization forays is gone, but I now study and investigate the music I am playing with a more informed curiosity.  I am learning that new gifts come with age.

When someone asks, “But how do their hands do that?” about the violin virtuoso or the pottery maestro, I join in their admiration and then say, “It is amazing what training and time enable in our hands.”  Keeping my own hands moving as I grow older will be both a responsibility and a joy.


surfacephotoI am in a frenzy of organizing these days. I have occupied my current office for eleven years now and file cabinets from seven years in my previous office came with me. The inventory of books, music scores, and folders full of paper is massive. I run into my work space for an hour or two at a time and stare at the mess, debating how deep to go at this point. Gradually it is getting better, but not without some chagrin and even shame at how much I accumulate.

My life at home is similar. A number of closets and cupboards are being tackled this summer and here too I feel dismay over all this stuff. I long for a life of less, and yet I search out and eagerly receive more. Small disciplines help, such as removing an item for each new item, but there is an obscenity in this as well. How many trips does one make to Better World Books or Goodwill before realizing the cycle should simply stop, at least for a while?

Recently I visited a friend’s childhood home where she and her siblings spent vast hours digging through their mother’s years of hoarding. Their mother, no longer living, filled several rooms of the house to such an extent that there were only narrow passages to walk through with great care to not let the tall stacks tumble. The house wasn’t always like this; my friend remembers happy childhood years in a comfortably cluttered but orderly home. At some point her mother stopped being able to manage all the stuff.

There are now numerous books and reality shows about the psychological conditions that lead to hoarding, and plenty of resources and consultants available to help those of us with less severe tendencies. I believe good habits and systems do make a difference and with each organizing binge I am sure this time will be different. Even as I doubt what I just wrote, I think I’m actually getting better at this as I get older. Systematically, when I have an adequate space for each item in my life, I learn to not let the trouble start in the first place. Habitually, I’m learning to touch an item, whether a dirty dish or piece of paper, just once as it goes to its ultimate destination. I’m learning to bustle through a mess with more speed and purpose so I have more time to enjoy life without the mental chaos I feel when there is too much clutter. I not only yearn for the beauty of a clear surface, I remind myself that I deserve to enjoy this beauty and the clarity of mind that comes with it. We all deserve this to the extent that it works for us. I do not doubt that some are more at peace and more creative among clutter even as I’m convinced I do my best work when the house or office is pristine.

And yet, as these systems and habits become more refined as I mature, the fragility of the situation hovers in my consciousness, knowing how easily my organized stuff can spiral into an unruly jumble when systems and habits fail. Moreover, the underlying impulse to make another folder, buy another piece of clothing, or stock more food than the freezer can hold is still there. This impulse is what I hope to keep recognizing and shaping towards something more positive.

At times I wonder if my musical obsession with Bach’s WTC Book One is a coping mechanism. This is highly organized and deeply spiritual music that in my experience clarifies the mind and feeds the soul. Perhaps playing Bach right now is a way to defy the hundreds of repertoire choices sitting on my shelves, a way to empty out the chaos and breathe in the focus of a clear surface.