Author Archives: jcpetke

The caravan

At a conference I experienced the Great Caravan moving in a circle — many individuals walking separately, at their own pace, in their own thoughts, in their own uniqueness, yet moving with the entire group. As I followed the people before me there was a point where they also became the people behind me. We were a continuum. I didn’t know all of those who were walking before nor the ones who were walking behind. I experienced those walking beside me with new eyes and ears and heart. There were many paths yet we walked together. There is no distinction among us.

Because of that experience, I have one thing I want to share with you.

One day I followed behind you, because I had lost my way. I could not find the path. So I chose to follow you, matching my pace to yours, trying to match my rhythm to yours, trying to discover how you walk. I didn’t know what you were thinking as you walked. I didn’t even know where you were going, but your path seemed more certain than my own. So in silence I walked behind you. We never spoke about that day. You never knew. But my journey is changed because you walked before me and I was able to follow you for a short time. Our paths may never touch again, but the touching on that day changed my walking. I tried on your steps, your rhythm, your breathing, the swinging of your arms, the length of your pace. I will always remember that day.

The dawn is coming. The sun is just beginning to wake up in my tiny corner of the cosmos. Your walking ahead of me caused the waking to begin a bit earlier. It hastened the awakening in my soul, when the night was too dark, and I couldn’t find my way. Tomorrow when the dark returns I will remember following you and I will remember walking in your light. Perhaps the light I sometimes carry falls into the darkness of your night, when you cannot find your way, or when the way is too obscure.

Yes, sometimes you have been the one, walking ahead of me in the caravan, making a path for me to follow. And sometimes you have been the one walking in my footsteps when you couldn’t find your own path. It is all the same. Going before, coming from behind — it is all the same. The only thing we need to know is that we are all part of the caravan — we all walk together. We have always walked together and we will always walk together — for all time . . . and beyond time.

I am grateful for our walking.

Until next Tuesday . . .


Your opinion matters

When someone asks me, “How are you?” I sometimes . . . occasionally . . . not that often . . . reply, “I’m awesome!” As their surprise at my response settles on their face, I continue. “That’s my opinion. You’re entitled to your own opinion, but don’t feel obligated to share it with me.” We share a laugh. We may touch each other, perhaps lightly on the shoulder or arm, or share a hug. We always walk away, smiling.

This momentary sharing is always fun.

The truth is that most days I’m pretty awesome (in my opinion) — independent of physical feelings or circumstances or schedules or accomplishments or challenges. How I am, is separate from all my stuff.

I don’t know exactly when I came to this understanding; it probably evolved over many decades. Or maybe I finally believed what my parents told me as a child. Like Mr. Rogers, they said, “You are fine, just the way you are.” They knew, and I knew, there was room for improvement. I wasn’t particularly happy with my child self, but at my core I believed I was loved — no matter what.

It often takes us years to grow into that understanding of unconditional love. Some of us have never experienced it in our families or in our relationships. But even with that, it’s possible to learn to love ourselves, to accept ourselves as we are, and believe we are good enough.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know I always have improvement projects going one — I can’t help it. It’s just who I am.

But beneath that personal necessity (to always become better) I am content — even if I made no changes.

The question becomes — for all of us — who are we at our very foundation? What does our bedrock look like? What forms our foundation?


So, of course, I have questions for you:

  • Did you choose your foundational rocks or were they put there by someone else?
  • Is your foundation solid or does it shift with the tides, the opinions of others, or your own uncertainty?
  • Is your foundation made of old, old rocks or have you laid some new ones?
  • Is your foundation some long standing structure that has served it’s usefulness, that needs to be removed, so new foundation rocks can be put in place?
  • What would it take for your foundation to be secure, no matter the storms that come your way? Because the storms will come . . .

Here are a few suggestions for improving your foundation:

    Examine. Is the existing structure solid or does it need repair?


    Excavate. Discover your foundation’s history.


    Plan. What changes need to be made?


    Repair, renovate, or rebuild.


Yes, it requires awareness, intention, and work. Create the best foundation to support your growth into teetotal awesomeness.

Until next Tuesday . . .







The Third Annual Piano Recital

It seems just a few months ago I wrote about my first piano recital: how I’d never done it before, how I’d overcome a life of nervousness, and how it felt like jumping off a cliff. And I wrote that I survived the event.

Actually that first recital was April 2015. I only invited a few people, close friends who already loved me, and would continue to love me no matter how I played.

The next year the event was enough bigger to do a small rehearsal for a select group before the main event.

This year there were two main events: the first for 15-20 neighbors, the second for 15-20 friends.

Here’s what I’ve learned with these annual recitals:

  • Friends enjoy hearing my music. They often say they had a fun afternoon at my house.
  • I’ve learned to focus on the first few measures of each piece before I begin to play. That makes for a better start — and a single start.
  • Listeners like to learn about the composer and the composition before they hear the music. Informed listening is engaged listening.

Each performance is unique and music is always a work in progress. A piece is never totally finished, even though Dr. B has blessed it.  Music I played last year is way better now because it’s had time to settle, mature, and become more expressive. There’s always more practice to be done and more nuances to be incorporated. Always.

If I wait until my playing is perfect, no one will ever hear my music. My passion for Beethoven and Schumann and Debussy will never come to the light of day. Talking about my music is not the same as actually playing it for others.

Life, like musical performance, is the same way. If we hide ourselves until we’re perfect, no one gets to experience who we are, in all of our wonderfulness and quirkiness and fabulousness and uniqueness. If we’re always apologizing for our errors and mistakes and shortcomings our successes and accomplishments and milestones remain hidden with us.

My playing wasn’t perfect. In fact, I made mistakes in unexpected places.  There was no silent self-beating for my imperfect performance. No one cares about my mistakes; in fact, they rarely notice. I didn’t apologize — because I played my best. “Beethoven may have just rolled over,” I shared after the sonata. “I know he’s never heard it played like that! In fact, I was a little surprised myself.” We laughed together.

I ventured out of my comfort zone — again — and actually looked forward to the afternoon performances. My friends enjoyed my music and visiting with each other over cookies and lemonade. “Thank you so much for inviting me!” was an oft heard comment.

What more could anyone want?

So, get out of your box. Rid yourself of the excuses you’ve hidden behind. Challenge yourself. Take a new step.

Stepping out is not easy. Growth is not easy, either, but it’s worth your effort.

Until next Tuesday . . .

Half Speed

Sometimes I think I’m jinxed. The last few times I’ve played Beethoven’s sonata (opus 109) at my lesson, the music has fallen apart. I make clumsy mistakes. I have memory lapses. Why can I play it well at home and so disastrously at my lesson?

Dr. B is much kinder and more patient with me than I am with myself. Even though my disappointment is obvious to him, he always comments on the bits I played well: a phrase here or there, perhaps correct rhythms, or good dynamics.

“The piece just needs more time to mature,” he said. To me, it’s had enough months to mature. Perhaps not.

“To get it more solid,” he continued, “you need to slow it way down. Work with the metronome. Then gradually increase the speed every few days. After several weeks it will be much better.”

Dr. B always has techniques for improving difficulties. I do what he suggests — I’ll either prove him right or prove him wrong — because what I’ve been doing obviously hasn’t created success.

The next day I set the metronome at 50 — half the speed I’d been playing. Immediately I realized I couldn’t play the music slowly. My fingers didn’t automatically get me where I wanted to go, which meant my memory wasn’t secure. I studied the difficult spots, and worked until I could play them slowly. I also noticed dynamic markings that I’d overlooked in my rush to play faster.

Playing slowly was harder than I thought. Several days were required just to play the first page correctly. And this was a piece I already knew!

Eventually I worked my way through all six pages — at 50.  At every stumble I rechecked the music, drilled the tough spots, checked other markings on the music. Once I could play with no mistakes, I increased the metronome to 55. After a few more days, I increased to 60. And so it’s been for the last few weeks.

Here’s what I’ve learned:

  • My memorization wasn’t as secure as I thought, which explains disastrous playing at my lesson.
  • Slow practice allows me to pay attention to the details: rhythm, dynamics, articulation, notes
  • Slow practice is about being careful and getting it right and listening.
  • “Perfect slow” will eventually be “perfect fast.” It’s the only way to get there.

My questions for you are

  • What are you trying to accomplish at full speed before you’ve mastered the details?  Where do you find yourself repeating the same mistakes or continuing to have the same struggles? What if you slowed down, looked at the details, and worked them to your satisfaction first? What if . . . .


  • Where are you speeding ahead because you don’t think you have time to slow down? What if you decided to give up on mediocre and sloppiness? What if . . .


  • Where are your personal disappointments? What if, instead of declaring yourself a failure, you slow down, look at the pieces and parts, and create a plan for small changes.        What if . . .

In all my years of piano playing, I’ve never understood the value of slow practice until now. I was always in too much of a hurry to play full speed.

Dr. B wants the music right first. Speed comes later.

Until next Tuesday . . .


The Death of Dickens

I killed Dickens. Last week. On a warm spring afternoon.

I hit delete and he was gone from my life.

You see, I read him once in high school. A Tale of Two Cities. I didn’t like it much then but it was required reading.

In recent years, as I’ve added classics to my regular reading, I’ve often thought I might enjoy A Tale of Two Cities, now that I’ve acquired some literary maturity and experience.

So I downloaded Tale to my phone. Occasionally I read snippets, but mostly I read for extended periods of time. I managed to get halfway through the book, with nary a hint of engagement with Dr. Manette, his daughter Lucie, Charles Darnay, Sydney Carton, or Madame DeFarge.

I tried. Really, I did.

Leaving anything unfinished is difficult for me. But, as Charlie said to me last week, “Life’s too short . . .” Two days later, on that fateful spring patio afternoon, my neighbor said, “The earth won’t stop and lightening won’t strike if you don’t finish the book.”

I knew they were both right.

Not only did Dickens fail to engage me in his story, he caused me to give up my morning reading habit. That is unforgivable — and that’s what caused the crime.

So right then and there, with one witness to the event, Dickens met his demise.

Sometimes we need to stop what we’ve customarily done, if it’s no longer working for us — particularly if it’s keeping us from our best, dragging us down, or robbing us of precious time.

In another situation, I have three musicians in my life who hear me play regularly and who offer critical comments. Of those three, there is One for whom my playing is never good enough. Comments about sloppiness or mistakes bury the rare word on what I’ve done well. My progress is seldom mentioned. Few remedies, tips, or solutions are offered. The other Two musicians, always offer positive comments before the criticism and along the way, when they see I’m struggling, they offer words of encouragement. They work with me to learn new techniques for improving my playing. With them I believe I can play better. The criticism of the three may be the same, but the way it is delivered is quite different.

It’s like I have a musical bucket that needs to be filled every once in a while. The Two give me enough positive comments along with constructive help that I continue working and improving. The One, on the other hand, has created a hole in my bucket — a bucket that cannot hold nourishment or sustenance for the journey. I only experience discouragement and defeat.

Like Dickens who didn’t engage me, the One musician drags me down, offering no enticement or interest to keep me forging ahead.

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. That’s the way life is. I always want to tip the balance toward the best of times. This week I’ve been reminded to examine some habits and routines and experiences and people who fill my time.

Life is too short — to spend it with people who bring us down, activities that keep us from our best, and habits that are no longer effective.

Check your bucket for holes.

Until next Tuesday. . .