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12 minutes reading time (2440 words)

Purple Days

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Yesterday, Andrew came into his lesson scowling. He stomped her to the piano bench, sat down, and crossed his arms in front of his chest, still scowling. I first met five-year-old Andrew when he was a baby, sitting on his dad's lap during his older brother's piano lessons. During all of his eight months of piano lessons, I have never seen him less than cheerful. This was a new face to Andrew altogether.

"So, Andrew," I said as upbeat and nonchalantly as possible, "what's wrong?"

He frowned at me and began banging his feet against the legs of the piano. "Hey Buddy. Stop kicking my piano. Did you have a bad day at school?"

Nothing.

"He did not have a bad day at school," his mother interrupted, calling out from the sunroom. She was obviously exasperated as well. "He had a good day. It was a purple day, in fact."

I knew nothing about purple days, but apparently, this is a motivational system for behavior modification (perhaps yellow stands for "watch out," and red is code for "stop this behavior now"). Purple sounds positive; however, given Andrew's foul mood, clearly we were not about to have a "purple" piano lesson.

The truth is I was not having a particularly "purple" day myself. I spent the morning feeling aimless and without purpose, and generally doing everything possible to avoid practicing. I picked up a book, only to put it down a few minutes later. I washed the breakfast dishes sitting in the kitchen sink. I watered the orchids. Finally, after practicing the art of procrastination for several hours, I resorted to bribery to get myself onto the piano bench.

Getting to the bench

Half the battle, I knew all too well, was just getting to the practice. My imagined dread was the problem, not the work itself. "I have so much practicing to do" is unhelpful, paralyzing thinking. Who wants to do so much practicing? But if I can just get to the bench, I am usually fine. I find my flow, my groove. Practicing stops being a vague so much and becomes specific, doable. I work through a Bach suite, a Chopin ballade, a Beethoven piano trio with ease. It's the getting to the bench that's sometimes the problem.

I hear the same story from the parents of my students. "Charlie resists practicing," one mother tells me, "but if I can just persuade him to sit down, he's fine. Happy, even. But how do we avoid the battles about practicing in the first place?" I wish I knew, so often fighting the same resistance myself. I wish I had a magical answer that would work in every situation. I wish that motivation were a straightforward construct to manipulate. But it's not.

The art of practicing

So much of the practice of teaching piano is teaching others to practice—literally. A dozen times a day I hear myself asking students, "How did you practice this?" We discuss rhythms and metronomes, the benefits of slow practice and performance runs.

Mixing up our practicing with different strategies does more than counter boredom. Cognitive psychologists say that the more varied the rehearsal, the richer the material is encoded in the brain. That makes sense because more elaborate and creative repetitions give us more roads of access into our long-term memories. Ideally, we should have dozens of carved-out pathways to our musical knowledge, not a single over-rehearsed groove. We don't want to just know the music one way; we want to know it upside down and inside out, backward and forward.

Practice is like a mirror shining light in all the dark corners of our painfully imperfect selves, reflecting back our distorted faces.

Talking about practice strategies is the easy part. The hard part is finding the courage to come to the piano bench in the first place without ever being sure what, or who, we might encounter that day.

We must face this day after day after day after day.

"What's with your practice chart?" I asked Simone. Simone shrugged. She is nine, and lately we—teacher and student—have been swimming in rough waters. After several good years together, we are struggling, trying to find the play inside our practice. "I don't know. I practiced some, but I didn't do my sight-reading." It was the record of her sightreading pages that should have filled her empty practice chart. Not doing her sightreading made it look like she took the entire week off the piano and went fishing instead.

Give yourself a cookie

"Okay, kid," I said. After spending a morning trying to force myself to practice, gathering up enough discipline and effort for both of us now felt like more than I could muster. "What are we going to do?"

She shrugged again. There is a lot of shrugging in my studio. "I need to do my sightreading," she said.

"Yep. How are you going to do that?"

"I don't know. Give myself a cookie if I do it?"

Clearly this child has heard my lecture on the use of bribery before. But introducing cookies, or bribes, into our practices is complicated. There are educational psychologists who spend their entire careers studying the effects bribes and rewards have on motivation. Don't use rewards, one researcher says, because it will forever marry the practice with the external motivator. Rewards can be a good way to establish a habit, says another expert, citing years of study on the subject.

My mind spins, trying to make sense of all the motivational principles. Every single day I wade through the muck of my own practice habits, trying to discern what drives all of us—Simone, Andrew, myself. Educational psychology research, with its samples and target populations, control groups and dependent variables, feels ignorantly removed from the piano studio, ignores the human faces behind the statistics, forgets that our lives fill up and empty out, and that this has a great affect on our ongoing relationship to practicing. While research findings can be insightful at times, putting abstract theories into tangible practice is something else altogether.

Certainly there was a time I would have never considered using a cookie to motivate Simone. The younger sister of another student, she began piano lessons at the age of four, when piano was as exciting an activity in her life as finger painting or jumping rope. In the months prior to her first lesson, she would march into her older sister's lesson and announce, "When I turn four, I get piano lessons and a new car seat." For a long time, piano lessons were all play—singing, working on easy pieces by rote, finding landmark keys on the piano, learning to identify notes on the grand staff—not a sticker or a cookie in sight. It was all too easy to think that Simone would never need the metaphoric gold star.

Ah, but the day came. Resistance won the battle over discipline. The star beckoned, twinkling off in the distance.

Lifelong practice

The truth, as I know all too well, is lifelong practice has difficult days returning over and over again, as though testing the strength of our resolve. Motivation is not a constant; it ebbs and flows from day to day, from task to task, even from hour to hour within the same task. No one has to go looking for exotic challenges—climbing Mount Everest, joining an isolated monastery, fasting for 40 days. Over time, even something as ordinary and mundane as practicing the piano will offer up enough rough edges to rub against for ten thousand lifetimes.

Of course, on the best days, the practice is the reward. One summer after I fractured my leg, I began swimming laps. Unable to maintain my normal schedule of walking, biking, and yoga, swimming was the one physical activity I could manage. Weightless in the water, I could pull my leg through the pool and put in my laps. I hated every minute of it. For an entire year, I resorted to bribes to get myself first into the pool, and then, to keep myself moving once I got there.

One day, however, for no apparent reason, I realized that I didn't need a bribe anymore. I found myself looking forward to my swim, knowing that during this time I was protected from the constant ring of the telephone or the incessant ding of email. In a life brimming with noise and music, it was quiet in the pool. The practice was enough. The soothing rhythm of my breath keeping time as I clocked the repetitive lengths—over and over and over again—had, at least for the time being, become the reward.

If Simone learns this dance between work and play, then she has the tools to persevere in any practice for the rest of her life, long after her piano practice chart requirements are behind her. Forget teaching the complicated intricacies of Haydn ornamentation or Baroque performance practices. There are many days when all I have to offer her, and myself, is the reminder that the act of repetition is sacred, that there is a whole world waiting to be discovered in every grain of sand, in every moment on the piano bench, in every breath on the meditation cushion, in every lap in the pool.

I know this, but, of course, I have years on this child. I have years of putting in time when that is exactly what it felt like: putting in time. For all the days when there is nothing I would rather do than play the piano, there are plenty of times when it takes a lot of cookies to keep me working faithfully.

"A cookie is great," I told Simone. "Sometimes I need cookies too." She perked up at this acknowledgment on my part, my admission that at times I struggle with my practices too.

We just need to practice

After Simone's lesson came Nicole. Nicole has been on a roll lately, but it is hit and miss with her. She is talented and smart and plays with real conviction and confidence, but I have to use every ounce of psychology I can muster to prod her practice along. When assigned new music that she can easily manage to learn on her own, she would rather face my wrath and displeasure than to tackle something difficult or unfamiliar. I have little patience for this. Yesterday, after a month of great lessons, I discovered that she had blown off one of her assignments because "It was a new piece and I didn't feel like it. Miss Amy, I am just being honest." As much as I appreciated her forthrightness, I didn't want to give her points for honesty at the price of also giving her an excuse for not doing her practicing. For the third time that afternoon, I was reminded that I have to teach the non-musical lesson of reaching beyond our human failings before I can ever get to the music itself.

Once, when faced with what was proving to be nearly insurmountable resistance from Nicole, I made a deal. For weeks on end, she had been refusing to practice new things without my assistance. Annoyed, I responded by displaying equally obstinate behavior by refusing to help her when I knew she was perfectly capable of doing her work. We were getting nowhere, slamming ourselves against this wall of stubbornness, no one giving in. Someone was going to have to become the adult in the relationship. Finally after too much wasted time had passed, I realized that since Nicole was eleven, that adult needed to be me.

"Nicole, here's the deal," I said one day, "You are allowed to not practice anything you want, as long as you have tried three different strategies first and recorded them in your practice notebook. If none of those things works and you still can't handle the assignment, then you have my blessing. You can give up."

Nicole brightened at this olive branch. The next week, she came back, smiling, waving her own celebratory branches. "Guess what, Miss Amy?" she said. "I didn't give up on anything!" 

She had discovered what I knew all along: She had the ability to handle any of her assignments. She just needed to practice (Why couldn't that be as simple as it sounded? Just needed to practice. There, done.) At the same time, I was humbly reminded of what I knew and had forgotten: It is my job to grow up and be the teacher. Too often, however, tired of the pedagogical and motivational games we play, I resist doing this, firmly digging in my heels, preferring the idea that teaching is about setting high musical standards and ignoring the spiritual and psychological work practice requires from all of us. Unfortunately, none of us always displays "purple" behavior. In fact, purple days, purple students, and purple teachers are few and far between.

Andrew's purple day

Andrew, whose day had gone from purple to some muddy shade of crankiness, didn't merely need a cookie, he needed to be picked up and hauled over the hurdle of responsibility and expectations before us. If we were going to find a purple space to play and work, I was going to have to walk the narrow line between teacher and student. Since he refused to open his mouth or respond to my questions in any way, I decided to meet him not just halfway, but join forces with him completely. "Kid, how about we play a game?" I said. "How about we try to go the entire lesson without talking? We can pretend that we can't talk. What do you think?" 

He didn't answer, but I could tell I had his attention, which was a start.

"And if we need to talk," I continued, "we'll have a special signal. Here's my signal." I put my finger on my nose. "If I do this, you know I need to talk."

He looked at me, suspiciously, but then held up two fingers in a peace sign. "Great!" I said. "If you need to talk that's your signal."

And so we began. Instead of playing the piano, we got out the drums and banged together for a few minutes, each working out our own frustrations. We played a few rhythm games, identified notes on the magnetic board, passed a ball to the beat of a favorite Beatles song. Finally, I gave my signal and broke our silence, "You ready to play the piano?"

"OK," he answered and like countless other evolving, fragile creatures before him, he climbed onto the piano bench, ready to practice 

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