My husband and I bought a piano recently. I’ve played for twenty years now (few things make me start feeling old like I do when I can say that), and now that we have a house for it to live in, it’s time for me to get my fingers back to the dexterity they once had.


I took lessons from when I was five years old until I was a senior in high school. I used to know a lot of good music. My senior year, instead of having the usual sort of graduation open house, I had a senior recital: a full hour of performance, all memorized. But I focused on other things in college and didn’t have a piano easily available to play, and I lost a lot of what I’d learned. So I started by pulling out all the music I used to have memorized, figuring that it would be best to re-learn things I used to know before I tried pushing myself on things I’d never played.

And I discovered just how very deep habit lies.

After three times through, I had re-memorized the Schubert impromptu I learned in ninth grade – though I still miss the G flat on page three if I’m not thinking carefully about it. My hands apparently haven’t grown since tenth grade; the Rachmaninoff humoresque is still a stretch (literally!). Without even looking at the music again, my hands know which direction to go on the Mozart sonata, though I can’t yet get the notes quite right at the speed I used to have.


I read a piece in the New Yorker once about a man with Alzheimer’s who remembered next to nothing — but he could still play the piano beautifully. Somehow those memories lived deeper inside him than the names of his children or how to feed himself. My own great-uncle Marinus, a church organist for seventy-five years, could still remember the right notes when he was ninety years old; the only trouble was that his fingers were bent by arthritis and no longer landed in the expected places. There’s something about habit — the habit of music in particular, I think — that sticks with you.

I probably shouldn’t be surprised that I remember my music so well — I could read music before I could read words, and in high school I practiced for several hours every day. When I was taking lessons, everything had to be memorized before I was permitted to perform. No exceptions. And with all the connections I’ve read about between music and memory (just google ‘music and Alzheimer’s’ if you want to be inundated with interesting things on the topic) it makes a lot of sense. But it still feels strange to rediscover this core of myself that I had mostly neglected for a few years.

Fyodor Dostoevsky once said,“the second half of a man’s life is made up of nothing but the habits he has acquired during the first half.” I hope I’ve not yet reached the halfway mark of my life, but I think I’ve discovered something about which habits stick and how impossible they are to un-stick, even if I wanted to.

I had no idea when I was eight and asking my mom to pleeeeeeeease let me skip just one day of practicing (she wouldn’t) or when I was eleven and trying to get away with using up the one hour of practice time by getting a drink of water five times and drinking very slowly (never worked) or even when I was eighteen and complaining because my mom wouldn’t let me go ice skating a week before a competition (she had a probably legitimate fear that I would fall and break my arm)…

I had no idea that I would end up with a habit that will stick with me my whole life. (Thanks, Mom.)

I’ve been really, really blessed. I’ve made a habit of music and self-discipline and all sorts of other good things that have come along with twenty years of playing the piano. And most of that habit-forming happened while I was growing up and my parents could enforce all the hours that went into the construction of it.

Now, though — what habits am I forming, possibly without thinking about them? What from this period of my life is going to stick with me twenty years later?

Our piano has gotten my fingers back on track. I’ve played a lot in the month since it was delivered. But it’s also really made me think about doing what matters.

I hope I’m living the kind of life where things like hospitality and generosity are becoming reflexes, muscle memory that works even when I’m barely thinking about it. I hope I’m living the kind of life where something like kindness is a habit.

These habits might be a little harder to form. I can’t just sit down for an hour a day and practice being generous like I can practice scales and Sibelius. I don’t always have my mom just in the other room anymore to call over “you’re rushing! Turn on the metronome!”

But I’m trying to remember to work on them. Our church has seen a need and a new ministry that wasn’t in the budget? A friend needs help moving? That person who really bugs me wants to talk?

Practice time.


  1. Elaine Schnabel

    Oh gosh. It sounds like my household. “You’re rushing! Metronome’s in the bench!” or “F sharp higher!” (also, my sister has that exact same mozart book from the pic)Great post, Laura. I think I’m going to have to start practicing my violin (and grace) for real now…

  2. jenn langefeld

    Wonderful post. (And we have that Mozart book too!) I’ve been wondering too (as I watch someone struggle with dementia) which habits and values of mine will stick and which … won’t. I love your closing point.

  3. Susan Buist

    Ah, habits–so hard to form good ones, and to be intentional in the practice of habits you want to develop in yourself. Thanks for these thoughts.


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