As a couples therapist, I strive to help couples get “in sync” with each other. Here are a few lessons on love and partnership I learned from practicing and performing a musical duet with my husband at piano camp this summer.
My freshman year at Brown University, a resident counselor introduced me to another student, because he knew we both had a love of piano. Playing piano growing up had been mostly a solitary activity. When I played for others, they would politely wait until I finished and offer a general compliment. However, after playing a piece for this new acquaintance, he offered constructive feedback instead of general platitudes. I was thrown for a loop; surprised, but also impressed that he truly listened and offered an authentic analysis.
Our basis for trust began right there in the practice room, and a few years later we began dating. For his senior piano recital, we played a duet of the Debussy Petite Suite. Today, he’s my husband.
Fast forward 30 years later…
As newly empty-nesters, my husband and I set off for Vermont to attend Kinhaven’s Four-Hand (duet) Piano Camp for adults. The participants ranged in age from their 50s to 70s. Veterans who had been attending the camp for as long as 20 years greeted us warmly but intimated us. They talked in detail about piano scores and concert pianists we had never heard of. We tried to feel like we belonged, knowing we were in it together. We channeled our efforts into learning our piece for the student recital, held at the conclusion of the week.
The camp was located in a rustic area. We practiced in weathered cabins with rickety chairs, empty except for a magnificent Steinway piano taking center stage. In anticipating this week, we packed books and cued some movies, thinking we would have lots of leisure time. We also googled things to do in Vermont, planning for some day trips. None of that happened. The time flew by. We were joyfully immersed, practicing side by side to get our piece up to par for the final recital. The process took intense concentration, coordination and teamwork. Here are some lessons we took home from the week’s experience. . .
1. Stay attuned to stay in sync.
Hear each other. It’s not enough to just master your part. You need to listen for your partner. Understand the cues for starting and stopping together, for staying in sync. Look at each other. Breathe together. If your partner is rushing due to anxiety, connect with them to bring them back to the right tempo. Be in the moment.
As a couples’ therapist, I recognize that being in sync musically involves interpersonal regulation between two nervous systems. In drawing from the PACT approach (the psychobiological approach to couples therapy), we pay a great deal of attention to couples’ non-verbal cues. We observe their facial expressions, breathing, and posture. We also watch to see how couples are able to care for each other well. Some couples show an innate ability to comfort each other though humor, a gentle touch or a soothing voice when one of the partners becomes upset. Alternately, others become defensive or triggered by their partner’s upset. This unconsciously makes matters worse through displays of subtle aggression or by shutting down.
2. Preparation can be “key.”
Defining roles and making space for the other person is key to a healthy relationship. Although my husband and I enjoyed our practice time, we occasionally got frustrated when making the same mistakes again and again. At one point in the piece, I was to place my left hand for one beat and then let go so he could play the same note with his right hand. I had gotten into the habit not letting go in time so our fingers would often clash. To avoid getting in each other’s way on the keyboard, we needed to coordinate our moves and make sure we didn’t literally hold on too long. Being in a healthy relationship can often require letting go. . . of hurts, resentment, agendas and, yes, sometimes keys on a piano.
In PACT, we help couples rehearse sticky situations and slow down the interaction so couples can practice new ways of relating that are more constructive. We help our couples think ahead of what challenges are on the horizon (e.g., a trip to visit the in-laws) and then stage a role play where the couples can practice handling the situation with more ease and collaboration.
3. Let your partner shine.
Piano four-hand music is the most dazzling when the voices are highlighted at different times and in different ways. That makes the music interesting, nuanced, and beautiful. To make that happen, one of us played the melody while the other played more quietly in a supportive, harmonious role.
As a couples therapist, I have witnessed the value of partners being present and caring during critical times of disappointment and loss. Yet, and the research bears this out (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, November 2006), more important is partners responses to each other’s strivings and celebrations of success. Supporting your partner’s dreams and celebrating their time in the limelight is crucial to being a great partner.
4. Coaching was illuminating.
Each day at piano camp, we had a coaching session from a master pianist. Our coaches listened to our piece, pointing out our strengths and also our blind spots. They showed us specific techniques to bring out motifs and subtle sounds that we would never have figured out on our own. We were grateful to get an outside perspective who could take in the whole piece and help us integrate our parts.
As a couples’ therapist, I have a unique view of the couple. I am trained in both intrapersonal and interpersonal dynamics and can often see complex interplays that the couples themselves might not be aware of. That’s what makes this work so fascinating and also challenging. By being in the room with a couple while also not being in their relationship, I can offer broad and specific feedback and point out blind spots that the couple has been too close to see themselves.
As my husband and I traveled back home, we reminisced about the week’s experience. We reviewed the highlights of the week and talked about who we wanted to stay in touch with in the coming year. We also discussed what pieces we’d like to learn and how to make time to practice before piano camp next Summer. Once home, we felt refreshed, accomplished and connected. Plus, we’re now able to play our new piece (Peer Gynt by the way, if you want to youtube it).