Love Notes from Piano Camp

By Susan Orenstein, Ph.D.

PACT Level 2 Therapist

PACT Ambassador

Let me start at the beginning of our love story.

My freshman year at Brown University, a resident counselor introduced me to another student because we both had a love of piano. Growing up, when I played for others, they would politely wait until I finished and offer a general compliment. But when the student to whom I had just been introduced heard me play, instead of general platitudes, he offered constructive feedback. I remember being thrown for a loop but also impressed that he truly listened and was authentic in telling me what he thought. Our basis for trust began right there. A few years later we began dating, and for his senior piano recital, we played a duet, Debussy’s “Petite Suite.” That student is now my husband.

Fast forward 30 years.

As new empty-nesters, my husband and I set off for Vermont to attend Kinhaven’s Adult Piano Workshop. The participants, all there to focus on four-hand repertoire, ranged in age from their 50s to 70s.  We were greeted warmly by camp veterans, who had been attending this program for as long as 20 years.

My husband and I were initially intimidated by these musicians, talking 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, and focused on doing our best to learn our duet for the student recital, held at the conclusion of the week.   

The camp, located on the northeastern edge of the 400,000-acre Green Mountain National Forest, is rustic. 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 searched online for things to do in Vermont, planning for some day trips. None of that happened. Instead we were joyfully immersed, practicing, side by side on small benches. The time flew by. Practicing together to get our piece up to par for the final recital took intense concentration, coordination, and teamwork. Here are some lessons we took home from the week’s experience. 

1. Stay attuned.

Hear each other. It’s not enough to master your part. You need to listen for your partner. Understand the cues for starting and stopping together, for staying together. 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 PACT, the Psychobiological Approach to Couples Therapy, we pay a great deal of attention to each partner’s non-verbal cues, observing facial expressions, breathing, and posture. 

We also watch to see how well couples are able to care for each other — some show an innate ability to comfort each other through humor, a gentle touch, or a soothing voice. Alternately, others become defensive or triggered by the other’s upset and unconsciously make matters worse through displays of subtle aggression or by shutting down.

2. Preparation is, forgive the pun, 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 repeating the same mistakes.

At one point in the piece, I was supposed to place my left hand for one beat and then let go so my husband could play the same note with his right hand. I had gotten into the habit of holding the note too long. By not letting go in time, our fingers would clash. It became our inside joke, and it’s a funny memory (guess you had to be there).

To avoid getting in each other’s way on the keyboard, we needed to coordinate our moves and make sure we didn’t 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, in which both partners can practice handling the situation with more ease and collaboration.

3. Let your partner shine.

Four-hand piano music is the most dazzling when the voices are highlighted at different times and in different ways. That makes the music 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 are partner responses to each other’s strivings and celebrations of success. Supporting your partner’s dreams and celebrating their time in the limelight are both 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 strengths and blind spots. They showed us specific techniques to bring out motifs and subtle sounds we would never have figured out on our own. We were grateful for the outside perspective – professionals 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 my work so fascinating and also challenging. By being in the room with a couple, 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 home, we reminisced about piano camp. We reviewed the highlights of the week, critiqued the meals and lodging, 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. We returned feeling refreshed, accomplished and connected, now able to play our new piece – “Peer Gynt,” by the way, if you want to listen online.


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