Incremental Change

Two Scenes at Dusk


White pines in a twilight sky.
Twilight, by American painter Charles Warren Eaton (1857-1937). Painting c. 1900-1910.

I am running out the kitchen door one evening. Off the kitchen, steps lead down into the driveway. Those steps are for grown-ups. Us kids jump off the landing, grab onto the perfectly placed branch on the white pine growing next to the house — a dead branch whose top has been made smooth by innumerable such swingings — and propel ourselves as far into the world as possible. It is spring, and I am so intent on one of those essential kid errands that I nearly run into my mom, sitting quietly on the steps and looking out at the world. “Look!” She says. “It’s almost eight o’clock, and it’s not dark yet!”


I am visiting a community in Colombia in the area near the border with Panama. I set out on a twilight errand. My time living close to the equator has taught me that there isn’t much to dusk. Unlike northern latitudes, where the light lingers after the sun has gone down, here, when the sun sets, it promptly gets dark, without ceremony or poetry. I can’t tell you how many times the equatorial sunset has caught me out in the dark… but not this evening! As I stride across a grassy field in the quickly-gathering dark, I am already wearing my headlamp. But when I turn it on, I am stopped in my tracks. Thousands of pinpricks of light magically appear on the ground before me. Intrigued, I squat down to inspect the source, and what I find is… spiders. The light of my headlamp is being reflected back to me by a constellation of spider eyes.

I offer this twilight diptych because for me, these two scenes reflect different aspects of a musical practice. On the one hand, there is incremental change and growth. No one sits down for their first piano lesson one day, and plays Rachmaninoff the next. But if we keep at it, there will be that moment when we look up and realize the days are a lot longer than they were a few months back.

At the same time, our practice can easily become habitual and inert. If I open one of my notebooks from my early years as a pianist, I see page after page of exercises, with injunctions from my teacher to “practice this every day.” If I could go back in time and supplement her instruction, I would tell myself: “See if you can practice this differently every day.”

The mind needs novelty to learn. Yes, we need a certain amount of repetition to get a skill into our bodies, but the perspective shift — like the light coming on and transforming a field of brown grass to a magical world of beautiful fellow creatures — is a powerful tool, an important skill to develop. Instead of “D major – 5x,” how about “D major, from five points of view.” Here are a few off the top of my head:

  1. Can you be aware of your breath as you play the scale?
  2. Sing along!
  3. Imagine the notes of the scale like drops of water falling into a pool; they sound at the moment of impact.
  4. Imagine your shoulders melting like ice cream as you play.
  5. Feel your feet on the floor. Imagine that in the room below you, there is a friendly giant. He taps you on the bottom of your feet and the vibration travels all the way up your body and through your arm and compels you to play each note of the scale.

I could go on, but I’m feeling the sudden urge to go practice!

Change your perspective.